There’s a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration surrounding the actual cost of sailboat ownership. Some of it is bluster, but some of it is very real – there can be substantial costs to owning a sailboat. And if you’re thinking about getting a boat, budgeting for one is critical. It’s no fun owning a boat you can’t afford to use.
Sailboats come in unlimited sizes and conditions, so there is no one-size-fits-all number that applies to every boat. Storing a Laser in your backyard will obviously cost less than campaigning a forty-foot race boat all over the coast, or owning a fifty-foot blue water cruiser. But there are common costs for any sailboat, and for that we can give you some guidelines that can help you figure out what you need to budget.
To do this, we’ll give a list of expense categories a boat might incur, and some guidelines for how they’re different by size, type and use of the boat.
Size matters a lot. Many ongoing boat services and needs are charged by the foot, so a bigger boat is more expensive for things like slip rentals, haul outs, dry storage, painting, covering, and so on. If your boat is small enough, you can skip some of these services completely, or do them yourself with little effort.
But larger size also limits some services and creates other expenses. For example, you can put a twenty-two foot boat on a trailer to move it, but boats much larger that 28 feet often need to be moved by a special truck. Once you get into the 40′ range and above, moving the boat over land may be impossible for many boats, and possible for others only by doing expensive things like removing the keel.
Small sailboats can eliminate major expenses. That trailerable twenty-two footer can live in your driveway or a parking lot off the water, cutting your storage costs to near zero. And small boats you can haul yourself and step the rig without a yard’s help.
Age and Condition Matter in Different Ways
An important takeaway from the size discussion is that the by-the-foot expenses aren’t affected by the price or age of your boat. There’s also no break for an old, inexpensive boat compared to a new one. The slip rental for a forty-footer is the same whether it’s a 30-year-old project boat or a brand new sailboat at 100 times the cost.
New boats are expensive, and there’s an immediate drop in value the second it becomes a used boat. Lightly used boats are often a good value, but are still not cheap. But new sailboats and lightly used boats take less work. You won’t be restoring gelcoat, rebuilding engines, or replacing worn out cushions.
Used sailboats have a lower upfront purchase price, but you can expect to spend an additional 10-20% of that price on refits and updates in the first few seasons. Newer boats typically just need bottom paint, cleaning and waxing, and routine maintenance.
When looking at the total cost to own a sailboat, factor in the extra work you’ll need on an older, less expensive boat versus a newer boat in better shape. There are good options on both ends of the price and age spectrum, but pay close attention to expenses fixed for your size and what you must do to bring the boat into acceptable condition.
General Ownership Costs
Every sailboat from an Optimist pram up to a biggest yachts have ongoing ownership costs. They are inescapable, but you can plan for them and minimize some costs. Smaller boats are cheaper, and the relationship of size to costs is not linear. The complexity of the design combined with how you use it affects your overall costs of owning a sailboat.
The sail inventory on a heavily raced Transpac 52 costs a lot more than a 52 foot cruising boat that needs new sails every 5-10 years. But the race boat won’t have complex household systems, and you can spend a lot of money fixing and replacing water makers and air conditioning.
Every boat needs a place to live when it’s not in use. In the water, this is a slip in a marina or yacht club, or a mooring. Trailerable boats and dinghies can often duck this expense. But if you need storage near the water it will cost you each summer for rack or parking lot space.
The costs of slips and moorings varies by geography, and different regions still have much local variation. Slips in seasonal areas like New England are often priced and rented for the entire summer season, with different contracts for off-season storage. Year round sailing areas like Florida rent slips monthly.
Close access to open water is always more expensive than marinas up river and bays where you need to travel a couple of hours before you hit the open. This isn’t a bad thing for smaller sailboats which don’t travel far and cruise locally. But there is a substantial price difference between a slip in Jamestown or Newport, RI near the bay entrance and one ten miles from the ocean.
