How to buy your dream sailboat on a budget

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The first time I saw Wish You Were Here, I nearly ran away screaming. Actually, I probably was screaming… in my head. On initial examination, WYWH presented with a crumpled mast and bent stanchions, a crushed hard-top bimini, and a generous coating of barnacles. On the inside, she was a fetid mess of gunk and algae.

Day 1
Gail and I arrived on a Sunday morning in April, three days after Ted and Steve had arrived. Ted picked us up from the airport on Beef Island on the east side of Tortola and we got a good tour of the island on the way to the Voyage boatyard, which is on the west end.

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We stepped aboard and the guys proudly gave us what Gail would later call “The Mud Tour”. Steve and Ted had arrived a couple days ahead of us and they’d done some preliminary cleaning. It was looking much better than when they’d first gotten here, they assured us. And wasn’t this great? Our very own, otherwise very (prohibitively) expensive, luxury sailing catamaran, bought at salvage cost. What a deal!

When Ted and Steve had first gone to Tortola in February to look at boats, the idea was to buy one and fix it up. After looking at several options, Ted settled on WYWH, which had a mostly intact hull, but had been under water. Steve looked around some more, saw Moon Struck and suggested to buy that one as well. Moon Struck had been “on the hard” during the hurricanes but had come off the supports and suffered additional top side damage when another boat smashed down on it. So the hull was shot but the engines and other electronics were fine – the opposite of WYWH’s damage.

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I had arrived a bit under the weather – curtesy of Steve who’d come down with some bug the week before – and I was just not feeling it. I was tired and coughed a lot, and I wasn’t looking forward to much labor of any kind. Back on deck, I looked up at a pretty, cloud-dotted sky, and calculated the earliest I would be able to fly back home on a reasonably priced ticket. In two days, perhaps?

I took a few more steps and inspected the aft crossbeam. The anodized aluminum had acquired supplemental corrosion protection thanks to a bunch of industrious marine critters, aka a colony of barnacles. WYWH had been upside down and submerged for about ten weeks. It takes barnacles several weeks to build their shells but they tend to colonize en masse so while our barnacles weren’t large, they were aplenty.

Image of abandoned (empty) Acorn barnacle shells attached to aft beam of catamaran.
Abandoned barnacle shells.

I didn’t know a whole lot about barnacles, other than they grow on pretty much anything, so I looked it up. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), they are “sticky little crustaceans”. No kidding. Sticky with a capital “S”. Later, I tried to identify the exact species we’d cultivated and out of 1400, by way of elimination (geography, size, etc.), I decided on Semibalanus balanoides, the Acorn barnacle. As it turns out, barnacles are an absolutely fascinating creature, so much so, that I’m working on a separate post just about barnacles. Stay tuned.

For now, back to WYWH and my options: I could stay and be miserable or I could go back home. Since there was nothing else to be done that day, however, Gail and I followed Steve’s suggestion and started scraping aforementioned barnacles. Lot’s of them.

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Meanwhile, the guys were trying to resuscitate the engines in WYWH but they were too frozen up and unwilling to put out. We all worked until dark, then headed to our AirB&B in Cane Garden Bay. We had stopped for groceries on the way from the airport so our fridge was full of food. Gail made a yummy taco dinner and we passed out pretty soon after that.

Photo of Cane Garden Bay at night.
Cane Garden Bay at night.


Day 2

On Monday, I continued to battle barnacles. For most of the morning, I wrestled the dinghy around and under the hulls and kept scraping away. Gail disappeared into the starboard hull to wage her own battle – with mildew and other gunk. She came out for a bit to make lunch, then it was back down below for her.

Photo of Carmen pulling the dinghy along the side of WYWH to scape the hull barnacles.   Photo of WYWH under rainbow.

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Meanwhile, Ted disconnected and removed the sail drives, generator, and engines from Moon Struck, our parts boat. Steve assisted with tools and entertainment.

I tried to stick with surface chores to avoid breathing any chemicals. After my bout with the barnacles, I went over to visit with Moon Struck, and started pulling engine wires. Turns out, trying to cut anything out of 5200 with a pocket knife is like using a fork to work with tar. I redirected my efforts to removing smashed-up wires and stanchions on the port deck of WYWH, which proved only marginally more successful. A lot of screws were so corroded from being submerged in salt water, we’ll have to somehow cut those pieces off.

In the afternoon, the yard guys got busy cutting off Moon Struck’s semi-severed hind limb. At the time, the plan was to get her in the water as quickly as possible to avoid more costly yard fees.

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Photo of severed starboard hull on Moon Struck.
Moon Struck – struck once more.

