How do you distinguish a real bargain boat from one that’s not worth restoring, even if it’s free? Rupert Holmes has some sage advice

The idea of a project boat can be enormously appealing.

It is hugely satisfying to give a vessel a new lease of life and it can be a route to a better boat for a restricted budget.

There’s also a benefit in terms of ongoing maintenance, repairs and fault-finding if you know every aspect of your vessel intimately.

However, for every successful project there are at least as many that never come to fruition.

Before I took her over this had been the case with Minestrone, the Extension 24 Quarter Tonner I renovated in 2008-9 and documented in PBO – even some of the most talented and enthusiastic boatbuilders can get bogged down.

These can represent dashed dreams as well as significant financial losses.

Wiring on a project boat

Chances are that most boats that reach project status will need new batteries and may also need significant rewiring. Credit: Rupert Holmes

A cold, analytical approach is therefore critical when assessing any potential project.

The starting point should always be to look at how you want to use a boat.

Will it be day sailing and occasional weekends for a couple of people? Longer holidays for a family? Racing, or long distance cruising?

A potential project that’s great for one person may well be totally unsuitable for others.

Be warned: it’s surprisingly easy for the appealing idea of a low-cost boat to cloud your thinking. Trust me on this – I speak from experience.

The total cost of the equipment for an older boat is usually far greater than the market value of a well maintained example.

A man in a tshirt rewiring a boat

Boats will benefit from upgraded electronics. Try to keep this element as simple as possible unless you have deep pockets. Credit: Rupert Holmes

So a project boat that requires many items to be replaced may not be viable in a financial sense and ideally, you should be looking for a boat that has some relatively new kit.

That might be sails – I’ve seen several abandoned projects with unused new sails – or spars and standing rigging, or a replacement engine.

Of course, there are also non-monetary benefits in undertaking such a project.

For me, part of the reason for taking on Minestrone was to refresh old skills and learn new ones that could then be applied to a larger vessel.

Inevitably in your first project – and the first season or two of sailing – you’re likely to figure out many ways in which you might have done things better.

This can stand you in good stead if you plan longer-term cruising in the future. But only if it’s successful.

It therefore needs to be a bite-sized project approached in the right manner.

skin fitting on a boat

Skin fittings of boats that have been afloat for a long time may be suspect

Even if you have big ambitions, try to plan the scheme of work so you can enjoy local weekends on the boat as soon as possible; ideally you don’t want to miss a whole summer of sailing.

This approach quickly turns your project boat into a going concern that you can start enjoying at an early stage.

It also means that, if life events throw up an unexpected situation forcing you to sell the boat, you stand a good chance of recouping some of the money spent.

Don’t worry if there’s no time to install comforts like a fridge – a portable coolbox with a frozen 5lt water bottle will suffice for even the hottest weekends.

Equally, don’t worry about a perfect paint job – if the finish looks OK at a distance of two or three metres, it’s good enough to start with and will appear fine in photos.

That’s exactly the approach I took with Minestrone, which avoided long days of filling and fairing.

Continues below…

We did eventually give the 36ft Rob Humphreys one-off design, Zest, a proper paint job, but only after the benefit of sailing 15,000 miles in her over three years.

Equally, the gelcoat of Ammos (the 30ft Discovery 3000 I keep in the Aegean) looks as though it would benefit from a good polish, but the reality is there were enough non-colour matched repairs in her previous ownership that a slightly dull appearance helps mask the imperfections.

This kind of approach will also help to inform plans for subsequent phases of the project.

That’s just as true for experienced sailors as newcomers to boat ownership.

When my partner, Kass, bought Zest, we had close to 100,000 miles logged between us, but we still sailed the boat for six weeks before embarking on a refit.

The engine can represent one of the biggest items of potential expenditure.

That may not be much of a problem for a small outboard-powered boat, but becomes an issue for larger vessels with inboard diesels, where re-engining a 28-34ft sailing boat can blow a £6-8,000 plus hole in many budgets.

Availability of spares for your project boat

A lot depends on the model of an old boat engine and the level of previous maintenance, although the latter might be hard to determine.

Older Volvo Penta units, including the 2001/2/3 series and older units with the flywheel on the front tend to be uneconomic to recondition as parts are made in very small quantities and can therefore be extremely expensive.

The same is true for Bukh units, but with one important difference. They are still fitted to almost every ship’s lifeboat, which tend to be scrapped after around 20 years.

Yet the motors typically clock up only a few hours of use each month, so make viable drop-in replacements at a cost of around one-third of a new unit.

Given diligent routine maintenance, these have every chance of giving another couple of decades of use.