Sample Pricing, Seasonal Sailboat Storage:
- Mooring in Jamestown, RI: $100.00/ft.
- Mooring in East Greenwich, RI: $65.00/ft.
- Slip in East Greenwich, RI: $123.00 to $155.00/ft.
Sailors in temperature climates with limited sailing seasons also have to plan for winter storage. You’ll need to haul out and wash the bottom, then block and cover the boat for the winter.
Because a boat operates in a hostile environment, the systems are always under attack from water, salt, moisture, and corrosion. Everything from refrigeration to roller furling needs care, cleaning, and maintenance. You can and should do some if this yourself, but if you hire someone, it may cost you anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour, depending on the skills needed for the task and local pricing.
Engines and generators need periodic servicing, as do winches, windlasses and other moving parts. Routine annual services may include bottom painting, replacing zincs, anti-fouling propellers, and seasonal commissioning.
Several times a summer you’ll need to give your boat a good cleaning to keep her shine, and at least one coat of wax and a buffing in the spring. Hiring someone may cost you from $15 to $40 per foot, depending on the work needed.
Regular cleaning after use cuts down buildup and staining, but boat owners on moorings may struggle with this since they don’t have easy access to fresh water for wash downs.
Sail costs depend on how you plan to sail your boat. This is generally the largest varying cost to own a sailboat. Casual weekend sailors may buy one suit of sails and use it for years, well past the point where racing sailors would tear their hair out in frustration from bad sail shape. Racers may buy new sails every year, or even more than one suit at the highest levels of the sport.
Your choice of sailcloth and construction affects sail cost; a high tech load-path racing sail may cost several times as much as a basic Dacron sail. That racing sail makes no sense for a family cruiser on an older boat, but a competitive racing program may inexpensive delivery sails to spare the expensive racing sails between events.
Racing competitively takes the biggest sail budget, casual cruising has the lowest. Sail expenses are discretionary, to a point. You need at least one suit of workable sails for every boat, but the rest is all about your plans expectations.
A class-legal sail for a small dinghy like a Laser cost $600-$700, but you can buy a practice sail you can’t race with for a fraction of that. A carbon fiber load-path laminate sail for a forty-foot race boat can run $5,000 to $8,000. Sail prices increase rapidly with size.
Budget a little for sail maintenance and repairs, too. Especially if you plan to keep your sails for a while. Proper cleaning and storage will extend their life, as will an annual inspection by your sailmaker for weak spots, chafe, and loose stitching.
You can save some serious money buying used, high-quality sails here on Sailtrader. Whether you’re looking for practice sails, delivery sails, or a suit for club racing, you don’t have to always buy new to get a good sail with some life in it.
Most marinas require liability insurance as part of the storage contract. Even if they don’t, it’s not a bad idea to carry it, even if your own sailboat isn’t expensive. You may find yourself targeted to pay thousands of dollars in repair bills to the boats if your boat damages other boats.
If you take out a boat loan, a hull policy on your boat is mandatory. Even if you pay cash, it may be worth insuring a newer, more expensive boat.
Liability policies are much cheaper, maybe only a few hundred dollars depending on where you sail. A hull policy will vary with the value of your boat, and older, less expensive boats may not be worth insuring since the premiums can be quite high.
Making Your Boat Budget
If there are two words to describe the cost of owning a sailboat, they’d be “wildly variable.” It’s quite difficult to know all the factors for your specific boat and how you will use it. What you can do is estimated. Once you’ve decided on the type of boat you want, you can start combing the web and making phone calls to get hard numbers. This is best to do before you buy, so you know what you’re getting into.
There is also a rule of thumb to get you started. Like every boat’s cost, it’s affected by how you use the boat and its condition. For newer boats you don’t plan to race, plan at least 10% of the purchase price for annual maintenance and operating costs. Older boats estimate closer to 20%, since the per foot costs are fixed. If you can’t cover that much annually, then consider a smaller boat.