Since the early days of fiberglass boatbuilding, techniques for making boats strong and leak-resistant — and cheaper and easier to build — have advanced steadily. The accepted method for most boats today is to mold the hull, deck, and possibly an interior pan, as separate units, often with tabs, stringers, bulkhead reinforcements and other details included. The hull is equipped with what it needs, for example an engine, fuel tanks, water tanks, bunks, and so forth, and then the deck is installed permanently on top of it. Today’s hull-to-deck joints are fiberglassed to make a monocoque construction, or bonded with extra-tough sealant and stainless fasteners. They are not meant to come apart. Ever.
Yet some boatbuilders, anxious to get boats out the door and make a sale, can be incredibly lazy, or shortsighted, or downright cynical when they seal in equipment that’s eventually going to need to be maintained or replaced. When you’re looking at used boats, be vigilant about these things. Don’t let a shiny gelcoat and a good-looking engine keep you from digging a little deeper into your possible future with the boat.
Here are five items that you should be wary of. It’s not a full list, but it should serve to get your antennae working.
Tanks that are installed under the deck without access points (preferably inspection ports that offer a view straight to the deepest parts of the tanks) are likely to need attention after a certain number of years, especially metal tanks that hold ethanol-laced gasoline. Plastic tanks aren’t as susceptible to corrosion, but their connections can still fail. Sometimes the only way to get at them is to saw open the deck above them.
In inboard boats, changing the packing in a traditional stuffing box is a chore that needs to happen every few seasons, and the packing gland itself will probably need to be tightened even more often. Builders sometimes install items above or around the stuffing box in ways that make it difficult to access.
Plastic Through-Hull Fittings
Plastic through-hull drains at and above the waterline are susceptible to UV degradation. A decade in the hot sun can make them brittle and easily broken. If they fail, you’ll end up seeing daylight through a hole in your hull, and that daylight may only be a couple of inches above your waterline. Can you get to every one of those through-hull fittings, or is one or more locked away, out of reach?
Whether the boat you’re looking at has cable steering or a hydraulic system like Teleflex, figure out how you’re going to be able to access the most important parts of it. Can you get to both ends of the hydraulic lines? Can you adjust your cable system easily? Are there chafe points to worry about? Thoughtful builders will usually install a messenger line in case new hydraulic lines or cables need to be pulled through inaccessible spaces.
There’s no such thing as a screw-type hoseclamp that doesn’t eventually need tightening, whether it’s working on seacock plumbing, an engine hose, or a piece galley equipment. But it’s easy to find —- or not find — hoseclamps that have been blocked off behind some other piece of gear or sealed behind a piece of fiberglass, never to be thought of again — until they fail. The more complex the boat you’re looking at, the more you’ll need to take note of its hoseclamp population.
None of this is meant to scare you away from a used boat that you really think is right for you. Almost every boat is home to a few access problems. Just don’t let them surprise you, and if you see a ton of them in one boat, then factor in the time and expense of dealing with each of them if and when the time comes.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2016 and updated in June 2018.