This Project 31 motorboat came with two Perkins 4.107 engines. There are plenty of second-hand units available in good condition if you need a replacement

This Project 31 motorboat came with two Perkins 4.107 engines. There are plenty of second-hand units available in good condition if you need a replacement

Newer Volvo Pentas such as MD2010/2020/2030 units from the early 1990s onwards, the Yanmar GM series and anything based on a Kubota engine (Nannidiesel, Beta etc) are all marinised industrial motors that have been built by the million and so most spares are very reasonably priced.

It wasn’t possible to run the engine for either Ammos or Zest, before committing to buy. Nevertheless both turned over and had compression, indicating there was likely to be a limit to any problems.

Equally in both cases it was reassuring that the engines were units that are viable to recondition – a Yanmar 2GM20F and Perkins 103.10 (the same base engine as the Volvo Penta MD2030).

Zest’s motor is still running well a decade later, though Ammos was an ex-charter boat and, even though only 10 years old when I bought her back in 2001, the engine had 10,000 hours on the clock.

It gave a further 12 years of reliable service before losing oil pressure.

At that time a full recon (including grinding the crank and replacing bearing shells, honing the bores, new piston rings and overhauling the cylinder head) cost less than €1,000, although I saved a lot of money by taking it out of the boat and stripping the unit down with a friend before taking it to an engine specialist.

Motor boats

Engines become a very important factor when buying a motor boat.

There are still an amazing number of marinised Ford Anglia engines powering boats from the 1960s such as the Freeman 22 and 26.

Equally, many Project 31s and Princess 32s from the late 1960s onwards have low tech Perkins 4.107 and 4.108 diesels that also powered tractors, London taxis and other vehicles of the era.

These engines generally remain economic to recondition and there are plenty of second-hand units that may make good drop-in replacements.

A man wearing a shirt and tie looking at an engine of a motor boat

Engines are one of the most important factors when deciding on a motor boat. Check them thoroughly before making an offer

A few of these boats had shaft drives, which is likely to be a better option than the more common sterndrive units that may now require extensive and expensive refurbishment.

However, spares for other older diesel engines such as some of the early Ford Mermaids are gradually becoming harder to source.

Motor boats from the mid 1970s onwards with large engines to give planing performance can be more problematic as projects, especially if it’s a larger boat.

Their engines can be painfully expensive to refurbish or replace.

Petrol versions in particular can now be so expensive to run that anyone who could afford the fuel might be unlikely to consider a project boat in the first place.

Spars, rigging and sails

The replacement cost of the mast and spars of many older and smaller sailing cruisers can be uncomfortably close to the total value of a boat in good condition.

They don’t necessarily need to be in perfect condition to make the project viable, but it would be sensible to figure out how to carry out any necessary repairs before committing to taking ownership.

Fortunately, many problems with spars can be rectified without a great deal of expense.

A bulkhead on a project boat being repaired

Large pieces can be scarfed into damaged bulkheads. Credit: Rupert Holmes

Splits at the base of an aluminium spar are not unheard of, but the end of the extrusion can be sliced off to remove the damaged area.

If new standing rigging is needed it can be made up marginally shorter to compensate.

Alternatively, the mast step can be raised on a plinth around an inch high. In the past this was often done with teak, although aluminium may be a more sustainable alternative today.

Even a broken spar, or one with dents in the way of the spreaders, can be sleeved if a length of the same section can be sourced, although this is a more skilled task.

Hull structure of your project boat

This might be the first aspect to check out, but a lot of damage – even small holes – can be far less expensive to fix than replacing the engine.

When I bought Ammos, for instance, a narrow section of the transom had been ground away while moored stern to a concrete quay.

Happily, this only took a few hours to repair. And it had been beneficial in the 18 months the boat was stored ashore and open to the elements before I bought her, as rain water could drain away before it reached a level at which the engine and plywood bulkheads were at risk.

However, other elements such as keels, rudders, rudder tubes, chainplates (don’t forget forestays and backstays) and mast supports are mission critical.

A badly damaged teak deck

Be very wary of ageing teak decks! Credit: Rupert Holmes

They must be checked for evidence of cracking, delamination and water ingress.

Osmosis may be a concern for boats that have been afloat for a long period.

However, I’ve only come across one or two really severe cases that have resulted in extensive delamination.

In most cases, it can be effectively dealt with by locally grinding out damaged areas, then allowing them to dry thoroughly before filling and fairing.

Decks, on the other hand, are often more problematic than the hull, with leaking fittings that lead to moisture ingress, potentially as big an issue for fibreglass boats as for wooden craft.

This is particularly true for the many vessels with balsa cored decks, where large areas of balsa can become saturated and delaminate, massively reducing the structural stiffness of the deck.

This was the biggest single issue for Minestrone, which has a fibreglass sheathed plywood deck, where large areas of timber had rotted below the glass.

A man launching a dinghy with a red sail

Think carefully before committing to a project boat. Could you get as much enjoyment out of a second hand cruising dinghy? Credit: Clive Heathmarsh

Plywood invariably fails from the edges first, as I discovered with my first project boat, an 18ft bilge keel Robert Tucker-designed Caprice from 1963, I bought as an enthusiastic sixth-former.

