If you're thinking about getting your first boat, there are a lot of costs to account for. But you can save huge dollars if you know where to look for them.
B.O.A.T. - "Break out another thousand!"
"Want to experience boat ownership? Stand in a cold shower and tear up hundred-dollar bills!"
There are a lot of jokes about the cost of owning a boat, and all of them have the slight sting of truth. Or not so slight. Even a small, old boat that costs very little to buy can run up big yard bills and expenses.
Boats run up bills in a lot of ways - storage, operation, repairs, equipment, and maintenance account for the bulk of them. If you can cut costs in these categories, you can get more bang for your boating dollar and spend a little less time standing in that cold shower.
How to save money on boat ownership?
- Use moorings instead of slips
- Wet storage is cheaper than dry storage
- Store your boat in a cheaper location
- Avoid fake 'marine' label products
- Buy second-hand where possible
- Don't break things
- Build your maintenance skills
- Prepare any professional jobs yourself
- Do small maintenance yourself
- Sail instead of motoring
- Get the right insurance
In this article, I'll give you my insider tips to save money on boat ownership. There is one that will save you hundreds of dollars alone, and some are so easy you won't believe it.
In this article:
This guide has ideas to help you save a few bucks in each category, so read on and take a few lessons to the bank.
All boats need a home and keeping your boat some place is a constant drain of cash that doesn't do much to improve the boat or increase your enjoyment of it. You can make some choices about how you store the boat, and if you're willing to put up with a little hassle, you can save a lot of money.
Use moorings instead of slips
Slips are wonderful. They're convenient, quick, and easy. The boat is always plugged in with batteries charged and ready to go for the weekend. You can always wash your boat or work on it, and you can come down after work and sit in the cockpit with a beer just soaking up the marina ambience. And you can keep that beer cold because you're always plugged in to shore power.
But slips are very expensive.
If your boat need not be plugged in all the time and you're willing to spend time getting on and off it, you will save a ton of money on a mooring. Depending on the mooring, you can save from 50% to 90% of the costs of a seasonal slip in a marina. Since annual slip fees run into thousands of dollars, this adds up to big savings.
There are downsides to a mooring. You can't leave refrigerators and battery chargers running. Loading the boat can be a nuisance, if it's you, a tiny rowboat and three other people. Major work you do is more of a challenge, if you're like me and forget things in the car and need three trips to the chandlery for every project. And marine vendors may not want to come to the boat to work on it.
But with what you're saving in dockage, you can bring the boat into a transient slip if you need to. And if you have the boat in a marina with a temporary dock for loading and unloading, you can bring the boat in to take on people and supplies.
Wet storage is cheaper than dry storage
You can save money on a typical winter storage a few ways. If can trailer your boat, storage your boat away from a marina will be cheaper. Your driveway (spouse and HOA permitting), an old barn, a parking lot at a storage facility or off-season business are a few ideas. A little asking around can save you a lot.
Wet storage is often less expensive than hardstand storage, and saves the costs of hauling, blocking, and launching. The boat takes more monitoring and there are risks in the water, but it can be much cheaper and you can work on your boat without climbing a ladder.
If you plan to keep your boat for a long time, a permanent cover instead of shrink-wrap will pay for itself in a few years. It's not a great option if you're cash-strapped today, but if you can do it, a cover will last many years and cut your annual costs.
Winterizing your own boat is not that difficult, and worth learning to do. It's a great way to save money AND know you did the work right.
Store your boat in a cheaper location
How far are you willing to drive to your boat? How far are you willing to sail or motor from your mooring to get to open water? We used to live up the bay from Newport, RI, one of the world's sailing capitols. Newport is great, but not a cheap place to store your boat. A two hour sail up the bay, you’re spending a fraction on dockage and moorings. You lose the quick jump from Newport out to the Cape and Islands, but that two extra hours of travel time on your trip saves a ton of money.
Sometimes it's a longer drive to your boat, sometimes it's a longer drive ON your boat. The last isn't so bad, since we like being on our boats, anyway. But if you store your boat a little further from the beaten path, you can save good money.
What Not to Do
A few things not to do with storage...these are ways to cost yourself more in the long run.
- Don't consider anchoring your boat for permanent storage. It's a risky way to keep your boat.
- Do not stint on winterizing your boat or covering it well. You won't be happy if you end up with water damage.
