How to buy an old boat as a project
– DIY yacht restoration advice

Yacht broker and part-time boat restorer Will Higgs shares his passion for buying old boats and making them as good as new

Growing up sailing on the East Coast it’s fair to say that I caught the bug pretty early on. Family sailing on my father’s yachts and starting in dinghies from the age of five, it was clear from the outset that boats were going to play a central role in my life in one form or another.

My first project boat was a dinghy which my dad brought home when I was around four years old. She was 7ft 6in length overall and far too wide to sail well, but she had a gunter rig, foils that needed varnishing, rubbing strakes to replace and a hull that needed painting. Her name was Jake and she was going to be my boat. I was hooked.

Through my teens the boats grew until at 18 I purchased my first yacht – a Hurley 20. I couldn’t have been prouder, she needed new windows and a complete repaint right through but she was mine and I poured every spare minute and penny I had into her for six months before she was ready for sea.

Now my family and I can cruise the West Country in relative comfort and have clocked up some respectable sea miles, not to mention a few stamps in the passport. But it all started from bailing out the cabin of that first Hurley and wondering where to start.

My first project boat: “She was 7ft 6in length overall and far too wide to sail well, but she had a gunter rig, foils that needed varnishing, rubbing strakes to replace and a hull that needed painting.”

Why refit a boat?

For some, the pleasure of bringing an old boat back to life is the driving force; for others it’s a means of getting afloat on a tight budget. Whatever the motivation, all boat restorers share a love of the sturdily built and seaworthy lines of craft designed, in many cases, over half a century ago.

Indeed it is the robust construction of these old hulls that has led to the wide availability of potential projects which can be found in the damp, dark corners of almost every boatyard in the country and I dare say the world over.

These are boats that were designed in the days when a family of four would have bravely put to sea in a 20-footer for their summer holiday and that are still robust enough to earn their keep not only as a vintage item to be varnished and polished, but also as originally intended – fully functional cruising yachts.

So what are the benefits? It’s clearly a major undertaking, a modest refit project could easily see you through six months’ worth of evenings and weekends – not to mention the expense. Why do so many start and fail to finish?

Firstly, a refit is an excellent way to get to know a boat. For the DIY boat owner it makes perfect sense to go through her with a fine-tooth comb and address any issues along the way. It’s an excellent way of stretching the budget: real value can be added to a project boat, so whether the plan is to keep it long term or trade up, the minimum result to aim for should be a newly refurbished boat for a similar cost to a tired one on the open market.

Those who undertake boat projects for the simple pleasure of returning something sore and neglected to its former glory can be seen standing back at the end of each day of work with the sun setting behind them and a satisfied smile on their face. The sweat and occasionally blood poured into their pride and joy barely registers against the surging pride at every inch closer the boat gets to touching down in the water.

Before and after images: This Dufour 2800 required a £3,500 restoration budget and 50 hours’ skilled labour

How much will a yacht restoration cost?

Even if you can commit £1,500 and 1-2 days per week for three months, you should still only be considering project boats under 26ft long.

The skill level, budget and timescale requirements increase exponentially with the size of the boat so careful planning and a couple of attempts with smaller craft first would be well advised.

As a case in point this Dufour 2800 (above) required a budget of close to £3,500 as well as 50 hours’ skilled labour. Keep control of the costs on a project – it really is possible to keep spending if you are not careful.

Key considerations when choosing a boat for a restoration project

Selecting the right project boat carries many of the same criteria as any yacht purchase might, with a few specific additions. Scope of use and budget are fairly standard considerations as is the availability of a suitable mooring. However, it is easy to forget about these important points when looking at a boat that may be months or even years away from her launch date.

How will the boat be used?

Picking a boat that’ll meet your requirements when she’s ready for sea is critical to a successful refit. There will be times when walking away will seem like the easiest option. On the days when the paint won’t wash off, the splinters won’t come out and the head is sore from banging it repeatedly against the bank balance, even the most ardent enthusiasts need a vision of the finished article to remind themselves why they started down this road. There are plenty of tough moments restoring old boats, but for me, thinking about launch day sees me through every challenge.

