Might as well be 30

I got a call a few weeks ago from someone with a sailboat that they wanted to move from Saugatuck over to Chicago where it would be closer to home and easier to use. With any relocation my first question is always “How big is it…”, especially when it involves crossing the lake. I won’t go straight over in anything less than 30 feet in length, and I won’t go in any powerboat that doesn’t have twin engines. Since this was a 30-foot sailboat I was willing to discuss the trip and scheduled a time to meet with the owner.

Before we hung up I asked a few other questions and found out the couple had owned the boat for two years and it was in really good shape. In my mind anyone who has had a boat that long has probably been out on the water enough times to figure out what works and what doesn’t, so I asked some general questions about the boat’s condition which gave me the information I needed beforeI can decide to take a look at the vessel and decide on a plan.

I met with the owner to inspect the boat, which was stored inside a fairly dark building. My first thought as I got close to the boat was that it was definitely not 30 foot in length. I asked the owner what size sailboat it was and he replied, “Oh, well… it’s actually a 27 footer but it might as well be 30.”

Might as well be.

Sorry, but a 27 foot long boat is not a 30 foot boat. It may be 30 when you add in the bow pulpit or a swim platform, but the actual vessel part of the vessel will still be 27 feet long. It will also be lighter, thinner, and have a shorter keel. The boat will not have any of the other characteristics of a 30 foot model. Unless of course it IS a 30 foot model.

Since it was an older boat and we had discussed a two day, hug-the-shoreline path from Saugatuck to Chicago I decided I might as well look over the rest of the boat. However, while chatting with the owner other discrepancies began to emerge. Besides the minor difference in size, it also turned out that they had not really owned the boat for two years. When I asked again how long they had been running the boat the owner said “Oh, well… this is actually the beginning of our second year”. When I asked for more detail about the time they had spent on the water I got back “Oh, well… we’ve been up and down the river a few times”. Which also means they had never put up the sails.

When I asked about the condition of the sails the owner said “Oh, well… I think they are probably Ok”. Which I know knew meant they had never really been inspected. My interest in spending any time out on the open water with this particular vessel was fading fairly quickly at this point, but I figured I might as well go the last few steps and asked to see the engine and interior. At the top of the ladder I was greeted with a tiller. But, my favorite part of the day happened when we went into the cabin and while chatting, I became aware of an odor which could be coming from a highly flammable substance. Since the owner had been painting the bottom when I got there, I asked, “Is that you I smell or… is there a fuel leak?”. It was a fuel leak. I was hoping he might have been cleaning up and spilled acetone or paint thinner on his shirt, but nope. No such luck. Worse yet, he knew about it and felt it was too unimportant to bring up.

When I pulled open the engine access door I found a puddle of gas about 3 inches deep in the bilge. I fought back the urge to flee and spent a few minutes looking for the origin of the fuel puddle, which I didn’t find. That was pretty much the end of my interest in moving the boat anywhere, ever, and I climbed back down the ladder.

My last bit of discussion with the owner was to urge him to have the sails inspected and get the marina to look at the fuel problem well before their scheduled launch day. Especially since there was a very real chance he could kill himself and burn down the building just by hooking up the batteries. He retrieved the sails from the cabin and while he was passing them down to me I got a look into the top of the first sail bag… and found a ripped sail. I didn’t even have to dig for that one. The one small part that was visible from the mouth of the bag gave me a nice, clear look at the probable condition of the rest of the sail inventory. At that point, I was pretty much “out”.

I left the owner with the number of our local sail guy and headed for the hills.

I honestly don’t think people are aware of how much trouble they can get in by taking a smaller vessel out on the open water of the Great Lakes, let alone any body of water. With a questionable engine system and sails you can’t count on there is a very real chance you could be stuck out there with no easy way to get back to shore. The most likely outcome is that you will be floating around with no way in, and this time of year, no other boats to flag down. Even being a half mile away from the beach is enough to kill you if you are caught out there with a fire in the bilge. The water is only about 45 degrees in the spring, and if you are forced to jump overboard hypothermia will do you in before someone can get out there to rescue you.

If you are going to ask someone to run your vessel to another port you have to be honest with yourself, and especially with the captain. You can’t hide, intentionally or unintentionally, the condition or dimensions of the boat from the guy who is putting his own safety on the line. First, if he has enough experience he will notice a little issue like the gasoline smell wafting up from the bilge, or the three feet of boat that is not sticking out of the front. This is not actually that hard to miss.

27 is not 30, no matter how many ways you do the math.

Be safe…