When an enticing “free boat” presents an opportunity, a couple does their due diligence en route to a tough decision.

My wife and I recently contemplated taking on a “free boat” project. Yes, it was free, and would only require us to pay for storage in a marina as-is, where-is. She is an Ericson 30+ that checked a lot of boxes for us as far as good pedigree, size, and layout. But as most “free” boats go, she had her issues.

The rusty Universal Diesel had certainly seen better days.

The previous owner had run aground and had the boat hauled to inspect and repair any damage. The marina had inspected and 5re-bedded the keel but the owner subsequently neglected and then abandoned the boat. She was left to fill with rainwater multiple times—sunk on land, as they say. The marina finally drilled a drain hole in her bilge which prevented water from accumulating, although the rainwater was still leaking in. Thus, after finding and sealing the leaks, her cabin would need to be completely stripped and deep-cleaned from overhead to bilges. Woodwork would require drying out and complete refinishing if it could be saved at all. Mildewed cushions would need to be thoroughly cleaned if they were possible to save at all, or just replaced. Oxidized wiring and electrical components would need to be replaced and her Universal diesel was questionable after being partially submerged. The marina owners said that they had put a good battery in the boat and got some things powered up, but the starter had been waterlogged and was defunct. By the looks of it, the alternator had been submerged as well, so a new one needed to be on the list. However, they stated that someone had gotten the engine to turn over by hand so there was some hope. She had a workable set of sails, well-rigged with controls to the cockpit, and good deck hardware. Having sat for 5 or 6 years, though, her running rigging would need replacement and the standing rigging definitely needed professionally inspected.

But what would you expect for free?

The boat’s interior would need a full cleaning and possible refurbishment.

I did the research, inquired about the make and model on the Ericson forum, interviewed the marina owner, and priced up the needed components and materials for a rebuild. We spent a good amount of time on the boat, inspecting and evaluating, and talked at length about the boat, the work involved, and the timeline that would be involved. We have a 28-foot powerboat that would give us our saltwater fix while we worked on the refurbishment, so there was no rush to complete the project. I estimated that we could have it launch-ready in 12 months, but if it was longer that would be okay too. We weren’t striving for perfection, just a sailboat that functioned and looked respectable for her 40 years. 

Being diehard DIYers, the project was not unfamiliar to us. Our friends and family know us as “project people” and would ask how long before we were looking for the next rehab project. I have restored, renovated, and revived many boats up to her 30 feet over the years. I have done fairly extensive fiberglass work, replaced engines, and rewired systems. My wife and I revived a few 30+ foot boats together, some of which were neglected and not much better off than this one. So we knew we had a pretty good idea of what we would be getting ourselves into. 

Most people say—especially about boats—that it’ll cost a lot more than you think. The naysayers amongst the forum posters said it would cost more than the boat is worth and that we should walk, if not run away. And that may be true. We also had an idea of the amount of grunt-work, frustrations, discouragement, and despair a project like this can incur. But there was no deadline, no rush. The work and expense would happen as we had the time and cash, and the result would be something we would know inside and out and be proud of. You can’t put a value on that kind of pride of ownership, and someone that just paid the price to buy the thing in good shape would not be expected to understand. 

The prospect of being back under sail was enticing. Although it was my wife’s idea to try powerboating, she fully expects our final boat to be powered by sail. To be out at anchor under the stars, voyaging a bit farther than we had in our previous sailboats, the quiet joys of moving under sail alone. The coziness of being down below in a sailboat cabin. We could see that on our horizon, and we fully expected those dreams to keep us motivated throughout the project. 

But we had to consider whether it was the right time to take on a project like this. Even though I kept telling myself there would be no rush, and that we could just shrink-wrap the boat and let it go dormant when other priorities filled our time, it would still be something “on our list”, looming out there to consume our thoughts. As major commitments go, it could be a source of anxiety and haunt our dreams. Did we have the time and headspace right now to take this on. Like adopting a pet, they are always there, always needing your attention, always a reason that you can’t drop everything and take off on an impulse. 

Amongst a number of events happening this year is the possibility of retirement. Although I could see myself with more free time to dedicate to a boat restoration, the landscape of my life could change in ways I can’t anticipate. Could I predict where my head would be at in the next year? Would retirement completely change my outlook, and send me off in an entirely different direction? 

I had done a lot of research on the boat, budgeting, watching YouTube videos on restoring water damaged woodwork, cleaning up mold and mildew, reviving neglected motors, and much more. I collected and studied pictures and reviews of boats of that model, and compared them with the extensive library of photos I took during our visit to the neglected Ericson. I was working myself up for the project and had really bought into it emotionally. 

Bringing the boat back to life was enticing, but was all the work and money going to be worth it?

I was almost ready to pull the trigger on it and the decision was tough for us. Ultimately, we faced the reality of our lives right now, how we expected to be spending our time for the next year, and how an extensive project like this would fit into our lifestyle. We decided to pass up the opportunity. A couple weeks on, I’m still lamenting what could’ve been, but eventually I’ll delete the pictures, spec sheets, and bookmarks to the reviews and websites, and move on. 

I think my wife feels like she’s dodged a bullet. It may not be “free”, but we know there’s a boat out there for us.