In mid-July of this year, we bought Driver, a 33-foot hard-chined steel cutter. Our motive in buying steel was not necessarily to go cavorting about the ice. We simply wanted an all-around strong boat.
Trying to track down a functional, low-cost, steel cruising boat posed some problems. For starters, we knew exactly what we wanted. Our aim was to find a modern hull in the mid-30-foot range with a fin keel, a skeg-hung rudder, one mast, a small aft cockpit and a displacement that didn't resemble the load characteristics of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tethered securely to our rented house in North Carolina by a job, three small children and an unreliable car, we established a price range of zero to $40,000.
In all, we queried nearly 30 brokers across North America, hoping we could find a boat tucked away somewhere. There were about five in our price range.
We talked to many friendly steel boatbuilders in the States, all of whom answered our questions patiently and provided a wealth of information. We discovered, to our dismay, that the hull and deck alone would gobble up the total amount we wanted to spend. Besides, building from scratch takes a long time. We wanted to go cruising again before our 6-year-old started bringing home dates.
Used steel boats fell into three basic categories. There were the rusted hulks and unfinished projects that were going cheap. There were a few boats in the $40,000 to $80,000 range; these all seemed adequate but were out of our range. Finally, there were the many polished cruising boats in the $80,000-plus category with loads of gear and professionally built hulls.
Every month we scoured the sailing classifieds. These were good sources, yet we still couldn't locate the "perfect" boat. We had a friend in the Caribbean sending us listings, and we had family on the West Coast keeping their eyes open. Being realistic, we knew that in our price range we weren't going to get a faired hull, a teak interior, or a boatload of expensive gear. Our most important criteria were a sound hull (even if it was a little bit lumpy), a good engine and a strong rig. An interior not to our liking was OK, because we would probably rip most of it out and customize it anyway. A boatload of bells and whistles didn't interest us.
Six months of searching did not produce a boat, but it educated us on what was out there and how much it was going to cost. We began to wonder what new tack we could take to find what we were looking for. Unsuspectingly, one Sunday we drove through a nearby boatyard and there, sitting humbly waiting for us, was the boat. Instead of a "For Sale" sign, it should have had one that read, "What took you so long?"
It had every quality we were seeking. To us, the origami-style construction, the unground welds and the absence of any fairing compound all seemed to say strong, functional and inexpensive. It was.
I surveyed the boat myself, looking for rust in trouble spots around the bilge, under the engine, along stringers and around deck openings. The hull was unfair and the welds hung on the topsides and deck like beads of ice. But we had found the boat that would carry us cruising again. We plan to set out next year.
Upon completion of their recent circumnavigation aboard a rebuilt Cal 25, Dave and Jaja Martin settled briefly in Oriental, North Carolina, where their third child was born. They plan to work until the spring of 1997, then slip the lines again.