Owning a boat can be an expensive pastime, especially now, but there are numerous ways to cut the bills for some cheap boating. Duncan Kent finds some ways to save you money and keep you afloat
Not all yachties are wealthy city folk with money to throw around. Keen sailors of all backgrounds and financial status manage to buy, berth and maintain their boats on a limited budget by being fiscally astute and carrying out many of the simpler tasks themselves, so cheap boating is not, by any means, an impossibility.
Buying a boat is only the start of your investment. If it’s your first, you’ll be needing lifejackets, harnesses and foul weather clothes, plus essential safety gear such as flares, VHF radio, charts, almanacs, pilot guides, logbooks, binoculars, hand-held compass and more.
A daunting list, but many of these items can be bought online or from sailing groups, clubs, and associations for much less. I wouldn’t cut corners with safety kit such as lifejackets and liferafts, but I’d definitely hunt around for all the other bits in boat jumbles or online.
Cheap boating advice
Initial equipment costs are not the end of the matter. Finding somewhere reasonably priced to keep your boat is of paramount importance and will probably be the largest expense after purchasing your vessel.
In fact, these days it’s not such a bad idea to find your ideal mooring first before buying the boat, especially if you want to keep her in one of the more popular coastal areas. Charges increase according to convenience, so if you’re happy to leave your boat on a buoy in a river or harbour and row out to it with all your gear every time you use it, this will probably be the cheapest solution.
It can be even cheaper if you join a yacht club and are allocated a mooring, although there might be a waiting list.
Marina berths are the most expensive form of mooring, particularly in popular areas such as the Solent and most of the UK’s South Coast. Busy, working boat owners usually prefer marinas as they can arrive at any time of day or night and jump straight on board. The batteries will be charged, the fridge cold, the shower warm and you know the lines are checked regularly by the marina staff.
You can wallow in the marina showers and take a hot meal ashore, and in some marinas even get your clothes washed and dried in a launderette. It is also simple to have work done on her whilst you are away or, if you are doing it yourself, there is often a chandler on site for parts and advice.
The downside, obviously, is the high cost. An annual subscription to a marina is the cheapest and, though monthly direct debit payments are usually welcome, paying a year up front often entitles you to a further discount. Alternatively, consider a short-term summer berth contract (where available) if you have access to cheap winter storage.
Some marinas offer cut-price berthing for those happy to remain afloat during the winter. There are some benefits to this, not least that it’s warmer on the water than out on a yard cradle so you might not need to drain the water system and can run your engine regularly. It also means you can extend your sailing season when you get
a few mild days in the winter.
The cheapest marina berths are those that dry out at some point as the tide goes out, but a semi-tidal berth is okay if you don’t mind the restriction on your sailing times. And so long as you have twin keels allowing you to take the ground safely, or the seabed is soft mud for your fin keel to settle into, you’ll be fine.
If you’re lucky, you might find a drying mooring close to an all-tide visitor berth or town quay, in which case you can move there on an earlier high tide to pick up crew or load provisions the night before, ready to set sail the next day.
Most marinas, even half-tide ones, provide water and metered electricity. Those with a fuel berth can often offer cheaper fuel for annual bertholders too. Some include a limited period of time ashore in the annual fee, although cranage and chocking up will undoubtedly be chargeable.
Others only offer a discount off the cost of yard storage to annual berth holders or limit the period of time allowed ashore. So, if you want to keep the boat out of the water from October to April, check with the marina first.
Recently, some of the larger marina groups have introduced a scheme by which, if you let the office know if you’re vacating your berth, and they manage to re-let it in your absence, then they will reimburse you a percentage of the fee obtained or give you a credit towards your next year’s fees. The larger chains may also offer a number of free overnight stays at their other marinas.
Swinging or pile moorings
There are mooring buoys all over the coast, some owned by commercial organisations but many more by harbour trusts or sailing clubs. These are nearly always less expensive than marina berths. However, they do require a way of getting out to your boat, along with your crew, gear and provisions, such as a dinghy or water taxi.
