Buying a boat remotely

A sailboat charges upwind to an island barely visible on the horizon; pink cottony clouds show the end (or beginning) of the day.

Bias to action: a quality in people who get things done. Right now, working on what’s possible to do – instead of what isn’t – is helping future cruisers make progress on realizing their dream. They’re even finding ways to buy a boat, despite being unable to travel to kick the fenders or sea trial.

How does work to buy a boat in the pandemic era?

To be clear: in normal circumstances, it’s a terrible idea to buy a boat sight unseen. But reduced options for travel, destination or home-country quarantine, and in some cases outright prohibitions on travel have forced adaptations to a new reality. For those who want to move forward, is it still reasonable to buy a boat when you can’t travel to see it?

Sunset view from a sailboat as the sky and sea turn a stunning shade of orange; rugged mountains in silhouette on the horizon
Getting to this sunset is a sh*t ton of work

Hazards of remote purchase

First, a cautionary tale. When we were in Australia, an American family bought a boat not too far from us; our welcoming marina manager in Cammeray was sure these two seppo families should meet. Upon meeting these new friends, we learned they had recently arrived to clap eyes for the first time on the new-to-them boat, a British built 58’ steel vessel.

The captain was somewhat disheartened. While cleaning their new floating home he found a small rust spot in the bilge, and as you do, he scraped it…and the screwdriver in his hand punched clean through the hull. You can imagine what ran through his head, but it was probably something like – “what have I done, moving my family halfway around the word onto a sinking boat?” Perhaps there were a few more colorful adjectives.

Their surveyor had an excellent reputation, but missed things. Was it a bad day, a lazy one, or an innocent error? It’s unknowable, but there wasn’t any recourse; they could only move forward. The boat was hauled and found to have many corrosion issues stemming from moisture trapped in hard to see places, like between the hull and refrigerator insulation. With the application of time and money in quantity, the family eventually had (and still has!) a sound boat to carry them toward the blue horizon. But not every cruising dream, or kitty, can survive the trials it took them to finally cast off.

Sunrise over the sea; three rocks from a nearby reef silhouetted in the orange light, the left most covered with a flock of pelicans.
Pelicans clustered on a reef at sunrise; today’s destination, San Juanico, BCS

What can people do today? Here’s what we’re finding in helping coaching clients navigate forward towards purchasing boats during the pandemic, with lessons that stretch back to the American family’s purchase in Sydney.

Get a real-feel

Hours of midnight oil burned on yachtworld later, most boat buyers find that a few particular boat models surface as the right mix of features and budget. But – are they? It’s really hard to know the feel of a boat without stepping in board. If you’re in Yukon and the boat is in Grenada (a current, very real client example) – what can you do?

Getting on a sistership to the vessel can confirm or eliminate boats from consideration. For both the families we’re supporting in Yukon, these can potentially be found among the fleet of cruising boats sprinkled in British Columbia. That involves travel, but not the 14-day quarantine on return from BC that a (difficult and costly) trip to…well, just about anywhere, would involve.

How do you get on these boats? The simplest is to look for boat listings, and see if you can visit one as a potential buyer (you never know!). But that can be harder to find; networking among the boating community may work better. For an Australian family also shopping in the Caribbean, asking on social media groups (like Women Who Sail Australia) may open the possibility that a road trip to Mooloolaba helps them know if that boat for sale in Panama could work for their family. Do the berths fit the bodies? Are there head-knockers for 6’5” dad that would be too annoying to live with? Is the cockpit a workable space? These can be learned pretty closely from afar.

Do extra due diligence on the boat

If the model fits, the next risk is – how is that remote boat different? How well kept is it? Are faults minimized in the listing that would make it untenable?

We try to match buyers up with a cruiser nearby who can provide a walkthrough for a modest fee. Before committing resources to a survey, make sure it actually matches the listing and doesn’t hold surprises. A pair of boat-savvy eyes willing to check it can save heartache and money.

In Grenada, a great match to check out a boat for one of our Canadian families was Aaron Downey, who has recently opened a marine services business – Clarity Marine Systems. He and his family are cruisers with some years of experience, now working in Grenada while they top up the kitty. An excellent set of remote eyes!

Aaron Downey of Clarity Marine Systems pictured with his family
Clarity Marine System’s Aaron Downey with wife Megan and daughter Claire

If a boat passes this sniff test, then a quality surveyor is the next task. Good surveyors are hard to find, so vet well. Attending the survey makes for a more thorough survey, but maybe impossible with COVID. Here’s where independent, third-party local assistance can again be useful. The surveyor’s report will document findings; the buyers’ representative can query them in process and provide insight to a remote buyer.

