PBO columnist and budget boating evangelist Dave Selby on why getting on the water has never been cheaper

It’s a fact: getting afloat in a boat of your own has never been more affordable or accessible. Let me put it another way: more than 50 years of glassfibre production means yachts have never been cheaper. I’ve said it twice because people just don’t believe it the first time they hear it, as it seems so at odds with the sheen of glamour and exclusivity that surrounds the business side of sailing.

Take the 26ft Westerly Centaur that formed the back-drop of the PBO stage at the London Boat Show. Sapphire III was built three years into the production run in 1972, costing her first owner around £4,000. Back then that was almost twice the price of a brand new E-type Jaguar sportscar, so the very substantially built Centaur was an expensive bit of kit (successful too, with 2,444 built from 1969 to 1980).

Today, the new Jaguar F-type starts at around £50k, and new production 25-26 footers run the gamut from £40,000 to £100,000-plus. So you could argue that not a whole lot has changed.

Except for one thing. PBO reader Aurora Allen bought Sapphire III last year for £6,000! For that money what I was expecting to see in the PBO Theatre was a slightly tired old tub in need of TLC. None of it. Sapphire III is simply lovely, with a shiny unblemished hull and decks, and a beautifully preserved interior, all of which defy her 46 years. Aurora knew the old Volvo Penta needed some attention, but that was factored into the price.

Aurora didn’t get lucky, she got smart, because this is the reality of today’s market, according to brokerage Boatshed.com, which has 19 years of sales data and has sold 160 Centaurs in that time. Currently listed are five with prices ranging from £4,250 to £8,995. The Westerly Owners Association (www.westerly-owners.co.uk) has four listed from £3,500 to £7,900.

The highest price paid for a Centaur at Boatshed since 1999 is £17,750, the lowest £1,250. Moreover, in those 19 years the average selling price of Centaurs has declined from £11,500 to £7,000; that’s a reduction of 39%.

Westerly Centaur – photo by David Harding

Snapdragon 23 with Yanmar 1GM inboard: bought for £500, enjoyed for a couple of years then given to the sea scouts

Perfect storm

So what’s wrong with Centaurs? Absolutely nothing. Neither is there anything wrong with my beloved Sailfish 18, but prices have similarly declined over the years, as they have across the board. In market terms we have a perfect storm, brought about by a combination of austerity, an ageing population – which means many older people are giving up the water – and the simple fact that there’s an ever-growing stock of used GRP boats. On top of which, many early glassfibre boats were overengineered and really built to last. If they’ve lasted 40 years, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last 40 more.

In the late 1990s Ellen MacArthur circumnavigated Great Britain in an aged 21ft Corribee. You can still do that today in a Corribee costing less than £2,000. When I go round the country doing talks I show a portfolio of boats bought for pennies, such as a Hurley 20 bought for £500 and sailed across the channel; a Pandora with £1,900 just spent on a new mast and standing rigging, also bought for £500; a Snapdragon 23, like the PBO project boat, bought for £500 but, unlike the project boat, up and running and in commission.

I also show boats that have been given away, and these are not wrecks. The fact is that for the owner of an unused boat lying on the hard accruing storage costs it can make more sense to give it to a good home rather than hold out for a sale and continue paying yard fees.

There really is no better time to get on the water in a boat of your own.

Looking in a sorry state when discovered in a boatyard covered in green mould and grime, this Hurley 22 was free. Don’t be put off by superficial appearances. Under the slime she was a fine boat.

Hurley 20, owner Phil Brook, a trainee yacht surveyor, bought Ciao Bello for £500 six years ago and has sailed her across the Channel to France and back.

Getting a survey

Owners’ associations can help, but if you don’t have the knowledge to make a judgement yourself, or a mate with know-how, consider a survey. It’s human nature that many people buying budget boats baulk at the cost of a survey, which may be more than the value of the boat. This can be a false economy. If a survey advises you to walk away it will save you money; if it highlights minor faults, you can balance rectification costs against the asking price and see if the seller is prepared to haggle.

Dave’s tips for buying your first budget boat

■ If it’s your first boat buy the smallest boat that gives you the space you need, not the biggest you can afford. You can always trade up, but if your first boat is too big it can knock your confidence and put you off.
■ Buy a boat they made lots of. If made in decent numbers there will be active owners’ associations to provide invaluable support, knowledge and advice. Some even remanufacture spare parts.
■ Join the owners’ association before you buy. Many have boats for sale on their websites: they may well know the particular boat you’re looking at and advise on important inspection points, and a member may even come and inspect the boat with you.
■ Scour for-sale ads and start clambering over boats.