A tale of three Jonahs

By Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

Problems come in various guises: the 55-foot motor yacht (top); the Lagoon 42 cat (above left); and a Mainship 35 (above right). Photos courtesy Capt. Michael L. Martel

These are true, and sorry, tales of three boat deliveries, all endured in a single summer. Two of the boats were large, twin-screw power cruisers; one was a big catamaran. Each delivery ended up being financially disastrous (with further potential for being even greater losses) for the new owners. Yet all could have been, to some extent, easier, or certainly less troublesome. And financial losses could have been avoided, or at least mitigated to a large extent, if preparation, research, common sense and due diligence had been exercised by the owners before leaving the dock.

For lack of readiness to go to sea, these three vessels did a number on their owners as well as their delivery skippers and crews.

The 55-foot motor yacht

The first trip, one that never got off the dock, was the delivery of a 55-foot, twin-screw motor yacht from the upper Chesapeake to the new owner’s home in the Florida panhandle. The owner and his wife were retired, successful business people, and he had bought the boat for a very rock-bottom price through a broker. The previous owner was a man who had been living aboard at a covered Maryland slip for 15 years.

The boat had been built in Argentina in 1995 and rarely run. The hired captain and I, shipping as mate, noted right away that of the four marine toilets aboard, only one worked, and that infrequently. It was in the owner’s stateroom, since he and his wife were making the trip with us, and their cabin was forbidden territory. That was the beginning of the problems.

The big red flag for me was the wheelhouse, or bridge. It seemed to be a 1995 time capsule: There were no new electronics or other navigational devices. The boat had gone nowhere for years, and boats that sit idle never get new systems, and the systems they have deteriorate.

The boat had made a 15-mile trip from where it had been purchased, and was now at a dock, tucked up in the mud on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Things began to go wrong quickly once we prepared to leave: Batteries went flat, and oil was leaking into the bilge from one of the engines. To make matters worse, a yard mechanic poured automatic-transmission fluid into a hydraulic system that ran on alcohol and glycol, resulting in an emulsion. In the end, the boat never got off the dock except to be hauled by the yard’s Travelift.

After spending a couple of nights in a motel eating pizza, the captain and I were sent home, the potential 18-day trip canceled. The owner complained that he was racking up $1,300 per day in hotel and restaurant fees, and wages, for the delivery crew, not to mention the yard bill and the Eastern Shore team of mechanics, who appeared to be better suited to working on Farmall tractors than boats.

Tempers had grown short and nasty exchanges followed. As another captain friend of mine said afterwards, shaking his head, “Never, ever bring in the delivery crew until the boat is absolutely ready to go and all checked out.” As we left, the owner talked about selling the boat, in all likelihood dumping it at a loss.

The 42-foot catamaran

For the second trip, I was hired to skipper an older Lagoon 42 catamaran from Turks and Caicos to Baltimore, owner aboard. The owner and his wife were retiring and had recently remarried. He ran a successful industrial business in the Baltimore area. She wanted a big boat, on which to have parties and impress their friends, and he wanted to make his new wife happy.

Neither of them had much boating experience, and certainly no sailing experience. This boat had probably been used in the charter business down in the Caribbean, and been replaced by a newer model. The cat was tired, but the owner appeared to have gotten a great deal on this boat, purchased in St. Martin from a broker who might have been the pirate Jean Lafitte.

The couple hired a captain, and he hired a crew, and they had a period of very bad weather after leaving St. Martin. The owner and his wife literally rolled around on the cabin sole, seasick, while the crew handled the boat in 12-foot seas. Ten days later, they stopped in Turks and Caicos, and the wife flew home to Baltimore. She’d had enough.

During the trip, the captain became ill with an infectious disease, systemic MRSA, and he had to be hospitalized and flown home. I was the replacement captain, on a first-class flight to Turks and Caicos.

Problems were apparent from the start. The boat had no radar, always-in-focus binoculars that were nearly useless, no SSB radio, and no means of communication other than a VHF radio below in the nav station. This VHF was internally set to international frequencies, so we had channels 16 and 68, but we couldn’t get NOAA weather radio when we neared the U.S. Coast. The owner had bought a handheld VHF in St. Martin from “Jean Lafitte,” but never tested it. It never worked. But he had a satellite phone, which he kept to himself, used once a day to talk to his wife, and then stowed back in his cabin.

Someone had backed the starboard hull into a dock in St. Martin and put a crack in the hull so that, while under way, we had to drain the engine compartment into the bilge every eight hours, then pump out on average 10 gallons of seawater. On top of that, unusually calm conditions meant we had to motor most of the trip.

After seven days, we went into Southport, N.C., nearly out of fuel. The voyage was terminated there because one of the crew contracted MRSA through a cut in his hand while the previous captain was aboard. Tempers flared as his hand began blowing up like a red balloon. He was taken to a hospital in Wilmington, then home to Norfolk, Va.; in the meantime, the other crewmember wanted to quit.

In desperation, the owner asked if just he and I could take the boat out around Cape Hatteras and home to Baltimore. I shook my head, telling him that this would be an unreasonable and unsafe proposition. We all spent the first night ashore in a hotel, and the next day the owner officially ended the trip. Again, I was on a flight home.

Later on, after the boat was thoroughly disinfected by the owner and his wife, they somehow got another crew to take the boat around Hatteras and home to Baltimore. By the time they got the boat home, they were $30,000 in the hole for dockage, crew wages and expenses, hotels, and medical treatments.

