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Boat Yard Blues

Boat Yard Blues

The salesman looked at me with an indulgent eye. "We're not selling boats," he said, "we're selling dreams." I had asked about a particular customer of his whom I knew to be interested in a boat far beyond his capabilities as a sailor. "The details don't matter," the salesman had said. "he's not buying a hull and deck, he's buying freedom and adventure."

I thought about this exchange recently when I sat down with James Buchanan at his boatyard at West End. I'd been intrigued by the number of old, weather-beaten, character-filled boats that seemed to fill his yard. One of mine was among them. A 35-foot steel cutter that had come my way and which I was attempting to restore, though the process was taking an awfully long time. I wanted to know my chances of success. They didn't seem great. "Oh, I've seen people do it, alright," James said, "but they really did put some effort into it. Take Aristocat. She was beaten up and sunk in a hurricane and they dragged her in here and a guy spent a couple of years rebuilding her on the beach. I think he paid a dollar for her. Did a great job."

I had seen some successes. My friend Mike had found a 31-foot cruiser on Craigslist and assailed the reclusive owner with emails until he relented and sailed into Road Harbour. Mike bought the boat there and then, for not much more than $5,000–and immediately spent a good amount fixing her up, but now she's gorgeous, and he's rightfully proud.

Other friends are busy restoring a big old wooden ketch that's taking all the resources they have–but it will be a treasure when they're done. Not to be left out, I have to admit to owning not one but two boats I found abandoned or which were offered to me as a last resort before abandonment. The first was a 28-foot Morgan which had been left aground in the mangroves. By doing some diligent detective work I found a previous owner–who had sold it on to someone else, but that someone else had left the country and wasn't coming back. Eventually, I tracked him down and after a year of pleading, he agreed to pass the boat on to me. No money was exchanged, but it was hard work.

The second was the 35-foot steel cutter which had been passed from hand to hand until friends who knew of my experience with the Morgan asked my advice about taking ownership. I encouraged them to go ahead, with the proviso that they should give me first right of refusal if they changed their minds. She immediately got pregnant and the thought of restoring a rust bucket and raising a wee bairn at the same time proved too daunting.

My boatbuilding experience is pretty minimal, but I have plenty of friends who offer good advice–the most common suggestion being "sink it and go buy a proper yacht." James shares that opinion in general–most sailors attempting to refurbish an old boat find themselves running out of time, energy or money or any combination of those. "Boats are a dime a dozen these days," he said. "If you're going to do it, do it with a Bentley, not a Chevy. If you find a Swan 43 abandoned on the rocks or a Hinckley that went down in a hurricane, go for it. When you're done, it'll be worth something." It's not for nothing that he calls his yard "The Boatyard of Broken Dreams." He's seen them come and go. Well come anyway, since once they boats are in his yard they seldom leave.

"Rough and ready is the way to go if you want to get out cruising," James said. "It's the pretty that costs money–if you want pretty, wait until you're anchored in Rangiroa and get out the paint brush." James waved a hand out his office window to indicate the number of boats that sit in his yard. Some have accumulated debts of tens of thousands of dollars in yard fees over the years, but they're not worth much. "If you know anyone who wants a boat, tell them to make me an offer," he said.



I looked out at the collection and thought of the dozens of other boats I'd seen recently–some sitting at an angle on a beach, others squatting a little low in the water, tattered sails flapping in the breeze, lines banging. Sights like that make my heart skip a beat. Some people have that reaction when they see an abandoned puppy, but for me it's an abandoned boat. I'm reminded of the salesman's slightly cynical view–perhaps it is all fantasy and dream, after all, but I'll soldier on, chipping rust and bleeding money until either my dream boat is afloat, or my (tiny) fortune is indeed sunk. 

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