Telltale Signs of a Boat Not to Buy!

Ben Eriksen Carey Words 43 Comments

How do you know when you’re about to be scammed by someone trying to sell you their boat?

The first sign happened when I got out of the car and my wife turned to me and said, “Ben, I just saw him pump a ton of water from the bilge.” I told Teresa to keep quiet and have an open mind. Boats sometimes have water in the bilge and it’s not a big deal. “I’ll try,” she replied, “But it doesn’t make sense. The boat is on the hard.”

We climbed up the ladder and onto the boat. The owner was a middle-aged family man. He sailed his boat seasonally and kept it on the hard the rest of the year. The three of us walked together around the deck. He told me about the sails, rig, and how she handles. I asked the usual questions about the age of the rig and how she was stored over the years.

I wielded my camera and snapped pictures of everything; swage fittings, anchor chain, spill pipe. Then in the cabin I photographed the bilge, engine, berths, galley, electronics, hoses, thru-hulls… everything. Teresa and I review the pictures later and talk about what we each learned about the boat.

Streaks Of Water Damage

As soon as I enter the cabin I can see a lot of water damage around the ports. “Have these ports been re-bed recently,” I ask?

“Nope, they haven’t needed it,” the owner replies. I take silent note and move on to another question. But Teresa, who is much more candid than I am, interrupts me.

“Well, they have tons of water damage around them. All these darks spots and peeling teak is from water seeping in,” she says.

“The ports aren’t leaking,” he smiles at her politely and giggles, “we just sometimes forget to close the ports when we sail and the water splashes in.”

“Oh,” Teresa replies. And then with an effort to speak quietly she turns to me and says, “That’s worse than leaky ports! If he doesn’t bother to close the ports, maybe he doesn’t bother changing his oil either.” I ignore her comment and move on to other questions; Where are the thru-hulls? Water and fuel tanks? What are they made of?

She makes her way around me and into the head. “Benji, come here,” she says. I poke my head into the head. “There is a giant mushroom growing over there in the corner.” I look where she is pointing and sure enough, there is a mushroom sprouting up from the floor. “It looks like there is some water damage in the head,” I say to the owner. “Maybe there is a leak somewhere.”

“Naw,” he replies with a laugh, “I just never got around to putting a shower curtain up. A little cleaning and it’s good as new.”

Teresa and I crawl into the v-berth to check out the chain locker. “There is something weird about this boat,” she says.

Signs of a rotten boat

“Shhhh,” I snap, because she never realizes how loud she is talking. I think she understood because she doesn’t say anything more. Instead she takes the camera from me and proceeds to photograph every piece of dark wood in every corner of the boat. The owner shows me the engine and answers my questions. Usually Teresa likes to see the engine too, but instead she photographs drips from the ceiling and soggy floorboards in detail. When she is done, she sits in the cockpit and watches the birds. I know she has already made up her mind because she doesn’t ask any more questions and doesn’t bother to lie down in every bunk like she usually does.

An hour after we arrived, we are walking back to the car. “I think it would need some work,” I say optimistically, “What do you think?”

“I think that boat sunk.”

This post is not designed to instruct you in how to buy a boat, nor in identifying a sunken vessel. It’s just a funny story. We don’t know if the boat actually sunk. However, the post does have pictures of water damage. That part is true.


Comments 43

  1. Tim Derry

    I have seen it before. The seller pegged you for a young couple with losta dreams but no experience and therefore was going to take full advantage of it. Too bad for him he was quite mistaken, but still a shame that there are those like that out there.

      1. Eddie

        I love that you guys are following your heart. I showed a buddy of mine one of your videos and he dismissed you as a “typical hippy”… To which I told him all of your qualifications and he quickly recanted his statement. Keep up living the dream! Hopefully I can get with you and your husband to learn some things about sailing.

  2. Gerry

    What you have to remember is that most boat owners lie to themselves. DeNile is not just a river in Egypt. Never tell anyone that their wife/husband is ugly, their children are stupid or their boat is a piece of crap, the conversation will never end well. Put on your game face and lie like a flatfish.

    1. Teresa

      Gerry, I don’t think I have a game face! Not a good one at least!

      Can’t wait to see you and look at a boat together soon.


  3. Rob

    I was once one of those babi-eyed buyers (a fair background of sailing/cruising, but not of buying) and got taken for a financial ride. It happened, and I learned! In retrospect, yes, it is funny now….but, many years ago, pretty depressing living aboard while watching everything fall apart faster than it could be repaired…

  4. Leslie Owen

    Your pictures speak volumes…so much more useful than the photos in Yachtworld. We have traveled miles to see what looked “good” in pictures and was reported to be in “sail away” condition but your nose and the dampness below was overwhelming. Even looked at a boat with soaked cushions. Ugg! I hate a “wet” boat. Thank goodness our vessel is dry and snug but she was not the first we looked at. Good luck in your search. It seems that there are fewer new boats being built and I wonder if that reduces boats that are available in the market. Do you find this to be true or are you finding a good selection to shop?