The 35-foot powerboat

This delivery, as crew aboard a late-1980s Mainship 35, was to be from Warwick, R.I., to Portland, Maine. After three tries, two failed engines – one overheating until it almost caught fire – the boat, last I knew, was sitting in a marina at the end of the Cape Cod Canal.

The boat’s twin gas Crusader 454 engines were not checked out before departure. They’d run fine from their point of purchase in Stonington, Conn., but when we tried to leave the marina in Warwick, a half-mile out engine No. 1 quit. We got her back in on one engine, a mechanic worked on her, and we set out again. Two miles later, engine No. 2 overheated, then quit, due to a raw-water pump belt failure. Back at the dock, repairs ostensibly were made, and we logged 55 miles, almost to Massachusetts Bay, when engine No. 2 died once again. Fuel-pump failures were suspected.

The owner, who’d bought the boat sight-unseen, became uncommunicative, and didn’t want to talk on the phone to get updates. The previous owner gave the captain and me a ride home from Sandwich, Mass., at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal, to our vehicles in Warwick. If the engines got a clean bill of health from the mechanic, we were going to try to finish the delivery. The owner had paid for fuel, for a couple of yard mechanics, and a week of dockage at a fishing pier in Sandwich. Some lessons, I guess, are harder to learn than others.

Lessons learned

If you’re considering buying a new or used boat, sail or power, here are my suggestions:

Purchase the boat for the right reasons, based on your needs, your own capabilities, and your ability to handle it. Bigger is not always better. Don’t be like a hungry shopper in a supermarket. If you buy too big a boat just to impress the woman in your life, and on the first trip she doesn’t want to go out onto the foredeck to hoist or take in sail, then you’ll need a crew every time you go out. Too much boat for an older couple with little boating experience, or without the purse to hire a crew, can be deadly.

Don’t purchase a boat sight-unseen, or off the internet, no matter how good a deal it seems to be. Be wary of “flipped” boats, where a dealer or broker has bought a tired older craft with multiple problems and put some wax on her and spray-painted the engines to look nice. That broker has put little or no money into the vessel, and you will be buying someone else’s problems they were eager to jettison.

Go through a boat of interest with a fine-toothed comb; any objections by the seller should raise a red flag. Do your homework, read up on that model, and see what others like her are selling for. Be annoyingly inquisitive. It’s your money and your safety at stake.

Invest in a comprehensive survey by a licensed surveyor. Be wary of a surveyor recommended by the broker; they are often in cahoots. Be sure to ask for credentials, and make a copy of them. Do not buy a big, used boat without a survey.

If your boat needs to be delivered a relatively short distance over water, go along for the ride. Delivery skippers often prefer not to have owners aboard, because they can be distractions, but sometimes, if the trip is short, it’s good for the new owner to be aboard, learn about the boat, and get in a little wheel time. Every used boat has quirks – things that don’t work or need to be operated a certain way – and it’s good for the new owner to learn about these issues first-hand, under professional guidance.

If your new boat has engines, pay a good mechanic to go through them thoroughly, including the fuel system, drive belts, etc., before departure. Most big marinas and yards have capable mechanics available at reasonable rates. Change all oil and fuel filters, and clean out the seawater strainers. Check raw-water impellers for health, and if they are old replace them. Check the coolant system, and everything else including the transmission or saildrive fluid. And make sure there are no issues with shafts or propellers. This attention to detail will pay dividends later.

Ensure that essential electronics are in order – including VHF, radar, chartplotter and GPS – and that you have a spare handheld VHF. For long offshore passages, you’ll need a lot more than that; I won’t do a delivery across the open ocean without a working, registered EPIRB, a working satellite phone, and a recently-inspected and serviced life raft.

Many modern, newer, and larger boats have even better gadgets and services, such as weather-routing and satellite communications that make weather forecasting a few days ahead rather simple. This only increases my comfort level. I don’t like driving dodgy boats with gear that doesn’t work. If I don’t feel that the boat can be safely moved to where the owner wants it to go, then I simply won’t go. It’s just not worth the risk.

Check all safety items. Fire extinguishers must be charged and in working order; life jackets should be in tip-top shape; flare and signaling kit has to be current; spare batteries and flashlights as well as first-aid kits must be inspected. And don’t forget a good pair of binoculars.

Hire a reputable delivery captain; let him or her crew up the boat, and be sure to vet the skipper and crew well. A good way to make the right choice is to use one of the professional delivery-skipper organizations. Probably the largest and best is the Chesapeake Area Professional Captain’s Association (CAPCA, www.capca.net). They don’t simply represent the Chesapeake: They have more than 300 licensed captains as members the length of the U.S. East Coast. They will be happy to help you line up someone safe, capable and professional, a much better bet than picking someone out of the classifieds.

Lastly, do not engage captain and crew until the boat is truly ready to sail. Once engaged, the clock is running, and you are liable for paying them every day that they are either under way or sitting around. There is no such thing as a lay day at sea. And remember: You are responsible for getting them to your boat, getting them home, and feeding them while they are in your service. The costs add up quickly, and they can be especially painful to the pocketbook if captain and crew are engaged in your service while your boat is sitting idly at the dock.

Capt. Mike Martel holds a 100-ton master’s license and delivers power and sail vessels when he’s not working on his own boat, the Alden-designed 1930 Maine-built gaff yawl Privateer. He is a lifelong boating and marine industry enthusiast, an ex-U.S. Coast Guard seaman, and a private boat owner and rebuilder.