- And do not store your boat some place insecure, either for the winter or the sailing season. Theft is expensive, even with insurance.
Selling boat stuff is big business. From wonder-care products that beautify your boat in a flash, to the latest and greatest safety gadgets and gizmos, there are a million ways to nibble away at your bank account. Some things you need...many you do not. And many you can get some place else without a "marine" markup.
Avoid the mysterious 'marine' labels and brands
There's truth to joke that slapping "Marine" on a product is often enough to double the price. While many things are labeled "marine" because special consideration was taken in manufacturing, often you find the same products in other stores for less money under a different label.
"Marine grade" makes sense for some items. Electrical components like pumps are ignition protected or sealed against water. Quality copper wiring for boats is "tinned" instead of plain copper and is stranded wire, not solid. Some chemicals and compounds are made to cure underwater or repel water.
But other things you can find in a hardware store, mass retailer, or auto parts store. We've found tinned copper wire in an electronics store for half the price as a chandlery. Oil change pads, cleaning supplies, jerry cans, engine oil, and other "boat" products may cost 20% less if you buy them away from the water. Even RV Antifreeze is the same as boat antifreeze for winterizing your systems, and costs a buck or two less per gallon.
Two-stroke engine oil is NOT one of those things to buy without a marine label. Outboard oil for two strokes should have a TC-W3 rating, generic "two stroke oil" for chainsaws and leaf-blowers does not have the same additives and physical characteristics and will harm your engine in the long term.
That doesn't mean you have to buy your TC-W3 oil in a marine specific store, but make sure the oil you buy is the right type.
And many "branded" parts from marine vendors are relabeled, mundane components. We once needed a bridge rectifier for our generator (about $40, special order), and I found an exact duplicate for five bucks in an electronic components store. We bought two...why not have a spare? A $25.00 "refrigeration relay" is the same $4.00 relay you can buy in any auto parts store. Many filter manufacturers sell oil and fuel filters which are 100% compatible with your engine for a fraction of the cost of one with a "Volvo" or "Westerbeke" label on them.
Be careful to compare specifications and compatibility. Look at the parts or filters you need to replace and check numbers, some things look similar but are not. That bridge rectifier and those relays had numbers on them that told what they did and what their capabilities were, so I knew they'd work. Filters will often have a "crosscheck" list to match the third party filter to the manufacturer's part number for the OEM filter.
Buy second hand when possible
There is always a secondary market for used boating gear, and many waterfront communities have good marine consignment shops. These are the bane of the marine retail industry, which always has the newest, brightest flashing gizmos at the boat show for you to buy. But if you need some gear for your boat, you can often find some good deals.
You can find stoves, heaters, spare parts, winches, winch handles, safety gear, windlasses, anchors, and many other things. The electronics are often dated and not worth much, but you may find a treasure like a display for your out-of-production radar unit or instruments. Finds like this let you keep using the electronics you have instead of replacing your otherwise functional gear with new systems, a huge money saver.
The other strong suit of the secondary market is all the obsolete gear out there that may be on your old boat. Do you need some parts for that old Barient winch on your thirty-year-old boat? You can't buy it new. The molds are gone. But you might find the whole winch for a good price. And a winch handle that fits. If you've got an older boat (like most budget boaters), there's a chance may find that matching, out-of-production bow light on the shelves of a consignment shop.
E-bay, Craigslist, and some boating website classifieds are also excellent sources of used or hard to find gear. And many out-of-town consignment shops will check their inventories and ship things if you call and ask.
Like anything, be careful of what you purchase. Anything which might wear out of chafe, like PFDs and safety gear, needs to be triple-checked to make sure it's solid. And some things...well, they're obsolete for a reason.
Maintenance and Repairs
The most obvious way to save money on repairs is ... wait for it ...don't break things. While this seems flip, taking a little extra time and care when you're using the boat and between uses can save you big money on repair bills. A few pieces of advice on preventing breakages...
Don't break things
- Take it slow and easy. Especially maneuvering in close quarters where you can crunch fiberglass.
- Check the weather. It's not just about safety; foul weather shreds sails, breaks lines, damages canvas, and causes all sorts of harm if you get stuck in it.
- Don't force things. If it's not moving, don't force it - clean it, lubricate it and be gentle. In a hostile marine environment, corrosion, dirt and salt will make things stiff or frozen. Forcing stuck throttles or blocked heads is just going to break things and cost more.