Find a trusted boat minder

If the boat passes and a transaction moves ahead, the buyers may still have a wait until they’re able to reach the boat. A broker’s promise to keep an eye on the boat until the new owner arrives may not be adequate, especially in risk prone periods such as hurricane season.

Boat minders shouldn’t be too hard to find, but require proceeding with caution. Some are very good. Some are flat out scammers. We’ve met minders with pride in the boats under there care, and seen plenty of neglected boats suddenly getting a lot of attention and cleanup because the owners are about to arrive. Here again, an independent set of eyes to make sure the boat is in good hands.

Is it OK to buy a boat now?

We think so! But one person’s bold move is another’s foolish leap; there’s a lot to individual capacity for risk tolerance, and no two situations are alike. Bottom line: remote purchasing comes with some risks, but most risks can be managed through this process. Hopeful cruisers who feel stymied by the uncertainty may find these ideas helpful for moving forward. With caution, insight, and knowledge the chances of a satisfactory purchase remotely – and future cruise – go way up.


Coming up next Saturday: ASK US ANYTHING! Jamie and I are answering questions about, well, anything you want to send our way. Details to register (or replay prior vents, like hello, hurricane season or guest visit from Matt Rutherford) on our Events page.

Rays of sunlight peek over a sand dune as the sun sets behind a distant mountain.
Off to find beaches with hermit crab tracks instead of footprints

9 Responses

  1. Good point that even a good survey by a top surveyor can miss problems… some serious. A surveyor can only cover so much in a day.

    If the whole kitty plus the 401 is going into the purchase, a remote sight unseen purchase is fraught with danger and can put this category of buyer into bankruptcy. If buyer is a single-hander, fine… that affects only you. If you have a wife & kids, that is another story. We’re I purchasing a boat sight unseen, I’d budget in at least 50 to 70% over the purchase price for contingency.

    Lastly, whatever one decides to do, keep in mind the purchase price of any boat is the least expensive part of the experience. Ask any boat owner.

    1. Every buyer has different finances and different risk tolerances, and helping them avoid heartbreak is a priority for us!

  2. So, HOW does one find a boat surveyor that does a thorough job? I am a newbie to buying a boat, but have experience in house surveys of this type. I budget about 6 hours for the typical 2000 sf house. I focus on the “expensive,” roofs, foundation, exterior framing, well, septic and of course the HVAC. I have been told by sellers that I am too picky; maybe so, but my reputation depends on my clients not being blindsided. The rust issue described is an example of what I call being blindsided. Truthfully, the survey is my source of major anxiety.

    1. Hi Paul – honestly, it’s hard. We have a very few who we recommend based on KNOWN performance. We’ll evaluate the redacted sample surveys provided by candidate surveyors and can tell you a LOT about the kind of work they do (just because it’s long and uses big words doesn’t make it a good survey). If you can’t find one near the boat you want to survey, many of them will travel to survey (you pay, of course, but for example – a quality FL surveyor recently agreed to fly to Antigua to survey a client’s boat). If you cannot be physically present at the survey, have someone there to represent you – even for a thorough surveyor. You’ll get better information and ensure quality work.

  3. Thanks guys for answering our question with a such a great article! Aaron and Megan were extremely helpful. Not only did Aaron give us the details on the boat but he commented on its suitability for our family and gave us a lot to think about. They also went over cruising in Grenada vs. other areas, what places are great and not-so-great for kid boats, etc. We would definitely hire them again.

  4. In 2007, I listed my 1971, 32 ft. Islander sloop with the local yacht broker in Marina Mazatlan. Given the location, distance, and prospects – I didn’t expect it to sell, really .

    A few months later the yacht broker contacted me – a couple from Canada bought my boat – just on the basis of the 25+ excellent photos the broker had posted with the listing. (I had also take care to be sure the cabin was well organized – everything stowed – and I had placed a bottle of wine, and two wine glasses on the table – with a nice table cloth underneath – to create a warm and inviting vision.

  5. And a comment from the other end – those of us trying to SELL a boat in these trying times greatly appreciate the buyers coming forward and will help out all we can to make you comfortable with your purchase. Our broker has spent hours crawling around our boat doing live Facetime-ing with prospects.

  6. No one should ever buy an aluminum or steel boat without hauling and getting an ultrasound. Bad mistake!

    1. Well, here’s a kicker for you, then: the buyers DID have an ultrasound on the survey! But apparently the grid wasn’t tight enough, and it missed spots. Reason #472 to attend your survey. It all worked out and they continue to sail this beautiful boat, but not everyone has the financial means to recover from that kind of problem.

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