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