You often hear people cite “a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour your money”; a depressing maxim and a discouraging misconception missing the point that a sailboat is a vessel for priceless experiences as well as a place to live. If you feel like your boat is a bottomless pit just swallowing up your money, you either have the wrong boat or you are doing something terribly wrong.
But that said, boats do need a lot of attention and work, salt water is a ruthless destroyer of pretty much any material, and developing problems must be dealt with immediately before they turn into major problems.
But with a good sailboat and good seamanship, a boat will easily outlive the sailor, and it is not entirely rare to find 100-year-old wooden boats still going strong on the water.
Sailboats are as diverse as the people who sail them, also when it comes to endurance, some boats are built paper thin with the intention of providing light and cheap solutions for casual bay sailors, and others are built to be indestructible to withstand the labors of ice-breaking.
In this article, we will look at the different kinds of sailboat construction and other important boat components and their longevity and discuss how proper maintenance can help keep your boat afloat.
And just to set the tone, one witty sailor once said: “Keep the water out and the mast up, and the rest is a luxury”
Hull Construction “Keep the Water Out”
So, starting with the most important point: “Keep the water out” let’s talk hull construction.
Every boat construction has its advantages and disadvantages, and when trying to estimate the longevity of a boat, hull construction and maintenance are key factors.
It is therefore important to consider that when you choose a hull construction you also choose your labor, whether carpentry, steel work, or fiberglassing, your care and skill will be a major factor in keeping your boat alive.
Just to give you some examples, we will look at three of the most common hull constructions below. Other hull constructions include Composites, Aluminum, and Ferro-cement.
Starting with the traditional boat-building material, we are here looking at a construction that has been practiced and perfected over thousands of years all over the world. But there is a large range of different wood types, whereof some are less than ideal in the marine environment and others have incredible resistance to the elements and could hypothetically last forever if properly looked after. But wooden boats are no doubt a material that needs close attention and proper maintenance, and this is due to the undeniable fact that wood can rot, and if a problem is not addressed immediately, it can quickly turn into a rotten disaster.
By far the most popular hull construction nowadays, fiberglass is in theory the easiest sailboat to maintain. But that said, just like wood rots, fiberglass also has its weaknesses, and osmosis, if not properly treated, can be fatal to a fiberglass sailboat. Furthermore, not all fiberglass sailboats are the same, and there is a modern tendency to build them thinner and lighter than back in the day, making some newer fiberglass sailboats much more fragile and in some cases, even unfit for sailing in harsh conditions. Therefore, many blue-water sailors, often seek out older models, to get thicker and sturdier hull material. This is an example of, “new is not necessarily better”, and that the age of a boat, does not at all indicate how long it has left to live.
Some people love them, and some people would not touch them with a 20-foot spinnaker pole. Steel sailboats are no doubt some of the strongest sailboats out there, yet if not properly maintained, they can leave you chasing rust forever. When purchasing a second-hand steel boat, it is, therefore, crucial to really assess its condition and make sure that the previous owner has taken proper care of it. And when a rust spot presents itself, attack it straight away and get it sealed up.
Rigging “Keep the Mast up”
The second point “Keep the mast up” of course refers to the maintenance of the rigging. Failing rigging is a recipe for disaster and can cause the mast to come down, putting both boat and crew in serious danger of injury or at worst, death.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and so it is also for the rigging, and there is no use in your stays being spanking new if the shackle or turnbuckle holding it to the chainplates is rusting away. But exactly how long does rigging last before it needs replacing?
The most common type of rigging is stainless steel wire as it is strong and virtually needs no maintenance once it is up and tuned. A rule of thumb is that stainless steel rigging should be replaced after 10 years, and most insurance companies won’t insure your rigging if it is any older. This is due to the hidden damages of stainless steel, which does not always show its wear, but can snap suddenly without any visible signs or warnings. That said, many boats, not dictated by the insurance companies, get significantly longer out of their rigging,
More traditional boats and tall ships might instead have galvanized rigging, which if properly maintained can last for as long as 20 years or even more. The advantage of galvanized is the ability to see the condition it is in, as it rusts rather than breaks. However, due to its higher maintenance and the difficulty of sourcing quality wire, galvanized is usually not used on modern cruising boats.
Sails and Running Rigging
The sails on your boat are your wings and without your wings, you go nowhere, at least not for free. So having good sails and taking good care of them is essential for keeping your boat in good shape and fit for sailing. But unlike your boat, even with good care, there is only so much maintenance you can do, eventually, your sails need replacing.
Exactly how long your sails will last, depends on a few factors such as sail material, sail use, and how you expect them to perform. To a racer who needs perfect sail retention, the lifespan of a sail is going to be significantly shorter than to a cruiser who will tolerate a bit more sag and perhaps even send a ripped sail to the sailmaker to be repaired. But generally speaking, you can expect to get about 5 to 10 years out of your sail, and maybe even as much as 20 years for some cruising Dacron sails.
Although we are talking sailboats, we must also talk engines, as nowadays the engineless sailor has become a bit of a rarity. But how long does a marine engine last?
Just to give you an idea, on my boat, we run a marinized 66-year-old Fordson Major Tractor engine, which–knock on wood–just keeps on ticking away. It is a very reliable engine, much more tolerant to hard use and things such as dirty fuel than modern engines, and the huge advantage is the cheap upkeep as most spare parts can be purchased in a Tractor shop rather than a chandlery.
Most engines fail due to improper maintenance and neglect, and one of the worst things you can do to your engine is not to use it. With proper maintenance, a well-built engine can run forever and certainly outlive your own sailing life.
To keep your engine happy, make sure to perform regular engine services, changing things such as filters, oil, belts, and impellers. The trick is to notice the disaster before it happens and this you can do by regularly checking your engine when underway. On my boat, we do an engine check every half an hour, where we check for leaks, wear on the fanbelt, take the temperature and check for proper water flow, and this has many times prevented major disasters.
If the engine is not happy, it will usually tell you, so keep your ear sharpened for any changes in sound.
A boat left un-sailed is a Neglected boat
Unlike so many other things which can be preserved by keeping it unused, NOT sailing your boat can actually be bad for it. So many things onboard rely on frequent use: The engine must be run to keep it oiled or it will slowly rust and the diesel go bad, the winches must be spun and greased or they will cease up, the sails must be flown or they will mold, pipes and through-hulls must be used or they will block, and the boat must be aired out or it will quickly become victim of an infestation of mildew. A crucial part of keeping your boat happy is to frequently use it, and that is a beautiful convenience.
So, to answer the question, what is the lifespan of a sailboat? the answer is rather unclear as it depends on so many factors; a sailboat can fall to pieces after 2 years, or it can last for 100 years. But the moral of the story is, that new is not always better, and purely looking at the age of a boat, will not tell you how long it has left on the water. Knowing a boat’s history: how it has been built and maintained by previous owners, will severely help you understand its longevity. And with all of that in mind, take pleasure in knowing that if you purchase a well-built sailboat and look after it, your boat can outlive you.