Monday was a bit of a make-or-break day and we needed some comfort. We’d been passing D’CoalPot on our way to and from the AirB&B and it was decided we’d have dinner there to celebrate the wonderful mess we’d gotten ourselves into. D’CoalPot turned out to be a great place. The Restaurant, Bar and Grill at Tortola’s West End serves delicious local dishes like Conch Fritters, Jamaican BBQ Jerk Wings, Honey Stung Chicken, and their famous Roti, a curry wrap filled with meat, seafood, or veggies. We pigged out until we couldn’t sit straight anymore and went to sleep right after.

Steve, Carmen, Gail, and Ted having dinner at d'CoalPot.
The guys trying to butter us up with a fancy dinner.

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The next morning, I went over to Moon Struck, grabbed her cushions, and scrubbed them down with lots of soap and water. Gail had noticed earlier, that part of her name was missing on the aft port plate. Instead of Moon Struck it just said Struck. How perfect!

Photo of Moon Struck

Once I was done with the cushions, I was pretty much running on fumes. I hadn’t recovered from my cold, but I’d get short bursts of energy, followed by dizzy spells. At some point I could barely lift my arms anymore and I really wanted to throw in the towel.

Gail was still cleaning the starboard cabin area and was also starting to run out of steam. Still, we soldiered on. We removed a lot of the gunked-up (cabin, shower, and cabinet) doors, to replace them with the nice doors from Moon Struck. I piled up all the doors on the pier, right next to the equally gunked-up cushions. When Gail and I removed the mirror doors from the medicine cabinets, water started shooting out of the lower screw holes. We filled a few small buckets and realized we’d have to drill holes on the bottom of each cabinet. This made us wonder how much more water was behind other spaces on the boat and how’d we drain those. In the afternoon, I started cleaning the sitting area, which still had pockets of mud and mildew. Gail continued with her starboard quarters.

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Aft port quarters after initial hose down.

We had two more nights at the AirB&B, then we’d be sleeping on the boat. The port side was still a health hazard and after calculating the time before moving in, I had a bit of a meltdown.

Image of port side sleeping quarters, still covered in dirt and mildew.
Main port-side quarters after initial hose down.

Steve finally got the message and stopped playing with the starboard engine to help with the cabin sanitation. We pulled a water hose over the deck and fed it through on of the portholes. After adding a portable bilge pump, Steve went to work with lots of bleach and a big brush. We power-washed the spaces, then drained the bilges, over and over.

That evening, we experienced the first of several microbursts. The weather was fine one minute and then the clouds started building up. It got a bit darker, the wind picked up, and a gust of rain followed. Half an hour later, the sky cleared up again and it was as if nothing had happened.

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Looking east: Purple sky right after storm.
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Looking west: Sunset behind Great Thatch Island.

Back at the AirB&B, we concluded the day with a delicious pineapple chicken dish and a big salad. Thanks to Gail, we ate super well every night.

Day 4
I got up early on Wednesday to set up my camera for a sunrise time-lapse, then went back to bed to get another hour or two of sleep. When I got up the second time, the camera was still happily clicking away. Ted was already up and on the balcony, reporting on a bird sitting on a pole close by. The bird had been interested enough in the clicking noises coming from the camera that he’d hung about for a while. We wondered if he’d be in the time-lapse.

<sunrise timelapse>

At the yard, Steve and Ted continued to work on the second engine. Later, they shifted their focus to the boom. Steve welded and rebuilt the old boom, which had a smashed end piece but was otherwise in good shape.

Photo of broken mast.
I was still not convinced that sleeping on the boat was a sensible idea, so Gail and I tried to find another solution. Pretty much all the hotels were still out of commission after the previous year’s storm season, but Gail found one possibility nearby. We hopped in the car and drove over there. Two ladies running the place generously offered us a small suite at a steeply discounted, post-hurricane rate: $489 per room, per night. The boat sounded pretty good, after all.

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Photo of Gail cleaning the inside of the forward port hull.
Gail cleaning the inside of the forward port hull. That’s impressive pretzeling Gail!
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Time for me to get dirty.
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Some mental preparation before my least favorite task.

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We stopped in the late afternoon to move WYWH to the other end of the boat yard in preparation for getting the mast moved from Moon Struck to WYWH. Ryan and Carl showed up in their dinghies and Steve used ours, so we had three mini tugs to get us from one end of the yard to the other.

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We ended up at a dock close to the yard’s entry gate, which was very convenient as it brought us closer to the Coffee Shop. We were now looking directly at the building that had, for a while, a catamaran on top of the roof after Irma and Maria had come through.

<WYWH video>

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Last night at Cane Garden Bay, great pasta with veggies, steve’s famous chocolate cake.