Storing a dinghy in a club or marina will incur costs, although these can be eliminated if you arrive with an inflatable in your boot.
Apart from saving money, another aspect of being on a swinging mooring I have always enjoyed is sitting on board, eating a meal and taking in the view, while other boats go by. Early breakfast in the cockpit up a quiet river, watching and listening to the wading birds while you wait for the tide to return, is one of the supreme delights of owning a boat.
There are, of course, downsides to a swinging, trot or pile mooring, not least that your boat is more vulnerable to passing thieves, as will your dinghy be if you leave it on the buoy whilst out sailing.
Your boat or dinghy can also be damaged by boats passing too close and losing control, plus the mooring warps, chain and shackles can all wear and break away if not set up correctly and inspected frequently. That said, if you join a club someone will usually be around to keep an eye out for any boat in trouble.
Other compromises include the lack of power or fresh water. To keep your batteries charged you will need either a small wind generator or solar panel and you’ll need to fill your water tanks at the fuel pontoon or carry it on board in jerry cans.
Pile moorings have similar pros and cons to buoys, although the physical security is slightly better in that the boat will be attached to the ground more substantially. Wear on the strops, though, can be equally ferocious in bad weather.
Piles with a pontoon between them are the best by far but usually cost more for the privilege of being able to unload your dinghy onto the pontoon before transferring your crew and gear to the boat.
Although it’s a lot easier to clean the boat and work on it from a pontoon, you’ll need to be wary of the wear on fenders, unlike with swinging moorings. If the mooring is vulnerable to high winds and choppy waves then you’ll probably want to store your boat ashore for part of the winter at least, so cranage and storage charges must be added into the equation.
Finally, check your insurance coverage carefully as many companies want you to be safely stored ashore by the end of October at the latest and not relaunch until spring.
A little planning can save you loads. Buy most of your provisions in advance at a large supermarket, rather than pay top prices from small, local shops. Pre-cooking meals and freezing them down before setting off will save you going to expensive restaurants. They’ll also cut the gas required to cook them onboard and the power needed to
cool the fridge.
Find a few safe anchorages along your route to help save on mooring fees and use your tender for going ashore instead of expensive water taxis.
Solar panels can help save money by not using marina power, plus you can stay on the hook for longer without the risk of flattening your batteries. A wind generator can also help cover you during overcast but windy days.
Although it is not actually against the law to keep and sail a boat in the UK without any insurance, you would be taking a huge risk in doing so. At the very least you should insure yourself against third party damage, as if you were to hit another vessel, or worse still, injure or kill someone with your boat, you could be held personally liable.
How much insurance you pay will depend primarily on the age and value of your boat, followed by your sailing experience and qualifications. Policies are usually tailored to suit. Certain aspects affect the premiums, such as where you keep it, your geographical sailing limits and in which months you sail. The cheapest policies generally cover you to sail in UK waters from April to October, whilst being berthed in a marina with 24-hour security, and on the hard in a cradle with the mast down during the winter.
Premiums increase if you leave the boat unattended on a swinging mooring or you want to sail throughout the year.
Longer passages can often be covered by letting them know in advance, although for ocean passages it will depend on your qualifications and crew.
To reduce costs it’s worth fitting a security alarm, gas detector and an automatic engine fire extinguisher. A sailing qualification helps, as does a higher excess on the policy.
Lastly, it’s most important not to let your insurance cover lapse over the winter period. There are myriad reasons that a claim might arise, both ashore and afloat, including theft, fire, vandalism, damage by vehicles and, of course, storm damage.
The smaller the boat the cheaper it will be to run. Rather than give up sailing because of rising costs, why not downsize to a smaller boat? It’s surprising how costs fall with reduced boat length. Not only will your mooring fees shrink but also the cost of maintaining her, especially cranage, antifouling, cleaning, polishing and the like will be considerably reduced.
