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A Captain's Berth

Buying or Building Your Own Yacht is a Risky Venture that Requires Long Months of Investigation
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 4)

He first determined the size of the boat, and his budget, deciding upon a $1 million 50-footer, to be built at the Alden Yacht shipyard in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. "Romance cuts into clear thinking," says Florio. "Buyers just can't walk into yards with a blank check on their foreheads. You must know what details you really want [changing orders delays construction and inflates construction costs]. If you don't hire a firm like Sparkman and Stephens to supervise the whole damn thing, or find a reputable boatbuilder, you can easily be sold a bill of goods."

A yacht's design and its performance standards (speed, interior sound levels, etc.) will not only determine the cost of a project, but also influence resale value. Since yachts are normally kept for two to five years, protecting an investment is crucially linked to such specs as the number of staterooms and type of engine, and to yachting's most provocative four-letter word: the composition and construction of the H-U-L-L.

Here, instead of one universally accepted design formula, there is only loud debate. At Christensen, which mainly builds semicustom hulls, Jeff Ferguson says, "Fiberglass, a composite, is today's hot material. It's literally maintenance-free, lighter and far stronger than other materials."

But John Todd, the Ft. Lauderdale-based director of sales for Burger Boat of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, disagrees. "Perfection comes with an all-aluminum hull. Aluminum is stronger and more easily shaped into an efficient hull. It's faster with far less horsepower."

Steel has its own advantages, particularly its ability to withstand collisions and groundings. So the buyer is left with a dizzying choice. As Sparkman and Stephens' Gibbons-Neff suggests, "The only thing a buyer can do is weigh the options with an independent consultant. Fiberglass demands less maintenance, yet aluminum and steel are stronger. It's a tough call."

Besides consulting with boat designers and surveyors, buyers wrestling with design questions should talk to boat owners, sail makers (if building a sailboat) and other independent craftsmen. They aren't wedded to specific designs or materials, and can talk about a shipyard's financial condition, what it's like to deal with a certain contractor and whether they have reliable follow-up service.

Salespeople in boatyards are also talkative. Eager to praise their own specialties (Alden Yachts shipyard, for example, is known for fiberglass 43- to 76-footers, while Abeking & Rasmussen, based in Lemwerder, Germany, primarily builds 70- to 150-foot steel and aluminum boats), they're equally quick to point out their competitors' shortcomings.

Visiting a number of these yards is crucial to choosing a builder. Besides providing a look at different product lines, these visits determine whether a buyer feels comfortable with the staff and craftsmen. It is a long relationship--building a boat typically takes 18 to 24 months--so you have to have faith in these people. You must be convinced there will be no surprises ahead, for too many companies will take advantage of new buyers.

Most of the chicanery, if not outright lying, involves pricing estimates. Owners of undercapitalized yards will knowingly underestimate the price of a project to get the job (and the substantial deposit). Of course, the boat cannot be completed at this price, so the buyer is left with only unpleasant choices. He can either sue the company, walk away from the project, or pump more money into it. The latter is often the worst-case scenario, for it can mean a buyer's assuming a builder's debts, and his becoming a yard owner.

As Alden president David MacFarlane says, "One worry is to build a boat in a yard that's not up to a project financially. Then the buyer has to finance the yard. But even if a builder is able to deliver the boat, there's another reason to be wary of all the slick salespeople in this business. The buyer has to make sure that company will be around to service the boat."

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