  5. Scott K

    Of course each case is different, but if the water damage is not that severe (and not structural) one could actually use it to their advantage to drive the price of the boat down. For some (myself included), it makes sense to buy low and fix it to get the kind of boat wanted at the price needed. Repairs to non-structural wood parts of the boat are a little time consuming, but not the end of the world.

    Best of luck in your search!

  6. Daniel


    Remember, You’ll be happy when the wife is too 😉

    hopefully you two will find the one that works for both of you. sounds like that guy was trying to pull a fast one on you since he seemed to explain everything away so quickly.

    Best of Luck!

  7. chris

    Hi guys,i love what you do…

    but why did you spend an hour of your lives on that wreck? i know with boats that our hearts can sometimes rule our heads especialy if we must have that boat….but i think i would have walked away as soon as i saw the leaky windows. And i speak from expieriance having bought a wreck that i could “do up”its gonna take me years….
    take care

    1. Post

      Hey Chris! Yeah, there were some clear indicators of a few big projects on that boat, but I like to take a look at everything and poke around for my own educational purposes. That way, every boat we look at becomes a point of reference or data in the boat buying matrix. Collectively, we certainly didn’t spend very much time on this one though, and some of us less than others 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Jay

    Hunter 37, advertised locally for $14,500. Joan and I had to go look. Outside on the hard, she looked like a deal, when we opened the cabin, 3 inches of water throughout, cushions floating, condensation dripping from everything, mold, mildew, all windows leaked with delamination around them, delaminating floor boards after pumping out for 1/2 hour. Told the owner who probably hasn’t been on her in a year that he should take any offer over $500. Be sure and look at your prospects carefully…Great article!

    1. Post
  9. Dick

    Teresa. I was given an O’Day 25 on a trailer by a guy that had moved 1000 miles away to the east coast because it was too expensive to come and get it. $2800 later it wasn’t “free” anymore but it was a great boat for three years until I sold my tow vehicle. The boat went to North Dakota for a significant profit so it was worth the fun and effort to fix it up plus add OB and furler. If they are a quality boat to begin with, they can be truly “diamonds in the rough.”
    I enjoyed talking to you and Ben at the brunch the next day after your sister’s wedding as well as seeing your boat in the side yard.
    Dick, an Iowa sailor.

  10. nev

    This article made me giggle… been having the same experiences lately,they have made me ponder my own reasons and ask myself some important questions i suppose.
    1. how serious am I about this?(buying a boat)
    2. I cant have both the security of land life and the adventure of the open ocean.(adventure is the opposite to security)
    3. ive sailed other peoples boats only so do i really know what im gettin into?( finance and time)
    etc etc……………….but dont ask too many questions,just jump.
    Nev. Durban.South Africa.

  11. Mike

    Hey all kidding aside ill be happy if my boat floats lol. I traded a motorcycle that was a good place to hang towels for a bayliner 2550 de. We took her out on the Delaware river and it ran good was floating with very little water in the bilge {less than a cup}. Its going to be a summer home on the water this year.. But really I’m warming her up for living aboard. Wish me luck..

    1. Kyle

      Mike, is she a read Bayliner? There was a fellow in my Marina on a red bayliner, and I think his name was Mike. I was in the Bristol 22 next to you at begining of the year.


  12. wilson

    Hey guys, your lifestyle is amazing!
    You guys still looking for a boat?
    It would be nice if you could do a post just about questions that you should ask/places in the boat to see. It would be a big help to everyone looking to buy a boat.
    good luck on finding yours!

    1. Post
  13. Dannie Hill

    Great article. It’s a good idea to take someone with you when looking for a boat– and if they’re the suspicious type, all the better. Alone you can often convince yourself that it’s not that big a deal and you can fix it.

    This is a great site and I’m really enjoying you two!

