Rupert Holmes on the realities of long-term boat ownership and how he manages maintenance to spend more time on the water

For looking after Ammos – the 30ft Discovery 3000 I bought in 2001 – my philosophy has been to keep yacht maintenance as simple as possible.

This is primarily to minimise the time needed for boat maintenance, so I spend less of my time in Greece working on the boat and more of it sailing.

It’s also an approach that has the happy side-effect of reducing the costs of owning a boat. However, it’s emphatically not an excuse to bodge yacht maintenance.

From the outset the plan was to carry out any repair or replacement to a higher standard than the original, aiming to do each task that cropped up only once, but in a manner that will last for decades.

A yacht anchored by a headland

Fitting the Treadmaster in place of the old wooden slats in the cockpit. It still looks like new after seven years. Credit: Rupert Holmes

The boat also has to be super reliable – many Aegean islands are very remote or uninhabited, repair facilities and chandlers are sparse, and, unlike many Mediterranean destinations, it’s generally a windy part of the world.

This model of ongoing improvements has much to commend it and if I ever decide to sell, the new owner can be reassured that the boat is intrinsically very well looked after.

Nevertheless, as the boat has become older I’ve become less rigid about this repair better philosophy – on the basis that if something has lasted 25-30 years then it’s already well proven.

Yacht maintenance = hard work

Although she was only 10 years old when I bought her, Ammos had had a very hard life as a flotilla charter boat, then a beach club day yacht, back in the days before corporate ownership of charter companies.

This was also compounded to some extent by quality control issues with fit out – leaky windows were an issue with all Discovery 3000s of this era, while many deck fittings, including the aluminium toe rail, were not properly sealed and needed to be removed and resealed.

Nevertheless in general the structure was strong, the survey positive and the price exceptional.

When I first saw the boat she was ashore with washboards missing and the bilge full of an uninviting soup of water, diesel and bacteria.

Yacht maintenance being done on a boat

Fitting the Treadmaster in place of the old wooden slats in the cockpit. It still looks like new after seven years. Credit: Rupert Holmes

The only reason the level hadn’t risen far enough to flood the engine was that the bottom of the transom had been worn away against a concrete quay, creating small holes through which bilge water could drain.

The initial refit therefore included lots of cleaning, tidying and checking for problems.

A rig inspection, for instance, revealed an undersized clevis pin had been fitted at the bottom of the forestay. It was badly bent and about to pull out of the combined bow roller fitting and chainplate.

It was an easy fix, but I’ve rarely seen a mast still standing with a rigging defect that bad.

The underside of a yacht covered in algal growth

Over the years Rupert has become better at cleaning the bottom with the boat afloat. It took a couple of 90-minute sessions to clear this three-month growth, despite the lack of antifouling. Credit: Rupert Holmes

There were also new batteries to fit, the engine needed a good service, fresh water pumps to add, plus a small amount of rewiring.

In addition, some minor glassfibre work was needed, there were several gelcoat dings to fill, new washboards to make, a basic safety kit to add and ground tackle to upgrade.

Fortunately, the interior has lots of fibreglass mouldings, making it quicker and easier to return to a decent standard than boats with masses of soggy and discoloured interior woodwork.

After this initial refit, work tended to fall into one of three categories:

  • Improvements
  • Repairs
  • Routine yacht maintenance.

For the latter, from the outset I adapted a strategy from the superyacht world: scheduled periods ashore for bigger refit work every five years, attending to everything that can’t be done afloat, and the boat remaining in the water the rest of the time.

Over the years I’ve become very efficient at cleaning the bottom of the hull with the boat afloat, with the result that it now takes less time to remove growth than if I went to the boatyard across the bay to haul out and relaunch.

Even better, it costs nothing and has saved more than 50lt of toxic antifoul being released into the environment over the years.

Readers may wonder about the risk of osmosis for a boat that’s kept afloat permanently.

osmotic blister on the side of a boat being grounded out as part of yacht maintenance

Grinding out an osmotic blister. Credit: Rupert Holmes

Ammos was built of chopped strand mat and conventional resins and therefore, unlike most boats even only a few years younger, is of a build age where osmosis is a risk.

At 15 years old she had developed several blisters, which I ground out and then left to dry over a Greek summer, before filling and fairing ahead of launching in the autumn.

There’s a diminishing number at each haul out, indicating this is a sensible strategy and that the blisters are indicative of only isolated moulding flaws, rather than a more widespread problem.

Only spend what is needed on yacht maintenance

Externally Ammos looks clean, but she’s not polished to a shine for good reason.

She had many minor knocks and scrapes in her previous ownership and few of the repairs were properly colour matched, so these are really obvious when the hull is polished.

The solution would be a full repaint of the hull and deck with a two-pot paint system, which would take several days to complete.

It may happen sometime, but not yet. I also don’t have a fridge, which may be surprising for a boat in the Mediterranean.

A boat moored by a harbour wall

Ammos anchored Mediterranean style, stern-to the small pier at Afissos, Pelion. Credit: Rupert Holmes

However, I’m generally busy with offshore racing closer to home in the summer, so most of my time in Greece is at the very edges of the season – often March/April and October/November, where it’s not a problem.

Ammos also still doesn’t have a windlass. I was a lot younger when I bought her and it wasn’t necessary for a relatively small boat at the time.

When I reached 40 I seriously considered fitting an electric model, but decided instead to invest time and money in improving fitness.

Looking back that was a good decision, but more years have passed and at some point an electric windlass will be a sensible move.

Cost-effective solutions

The boat came with no electronics, so in the initial refit I added a combined speed/depth unit and a fixed VHF, plus an inverter for charging laptops so that I could work from the boat.

A couple of years later I added a tiller pilot and a handheld GPS (remember this was still 2003 and the first smartphone was still four years away). Unfortunately, all but the GPS and VHF died within three years.

Continues below…

Not wanting to risk splashing out significant sums regularly, I didn’t replace any of the failed items, instead using a lead line to check depths before anchoring, and a stout 8mm shock cord to lash the helm so it could be safely left for very short periods.

A few years later I found in a skip an old depth sounder display compatible with the existing transducer – which lasted for seven years – but I’m now back to using the lead line.

On the other hand, I have fitted a better pilot. It’s inherently difficult to waterproof standard tiller pilots so I subsequently opted for a two-part system, with a separate drive unit and controller, both bought second-hand.

If water does get into the drive unit, there are no complex electronics, so it can be dried out and repaired easily, while the control box mounted near the companionway has a homemade cover to deflect water.

Hunt for a mast

One expense I hadn’t planned on was replacing the mast, which failed in full gale conditions to the south of Kefalonia.

I know none of the standing rigging failed, as I had to cut every element to jettison the rig and the overwhelming likelihood is that the windward spreader, which was attached with only four rivets, tore off.

The cost of a new mast was out of the question – with shipping from France the quote was not far short of what I paid for the boat.

In those days before social media, it wasn’t easy to cast around for other options, so I took a couple of days out to visit boatbuilding friends in Paleros, on the mainland opposite Nidri, next to what was then Sunsail’s (and now Neilson’s) large Vounaki base.

Initially, no one had any ideas that might help, but after a few drinks on the second evening Tony remembered that, when Neilson’s fleet of Moody 31s reached 10 years old, the masts had been replaced.

A mast step on a boat in need of yacht maintenance

The sagging mast step before repair. Credit: Rupert Holmes

He said I should go to the base in Nidri and find Kelvin, the lead engineer at the time. He proved easy to find and had a rack of six decent masts of exactly the right dimensions.

The sum of €400 changed hands and I was the owner of a Kemp spar with much more substantial fittings, including a hefty collar to secure the spreaders – a much better arrangement than the original.

Nevertheless, once new standing rigging, cranes and a professional rigger’s time were paid for the total bill still approached €3,000.

This was also a good opportunity to rethink the sail plan. I discarded the damaged headsail roller furling, returning to hank-on sails that have a longer luff length and greater sail area.

These are fitted with slab reefs that are easily operated from the cockpit, with the sail retaining a good shape when reefed.

A man applying gelcoat to a boat as part of yacht maintenance

Sanding the new mast step before applying the final layer of gelcoat. Credit: Rupert Holmes

Two sails of different sizes with a little overlap in reefed/unreefed sizes cover both light and strong wind days, with minimal need to change headsails while underway.

This was a low-cost option at the time when there were a lot of little used hank-on headsails available from owners who had upgraded to roller furling and I spent less than €300.

However, today the situation is different and used sails are often overpriced. I was also lucky to find an almost unused Hood mainsail for a Moody 31.

After a few years of use it started to stretch in the mid-girth, but converting from short to full battens significantly slowed this process and the sail still has an acceptable shape.

A yacht with white sails

The hank-on non-overlapping jib with a slab reef has a full-length luff for efficient work to windward and is easy to reef. Credit: Rupert Holmes

When I’m not on board it’s stowed below decks rolled around the battens, so it stays clean and away from damaging UV light and the material is still strong 15 years later.

I also added a big symmetric spinnaker for downwind work; Ammos has a big, powerful rudder and will happily surf at 10-11 knots under complete control if you’re hand-steering.

For reaching in lighter airs, I also have a big asymmetric that started life as the masthead kite of a 26ft 1720 sports boat.

This sail has saved its modest initial cost many times simply by reducing engine use in light airs.

It’s now quite weak, so is reserved for light air use only. I still hanker after a decent set of made-to-measure laminate, membrane or North 3Di sails that will maximise light airs performance, while holding an efficient shape in strong winds.

However, for the past 15 years, Ammos has been a second boat, so the wish for nicer sails has been pushed down the priority list, although they would improve sailing performance and handling enormously.

Fit to run

When I bought Ammos, the engine hour metre had stopped working, reading a whopping 10,480 hours.

Clearly, buying a boat with such a high number of hours was a risk, however, the price of £6,000 allowed for this.

In any case, unlike some older marine diesel engines, the Yanmar 2GM20F can be economical to rebuild.

On viewing the boat it wasn’t seized, there appeared plenty of compression, and there were no ominous fluid leaks.

It ran like clockwork for the next 12 years, other than a reluctance to engage forward when the gearbox oil was warm, which turned out to be due to wear on the clutch cone.

The solution was to remove both cones from the gearbox and resurface them using valve grinding paste – a morning’s work.

A boom cover on a b oat

A simple boom cover provides shade when at anchor and in port. Credit: Rupert Holmes

The cone for reverse is identical to the one for forward gear, so I swapped them over as the reverse one had had a lot less use.

In 2013, low oil pressure indicated a more fundamental problem, so I pulled the engine out and stripped it down with a friend.

We then took it to a local specialist, who performed a complete reconditioning: grinding the crankshaft, honing the bores, skimming the cylinder head and fitting a complete set of new bearings, piston rings, valves and oil pump, all for well under €1,000.

Other tasks after the initial refit work have included replacing rudder bushes, windows, coachroof grabrails, stanchions, one cutless bearing, two Volvo shaft seals, plus the original wooden slats on the cockpit seats and sole with the flat style of Treadmaster.

I replaced the skin fittings when they were 17 years old and, in retrospect, regret not investing in composite replacements that have the potential to last forever – the current fittings will be due for replacement before long.

The original plywood block under the mast step became soft due to water ingress, so I sliced the top layer of laminate off, dug out the old timber and replaced it with a piece of oak and re-routed mast wiring so that it doesn’t pass through the timber.

Together all these post-refit tasks, aside from the engine and rig, have cost less than €1,500 in materials and around 10-15 days of my time.

However, those figures don’t include a considerable amount of time spent planning, which also allowed the use of second-hand materials on many occasions.

Keeping warm

Winters in the north Aegean can be wet and cold, occasionally with snow at sea level and sub-temperatures below.

During the first winter the boat had been damp inside and when I arrived in the spring there was a thin film of mould on the deck head and exposed sides of the hull.

Fortunately, it was easy to clean off, but I set up decent ventilation anyway and it’s never been a problem since.

This is one of many examples of timely yacht maintenance potentially saving a huge amount of hassle at a later date.

Heating may be a surprising topic for a boat kept in the sun. However, it greatly adds to comfort on cold, rainy late autumn days and also allows for visits in winter.

The appropriate low-tech and low-maintenance solution was a bulkhead-mounted charcoal stove of a type that typically changes hands for around £300 second-hand; sadly, they’re no longer available new.

A yacht tied up alongside a harbour wall

Ammos alongside in a small fishing harbour in the Gulf of Volos on a sunny February day. Credit: Rupert Holmes

Upholstery is the only job I’ve taken a shortcut with, using cheap material from Ikea 15 years ago. It looked surprisingly good at the outset, but unsurprisingly is not as robust as marine-grade products and is now overdue for replacement.

In the initial refit, I added a foot pump at the galley in addition to the electric one, so that I never need to worry about getting water out of the generous 300lt tanks in the event of electrical failure.

I’ve also been tempted to install a calorifier for hot water, but they’re expensive, don’t last forever (I’ve known them to start leaking in other boats in as little as seven years) and would require a couple of days’ uncomfortable and unappealing work, mostly at the bottom of the cockpit locker.

In hot weather, the existing cold water shower is refreshing, while 3lt of warm water heated in a kettle and transferred to bottles with small holes punched in the cap suffices for a short shower in cold weather.

Power up

Batteries don’t last forever, though with good care it’s possible to extend their lifespan significantly and I now typically get 8-10 years from a bank of two 100-120Ah mid-priced lead acid house batteries.

Battery charging has seen significant changes during the time I’ve owned Ammos and each time the batteries need replacing I review the whole set up.

Twenty years ago, solar power was still expensive and often inefficient so it was still standard practice to run the engine for an hour a day to keep the batteries charged, even though it’s a remarkably inefficient way of creating electricity and isn’t great for the engine’s longevity, the peace of your neighbours in port, or the environment.

The first set of batteries I bought failed prematurely after three or four seasons for several reasons. The bank was a little small (180Ah), and the alternator was charging through split diodes, which resulted in a significant voltage drop and therefore slower charging.

I therefore revamped the system, with a 1-2-Both rotary switch to handle charging two separate battery banks (although voltage-sensitive relays would be a better option today), and added a 60W solar panel on the main hatch garage, which transformed charging.

I subsequently added a pair of 50W panels on the coachroof sides.

This may appear inefficient, but space is limited on top of the coachroof, so this was an easier option and they still more than doubled the system’s daily output.

Future yacht maintenance work

Looking ahead, in addition to better sails, the standing rigging is becoming due for renewal again and at some point I’ll fit a full set of electronics.

Today’s kit is in general far better sealed and far more reliable than that of a couple of decades ago.

Ammos will eventually also need a new propeller; I’m hoping this will be a folding model, which will improve light airs performance.

A three-bladed feathering prop would also achieve this, without compromising performance under power, but most require regular out-of-water servicing, which won’t work for a boat that stays afloat for such long periods.

Looking back, what would I like to have done differently? Not a great deal.

Of course, the more time you spend on a boat – and I’ve spent well over 1,000 days on board Ammos – the more tempting it is to add more sophisticated systems in the search for greater comfort and efficiency.

But that comes with more expense, more maintenance, more problems and more breakdowns.

Overall I reckon I’ve had a happier experience without.

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