If you want to eliminate mooring and storage fees entirely you could buy a trailer-sailer. These are usually under 7m/23ft long and often feature a lifting or swing keel to aid DIY launching and retrieving. They frequently have a self-hoist mast system too, so that it can be stepped and unstepped singlehandedly, saving on cranage and rigger costs.
You might well have to pay a launch fee, though, and a parking fee for the trailer, but this is offset by the ability to tow her home at the end of the season thus avoiding yard storage fees.
Another popular way of reducing your sailing costs is by sharing with other interested parties or friends. Many use this method to enable them to sail a bigger yacht than they could afford alone. It doesn’t just reduce the initial outlay, more importantly, it reduces the individual syndicate member’s annual mooring and maintenance fees significantly and can often mean the difference between getting a professional to look after it or doing it yourself.
Difficulties can arise, though, so it makes sense to have a proper legal arrangement from the start. You can set up a partnership using a simple contract form obtainable from the RYA.
Typical agreement details covered include the proportion of each share, the methods of disposal of shares in the event of sale or death, the allocation of sailing time allowed by each member, a summary of likely running costs and the creation of a maintenance fund, and an agreement on who shall carry out DIY tasks such as cleaning, winterising and antifouling.
Above all, flexibility is the key to any partnership’s success.
A good number of maintenance tasks can be carried out by most reasonably competent owners and, if you join a club, there are very often like-minded folk around to offer physical or technical help.
It’s well worth doing a short course in engine maintenance as you can save a fortune by DIY servicing items like filters, oil, fuel systems, pump impellers, drive belts, batteries and so on.
Likewise, browse a few of the many online groups covering DC wiring, buy a cheap multimeter and learn how to troubleshoot your own electrical system. A cheap battery monitor will also help you to look after your expensive batteries and not let them become too discharged and consequently damaged.
Sails, canvas and running rigging can all be cleaned, maintained, and repaired yourself (within reason). Search the web for the products required and how to best apply them. A good sewing machine can also be invaluable but make sure it’s tough enough to cope with sail material.
Winches need annual servicing to keep them smooth-running. The job is easy to do yourself but do take care when stripping them down so as not to lose the springs and pawls, which often fall out when you lift the drum off.
Once cleaned, make sure they’re re-packed with the correct type of grease before reassembling them.
Running rigging can be stripped out each year and washed in a bucket to remove any grease, dirt or salt. Flushing blocks, clutches, tracks and cars regularly with fresh water, particularly just after sailing, will save a lot of work later should they seize up!
End-to-end halyards and sheets when you re-reeve them so as to relocate areas of high wear in items like turning blocks, jammers, and clutches. Look closely at rope clutch and jammer cams for signs of wear.
With blocks, inspect them for signs of elongation around the fixing holes and shackles. Also try rotating the sheave to check for excessive movement on the bearing, indicating excessive wear.
Finally, you don’t need to be a pro rigger to check the components of your standing rig. Shackles, split pins or rings, turnbuckles, wire, swages and mast fittings can be visually checked for wear or corrosion to a degree, and any broken items replaced or repaired before they become a more expensive re-rig job.
Hull careening is a tedious annual task however you do it, but in a boatyard it will be an expensive one too. There are scrubbing piles or convenient walls around the coast or upriver where you can dry your boat out between tides and scrape the hull clean.
Check first, though, that the area you plan to do this isn’t part of a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) or similar, as these practices will be banned. Either way, even if allowed, take care not to scrape off a load of antifouling paint along with the barnacles as such a high concentration of paint can be quite toxic to the local marine life.
It’s worth spreading a large, cheap builder’s tarpaulin under the boat to collect the scrapings to dispose of at your local tip, rather than leaving it in the environment.
You can paint a fresh coat of antifouling too, between tides, but make sure you don’t sand down the original coating to avoid further pollution. Take this opportunity to check your anodes for wear, too, and replace them if necessary.
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