What is my budget? What is my skill level? How much time can I commit?

It may sound obvious but blowing the entire budget on buying a boat that will require significant additional repairs is a recipe for failure. At best it will result in extensive and unnecessary storage fees that will further eat into the budget and add to the overall costs.
There’s a certain principle of frugality at the heart of restoring boats and perhaps hand in hand with budget comes time. For these reasons it’s important to consider how big the boat really needs to be. A large project will incur far higher overheads and take much longer to complete. It is also more likely to require a higher level of expertise to tackle the more complex systems and structural issues.

Will it fit on my mooring?

It is advisable to have somewhere lined up to keep the boat before choosing one: the size and type of mooring available can play a part in the selection.

Pitfalls to avoid

The following hints and tips apply to beginner/intermediate standard DIYers on the majority of yachts. Ignore for boats with a high end value, or if you consider yourself to have a high skill level:

· Boats that are just a shell with no salvageable equipment. The cost of replacing gear can snowball very quickly so it’s important to factor this in before getting started

· Boats with faulty keelbolts can be expensive to put right and tackling it properly on a DIY basis is not for the faint-hearted.

· Avoid boats that are going to cost far more than their end value to put right. There’s nothing more soul destroying; check the market first!

· Boats that have major structural defects. There are plenty of boats out there that only need TLC.

· Boats that are too big for your budget and timescale will sap resources and demoralise. There are occasions where a refit could be programmed over months or even years, but as far as shoestring projects go, every week in the yard is added cost to be avoided.

Restoring a Leisure 20 for a client

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to take my lifelong passion to the next level, so I set up a brokerage through Imperial Yachtbrokers ( and started refurbishing yachts in a local yard where I have some history of carrying out boat projects for myself.

So far we have refitted a Sadler 29, a Dufour 28, and are in progress with a Westerly Centaur and a Westerly Griffin.

I was also approached by a lady at a local yacht club who wanted a daysailer/weekender to keep on a swinging mooring. We chatted about her requirements and settled on a Leisure 20 for its sailing characteristics and ease of handling while still providing overnight accommodation and somewhere to make a cup of tea!

She struggled to find a good example, so I had a look around and located one in a nearby yard that was in a sorry state but could be bought for £300 on condition we move it straight away. We sourced an engine, had her dropped in and motored her around to our base at the Lynher Boatyard in Torpoint to do the work, starting with emptying her of gear and cleaning her from end to end.

Leisure 20 as found in need of TLC – but was only £300 to buy

Hull was grubby but basically sound

Deck’s non-slip paint was looking worse for wear

Interior needed a good clean and a retrim to modernise

The brief with this boat was to keep her simple, set up for day sailing and with a minimum of potential failure points. One of our first jobs was to remove and glass in all of the through hull fittings as these would not be required.

We spent some time carrying out the usual sanding of woodwork and polishing of the hull. New vinyl decals were added to draw the eye and the deck paint was re-applied in a more modern looking light grey.

We also repaired the redundant screw holes in the mouldings and retrimmed the interior to make it functional and attractive.

Externally, we cleaned and applied silicone grease to all the fittings’ moving parts and replaced any fittings and lines that were broken or worn out. We then raised the mast, dressed it with sails and relaunched the boat ready for a shakedown en route to her new mooring.

There are few more satisfying moments than raising the sails for the first time on a resurrected boat.

Cleaned, polished and varnished – what a difference!

Launch day! There are few prouder moments…

Restored. Afloat. A Leisure 20 ready for new sailing adventures

Key figures

Initial purchase: £300
Yard costs: £330
Engine: £275
Misc parts: £400
Total : £1,305
Time commitment:
50 hours’ labour over four weeks

We had to allow for around 50 hours of labour as well as the costs of various parts and yard storage costs, but what is very clear from the figures is that refurbishing a modest yacht is an affordable undertaking.

DIY boating on a budget

With determination and a basic skill level, anyone can get on the water without going bankrupt.
It’s simply a case of being sensible: pay attention to boat selection, programming and budgeting the project then stay focussed and work hard.

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