  14. Jim

    Hey, I wrote a comment earlier but not sure if it made it through to you guys. First of all congrats on your “knot” tying it’s a funny coinsidence that my birthday is Aug. 12th. I am with you in spirit and the enviroment is where my heart and soul is. I have lived aboard many boats in the past, my current boat a 27ft O’Day and have lived aboard this for the last 2 1/2 years. I was sailing it down to Fl. last fall to do a refit but ran into hurricane Sandy so I put in at Port Washington Long Island and it was such a nice community I decided to winter over here. Port Washington is a great place for cruisers the town offers free mooring for the 1st 48 hours and I could used the pump out staion for free and the town dock is right across the street from 2 grocery stores. Anyway have you guys considered switching over to electric power? When I do finally get to Fl. my refit will include a convertion to an 15 hp Elco electric motor, with 2 banks of 3 batteries (plus 2 leisure batteries), I will add at least 2 more solar panels and some wind generators, my goal is to have a fossil fuel free self contained boat. I don’t have a very good movie camera but have made an Imovie slide show of the trip to Fl. so far, it’s not quite the movie you guys have made but then I don’t have the equipment you have so it’s the best I could do the utube link is below, let me knnow what you think …

    Looking forward to hearing from you – Jim

  15. Jim

    WoW, I didn’t expect such a quick response. I’ve sailed down to St. Simons Island Ga., Ft. Lauderdale and Key West many times but I have always taken an outside route pretty much non-stop all the way, because I am a very low budget sailor and didn’t feel as though I could afford alot of slip or mooring fees. Newport RI was very expensive, but I knew it would be. My experience has been that it can be a rough ride from Maine to Ft. Lauderdale on the outside. That is also why I don’t have a movie camera, I couldn’t afford it before, like I said I am a very low budget sailor and can make do with very little. But, I came into an inheritance recently, that’s why I decided to do a little inter-coastal cruiseing. I will buy a movie camera after I convert my boat to totally solar power, because it is my first priority to become fossil fuel free boat !!! I will document the conversion with still photos. Then if there is any money left over I will buy myself a nice movie cam. This is the first time I have done any harbor hopping down the coast. It’s a lot of fun visiting the different communities and meeting new folks along the way. I am very excited about my trip cruising down the ditch and meeting new people. I’ve already met a lot of great folks. I don’t know Drake Paragon personally but I have watched a few of his videos, they are great. If he will be in Manhasset soon I would love to meet him, if you are in touch with him and if he dosen’t mind it would be great if you could put me in touch with him. I’m sure there is alot I could learn from him, I make it a piont to learn something new from all the different sailors I meet. If you don’t mind I would like to continue corresponding with you guys as well. I have a lot of yachting buddies both in New England and down south as well. I’m 56 yrs old and I am retiered now on disability. I had my 100 ton Captians licence but have had 2 heart attacks and a heart failure so they have pulled my licence indefinately. I learned the sailing basics with my older brother on a wooden 14ft Old Town lapstrake sloop when I was about five, sailing on the lake behind the house where I grew up. We would go out just before a thunder storm when the winds really picked up and pretend we were Magellan sailing through the staits. Well I have waxed on way to long hope I haven’t bored you to death. If you would like to keep in touch you have my e-mail address and if you feel confortable by all means send me yourn. God Speed in all your travels and may St. Christopher keep watch over all your voyages. ~ Jim

  16. David Browne

    Hey you guys got married! Fantastic!!
    The mushroom thing is a sure sign to keep looking. I looked at an old wooden boat once that I had a fleeting idea about buying. The photos always look better than the real thing. Anyway, when I got aboard among other things I noticed the standing rigging was really loose and flopping around. Later, below I understood why. The butt of the mast was sitting in a pool of black water and big juicy mushrooms were growing out of the wood. The mast was slowly being eaten away by this pool of wet rotting fungus.

    Fair winds and following seas to you.


  17. Thomas

    I bought a Westsail 28 years ago with all these same problems but I knew what I was getting into. It too had mushrooms growing in the head. It was when the surveyor knocked the flange off a thru hull that I knew I had the boat for me. I turned and walked away back towards the car. At that moment the seller came running after me and said what will you give me. I cut the offer in half and I had me a new boat. On the spot I had the yard replace every thru hull and sea cock. A month in the yard and I rid her over every rotten piece of wood, rebedded all that needed to be and had a list of what else. 9 years later when I sold her I’d had many a great adventure and made a decent sale. Never fear a mushroom – there may be a deal lurking behind it for anyone who knows how to do carpentry.