- Do the maintenance. Keep moving things lubricated and clean, change the oil and filters, and all those other pesky tasks. They're recommended for a reason, and things break down when they aren't done.
- Rinse everything with fresh water as often as you can. Salt causes many hassles and failures.
Build your maintenance skills
The best way to save money on repairs is to do the work yourself. While parts are expensive, they're finite and discrete - you'll only need one replacement starter for a starter replacement. But labor costs...those are unlimited. A technician can and will work on something for as long as it takes.
And even a minor job may be rounded to the nearest hour. I once asked a yard to "winterize my batteries" and was billed an hour for the task. And the job that took an hour? Disconnecting the negative lead from the battery. It took me a minute to reconnect in the spring, and the next year I did it myself.
With labor costs running from $50 to $200 an hour, learning basic fixes and repairs yourself will save a bundle. And if a job is beyond you, at least you know enough to talk to the pros when you call.
There are many ways to learn about maintenance and repairs. Seminars and classes ae offered on maintenance and repair tasks by clubs and associations, and many boat shows have seminars. You can take classes at a vocational school. Though that isn't cheap, it pays for itself.
The way a lot learn though is with a good repair book, a set of tools, and a free weekend. Investing in a few tools and some quality marine how-to books is a great way to start with a modest task.
Prepare any professional jobs yourself
Sometimes...many times, really, a repair may be beyond our technical ability. That's okay because some knowledge of a problem saves you money when you hire someone.
Knowing about the problem and the fix, even if you can't do it, gives you an idea of the work involved. You can read an estimate and understand the scope of the work.
Most professionals will not want your "help" while they're working. But they love it if you do some mundane tasks before they arrive so they can get right to the job, and button up when they go. Every time I had a yard remove my mast, I did most of the preparation. I'd disconnect the wiring, open up the panels they needed access to, and get almost everything ready. When stepping in the spring, I'd handle the electrical connections and closing up everything. This saved several hours of yard labor on each side, and hundreds of dollars on the job.
So when you are hiring someone, ask them what you can do so they can get right to work. It may be something as small as removing mattresses and panels to give access to work area, or emptying a couple of cabinets, lifting floorboards, or disassembling cabinetry. Someone has to do it, and you will pay the same hourly rate for disassembling those cabinets as for the actual repair.
Do small maintenance yourself
If you pick up a few skills of your own, you can save a lot of money. Routine maintenance prevents breakdowns, and there's no need to pay someone to do most of it.
A partial list of routine maintenance tasks that are not challenging but are often hired out include:
- Engine oil changes
- Engine impeller changes
- Winterizing the engine
- Winterizing household systems
- Compounding and waxing the hull
- Polishing stainless steel and brass
- Most spring commissioning tasks
You may not have time for all these, or don't want to spend all your time off on boat work. Some tasks like compounding the hull can be grueling and take a lot of time. But if you are looking to save some money, none of these tasks takes a lot of skill and doing only a couple of them will cut costs.
Sailboat owners don't have massive fuel bills to face like our powerboat friends. But fuel costs and other operating expenses are real and add up. A few tips to save money while using your boat include:
- Sail more. Wind is free, it's why we're out there. And not using the engine saves fuel, oil changes and maintenance. This takes more patience, and sometimes a less ambitious schedule.
- Clean your bottom. A dirty bottom sails and motors inefficiently. If you can not sail well, you're more tempted to motor on shorter trips when you need to get there and back again in a weekend. Extra hours of inefficient motoring is a double whammy on fuel costs.
- Don't flog your gear. You take more life out of a sail flogging it for a few minutes than you do sailing well-trimmed it for hours. Flogging sails, canvas and lines lead to chafe and wear, ruining gear before its time.
- Get comfortable anchoring out. Learn to enjoy sleeping at anchor instead of paying for moorings or slips. Anchoring is free, and a great way to have a quieter night once you master the skills.
- Liability Insurance. You want a "hull insurance" policy on an expensive boat, but many lower value boats can get by with liability-only policies at a fraction of the cost. You can spend 20% or more of an older boat's replacement value on a hull policy annual premium, which may not be worth it.
- Do not skip liability insurance. You can still cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to other boats, even if your own boat is older and inexpensive. It's worth the peace of mind.