Therefore, there’s little to be gained from examining the middle of each panel.

Instead, as is often the case, it’s the details that are important. Whether part of a structural bulkhead, deck or hull, delaminating ply will sound hollow compared to other areas when tapped with a light hammer.

If it’s really bad a penknife blade or small screwdriver blade will sink easily into the surface.

Teak decks should be regarded as suspect on any boat that has reached project status.

On new boats for the past couple of decades – and in a few cases longer – these have been glued down on the sub-deck.

Before then they were held down with thousands of screws, each concealed by an individual teak plug.

A surveyor looking at the bow of a boat

A survey can seem expensive, especially if the vessel was cheap, but is vital to help you understand the true cost of your project boat

As the teak wears down the screw becomes exposed, the caulking falls out and there’s a myriad of routes for water to find its way into the deck’s core material.

Granted, there are examples of teak decks that have lasted 40 years, potentially with one or two refurbs in which the screws are lowered and caulking replaced.

But plenty of others reach the end of life much earlier.

Replacing teak, or using one of the excellent alternatives such as Flexiteek or cork, can be hugely expensive.

For fibreglass boats, it’s often more economical to fill and fair the deck – this can be very labour intensive, though the material cost is relatively low.

If teak decks can be such a problem, why did Kass consider buying Zest, which has a teak deck?

The answer is simple – it had just been replaced to a better specification than the original.

Don’t strip everything out on your project boat

TV programmes about house renovations that start with the building being totally gutted hold a certain appeal.

But don’t be tempted to apply this approach to a boat – it adds a disproportionate amount of work and the number of stripped out failed projects I’ve seen is really sad.

In the realm of buildings of historic or architectural merit, there’s a growing voice advocating undertaking essential repairs with minimal intervention – ie removing only what’s truly necessary.

A boat stripped out for restoration

Stripping out creates a huge amount of often unnecessary work. Credit: Rupert Holmes

A similar approach will pay dividends with a project boat.

It can be really quick and satisfying to rip out old woodwork while imagining a more modern, efficient and ergonomic layout.

However, putting everything back is a massive undertaking and the only three people I know who’ve successfully done so make a living from woodworking and had full-on professional workshops at their disposal.

A boat with extensive rot in bulkheads and structural bunk fronts that contribute to the fore-and-aft stiffness of the hull may, therefore, be a non-starter.

Localised damage can be repaired more easily.

It’s possible, for instance, to scarf large pieces of plywood into bulkheads, or even make quick and strong, but cosmetically unappealing, repairs using glass and epoxy.

Cosmetic appearance

I’ve left this until last for good reason. Sometimes the best bargains are boats that have sadly languished for years on their moorings or in the corner of a yard, without being cleaned or maintained.

While some apparently small areas of damage may turn out to require extensive repairs, the reverse is also true and a boat with badly scuffed gelcoat, peeling paint and a liberal coating of green mould on decks and coachroof might clean up surprisingly easily.

When we first saw Zest – in foul mid-winter weather – there was a couple of feet of kelp growing under water and the new teak deck was turning green.

But below decks everything had been organised to allow circulation of air and the bilges were dusty dry, even after 48 hours of driving rain.

She was clearly a boat that had previously been very well looked after by knowledgeable owners.

Boats racing

My Quarter Tonner Minestrone’s hull paint was far from perfect – I spent only eight hours on prep and painting – but it looked great in photos and when standing a few feet away on a pontoon. Credit: Fiona Brown/Quarter Ton Cup

While it’s important to look beyond cosmetics, don’t be afraid to do some cleaning up, with the owner’s consent, before making an offer.

I had to pump the bilges of Ammos dry and clean off a layer of diesel and bacteria before inspecting the keel matrix for grounding damage.

It was a grim job in the August heat of Greece, but an essential one to assess the scale of the project.

It’s also important to avoid committing to a project boat without a final reality check.

Roger Barnes of the Dinghy Cruising Association points out that a really well set up second-hand cruising dinghy might cost as much as £3,500, but “after that running costs and maintenance are minimal.”

Meanwhile the most basic boat of a size that must be kept on a mooring will need to be hauled ashore for regular antifouling, and mooring fees continue to clock up even when you don’t have time to sail.

Maybe a simple dinghy that can be sailed on sheltered waters immediately, and that has camping-style accommodation for occasional overnight use might be a better option.

Having said that, the right project for the right person can be a hugely rewarding experience that reaps a great boat you’ll know inside out.


It may seem overkill to spend a high proportion of the value of a project boat on an initial survey.

However, this can be an important element in determining the scope of the work needed and whether or not it’s viable.

Enjoyed reading How to choose the right project boat?

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