Day 5
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Thursday was our last morning at the AirB&B. We didn’t have much time to enjoy it, as we hurried to finish the last loads of laundry for the entire stay, emptied the fridge, and did some general clean up.

 

 

 

 

The rest of the day revolved around moving the mast from Struck to WYWH and lots of rigging in-between.

Photo of Steve on catamaran, working on rigging.
Steve preparing the rigging for mast removal.

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<mast time lapse>

 

Gail and I continued to clean and it was amazing how far we’d come in just a few days.

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We were working super late these last few days. We made occasional quick trips to a nearby convenience store for snacks and drinks but without a working kitchen there was no point in getting any real groceries. We had dinner at Pussers – the only place in walking distance serving food at night.

Our bellies full, we went back to the boat to spend the first of four nights on board. The cushions from Moon Struck were great but it was odd to sleep without sheets. Steve and I stuffed some clothing into a t-shirt to use as a pillow and then grabbed the largest shirt we had and used it for cover. We had an okay night but kept waking up to close the hatch above when it started raining, just to open it back up later when it got too hot to sleep. There was a nice breeze when the hatch was open, just the occasional rain shower drizzling us awake.

Day 6
Steve switched out the port engine: an all day job. He had to unhook it from Moon Struck, remove it from the space, clean it, and then reinstall it on WYWH, and finally hook it back up. The operation was successful, though: We’re not driving in circles anymore!

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– cleaned deck spaces
– stored stuff
– Gail shopping
– aft deck hatch soft screws
– exchange floor hatches & hinges, micro burst sent ceiling boards flying
– moved some items back to Struck: old doors etc.

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At the end of the day, we had dinner at Pussers again. The cheeseburger and coleslaw are good and the fries absolutely divine. I think we all had fries. Yum!

This was our second night on the boat. The open hatch provided needed air and a breeze but Steve and I were pretty cold all night without blankets.

 

Day 7
Ted and Steve hoisted the old starboard engine back on board. Steve secured it and tied a cover over it. Gail and I concentrated on final inside cleaning and organizing. I cleaned all the debris off the dock; rolled, tied, and removed the old and yucky mattresses; and showed the whole area around the boat a little TLC by doing a pier clean up, i.e. collected all plastic and other debris. Later I got to move and re-install some nav gear. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to really get into the nitty gritty of that.

Another microburst came through. I was elbow deep in suds at first but decided it was worth to get at least one of these on film. I had to wait a bit at first, the visibility was pretty much zero and the camera would have gotten soaked but then I got a quick shot before it was over again.

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Steve was working on the engines and draining the oil so he couldn’t come inside to take cover. Ted, who’d just woken from his nap, provided Steve with a bit of a rain/wind shield so he could continue to tinker. (Just kidding about the nap. Nobody was allowed to take a break during daylight hours.)

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We were planning on putting Struck out to pasture on a mooring ball to save yard fees. We just needed to get some work done to waterproof her hull and the yard workers jumped right on it. They were so quick about it, Steve and Ted were concerned that the fiberglass wouldn’t have enough time to cure to provide adequate water tightness. Luckily, the big boat yard crane would later break and Struck continued her stay “on the hard”.

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Day 8
– brought old WYWH engines on board
– moved WYWH back to collapsed pier/seawall, covered and secured

 

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Our final sunset from WYWH for this round. Heading to Pussers for a last cheeseburger and french fries and then off to sleep. We’d be getting up super early to fly home.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 9  (Day 11 for Ted & Steve)
We managed to leave at 6:30 – no easy feat after another mediocre night. Still, it was bitter sweet to leave WYWH behind. She’s nearly back to her former glory, with two working engines and a working mast, rigging, and sails.

Actually, I couldn’t believe how far we’d come in such a short time. When Steve and Ted had first gone to Tortola to look at boats, I barely gave it a second thought, other than thinking Good luck, guys. When they came back, full of excitement and possibilities, I was skeptical and hesitant to add another project to my list. Plus, I wasn’t sure how we’d all manage to get along. It’s easy when the job is easy. This one wouldn’t be.

In the end, we made it work. The key was, and always is, communication. We need to speak up when we’re uncomfortable and feel things are not fair. The other party probably doesn’t even realize how we feel and can’t fix things unless they know. I’m pretty proud of how we came together to work on a common goal. When people find it in themselves to leave their ego behind, and when they work for the greater good of the group, amazing things can happen.

 

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Last look at WYWH, until we return in a few weeks.

 

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View of Road Town, the capital of the BVI, as we’re driving past.

We flew back in Ted’s Bonanza via Stella Maris, in the Bahamas (to fuel up) and then Key West (to go through customs). At 5:30pm we arrived in Marathon, tired, elated, and extremely happy.

 

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