  18. pearson 26 the promise

    hey I bought mine for a song . I put a few days on her cleaning her but sailed for thelast two years im not a weekend sailer I go out from one week to a month at a time. the most things i have had to do was the exstras plotcharter sterio and you know main essent.s batt etc they are out there I looked at over a hundred of svs out there and what I liked about mine the man took payments and it had a rod holder on the back she is very nice and fast and the marina I bought it from will give me what I paid for her on trade in look around im looking for a 35 now bu I have time im still sailing enjoy you guys and good luck I even enjoy watching other people sail im weird lol have a god day

  19. Anthony Zingre

    Hello Teresa and Ben,
    I am sure there are more direct ways of contacting you both than here in this manner. You’ll forgive this, I trust.
    I watched the TEDx lecture you gave and I’m curious. Although I live on a boat and have for some time, I don’t consider myself a liveaboard nor a person living aboard and cruising. The boat is simply a home smashed into 27′ with sails. I’m afraid the leaving of home port will have to wait until my son enters college.
    My curiosity hedges itself around the general aesthetic and conative behaviour one experiences saying goodbye to society and their expectations. Expectations I am sure you’ve experienced but then I’m not sure. Being a cruising liveaboard carries with it a certain license of approval the guy tied to the finger pier doesn’t have.
    Lin and Larry avoided this issue like the plague and probably with good reason.
    Would love to discuss this with you both but I understand this outruns the scope of this site.

    1. Teresa Carey


      I’m happy to discuss this topic with you. I’m sure it will be an interesting exploration. But first, can you please tell me more about what you mean by “saying goodbye to society and expectations.” I never felt like I was saying goodbye. I feel more like I’m trying to find a way to fit in and still do what I love.


  20. Anthony Zingre

    Hello Teresa,
    Not sure if you are getting these but if so…here’s the question. If we agree a boat is more than a party platform, more than a nice weekend getaway, more than a place where societies castoffs materialize in a Steinbeck, Cannery Row fashion and agree they [boats] can be viable living systems, what, then, do we suggest to change certain social mores so against the liveaboard lifestyle?

  21. Steve

    Hi Anthony,

    My opinion is that many people simply don’t have much knowledge of sailing or experience with what it is like living on a boat. I think a lot of people simply can’t conceptualize nor understand the sacrifices necessary to do so. People tend to avoid (or as evident by some of your experiences) belittle what they don’t understand.

    I myself had been one of those people until our friend bought a 53′ sailboat to live on and we started sailing with him every weekend. What can I say – I was hooked and cannot wait to buy my first boat.

    The idea of living on a small boat is romantic but for myself, I am simply not ready to give up my current lifestyle (space, conveniences, etc). My experience has been limited to occasional nights followed by living on our friends boat for 9 days during a Dec/Jan passage and stay in Florida. I enjoyed and certainly learned from the experience.

    Teresa – I love reading your blogs and wish you and Ben continued success and happiness.


    1. Anthony Zingre

      Hello Steve,
      I’ve lived aboard this Catalina 27 for a year now. Initially, the ‘neighbors’ in the adjacent condominiums fed me a constant stream of crap for living in ‘their’ marina. This what I found interesting; they, each and every one of them assumed I was up to no good.
      Like anything, it required a diplomatic approach to assure them I wasn’t and actually had an idea surrounding the decision to move aboard. This was done by actually working on the boat and taking it from found derelict to worked on derelict to getting there derelict. Being pleasant when they had questions regarding me personally and not running away from certain unpleasant questions that I felt a bit too personal and none of their business.
      Also, being an ABYC marine tech and knowing more about their boats than they did helped tremendously. Being as quiet as a church mouse and not being a raging drunk helped as well.
      They have since layed off and let me get on with the business of restoring this IOR half ton. She needs it.
      About boats and what’s perfect for you. I’ve been aboard and repaired about every conceivable yacht design out there. I’ve met owners living on boats as small as 20′ and as large as 93′. They all share the same physical principal laws and for a lack of maintenance they will all sink. Usually, unexpectedly and quite fast. My point here is buy what you can afford knowing you’ll be working on them constantly. Forget about the rest. It’s horseshit. They all float and I’ve known sailors who could make the Horn in a PDR

  22. Pingback: Our Journey Looking for the Right Boat | Sailing, Simplicity, and the Pursuit of Happiness

  23. Darren

    Enjoy reading your articles etc. I own a Folkboat in Hong Kong and it is an unbelievably wonderful boat to sail. I think the narrow-hulled full-keeled boats of the past are greatly misunderstood and under-appreciated. I can sail her in any weather, often when wider, larger boats are too scared and heading for shelter. I like the way I can leave the tiller and walk around my boat when single-handed and also not worry about anyting damaging the rudder as it is attached to the keel. And those boats are not slow. They sail well in light and heavy winds. Anyway, in a few months I am leaving my flat and living aboard my small boat. If you ever come to Hong Kong let me know.

  24. Krystel Saunders

    My husband and I just bought a 58′ ferro ketch for liveaboard on Canadian west coast. We have 2 younger kids. I have zero experience with sailing but familiar with the fringes of ‘normal’ society. I like your blog. It is informative and funny!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *