Sailing Totem: Hidden Issues in Older Boats

While cruising boats from the ’70s and ’80s might still have a lot going for them, keeping them seaworthy can involve a long to-do list.

April 30, 2021
people standing between sailboats
It’s important to take time to reflect on yard projects with friends and cold beverages Behan Gifford

This story originally appeared on Sailing Totem.

“Don’t make them like they used to!” One of the refrains about cruising boats is how newer vessels don’t have the desirable qualities of their older brethren. It’s not inaccurate to say they’re different, but it’s not right to suggest older boats built for bluewater sailing are better.

Totem is nearly 40 years old. Our current Old Boat Headache is rotting stainless steel. Yes, rotting!


This week Jamie pulled out our cockpit drains. They looked OK; just a little surface rust, no big deal. Except stainless steel doesn’t age well, and these are original. Knowing the stainless surface we can’t see is where stainless trouble happens, and having replaced nearly all stainless steel on board, it was time to upgrade this minor component. This would be an easy starter project to tackle as we got into the groove of shipyard life again. When the drains were pulled, this crumbling rust is what we found under that shinier top.

broken metal pipes
Jamie called these “Lifespan used: 102%.” Behan Gifford

Classic bluewater or new production?

Totem is a Stevens 47 (later evolved Hylas 47s, and same mold for the long line of Hylas 49s); these are among the makes put on a pedestal for their suitability to offshore sailing. We wouldn’t disagree that Totem has been an excellent magic carpet to safely carry our family across oceans. But suggestions that newer, “production” boats are inferior isn’t fair, either. It’s a longer discussion (and one we get into somewhat in our TOTEM TALKS about what makes a bluewater boat: link from our Events page to watch the replay).

replacement parts for broken metal pipes
The replacement is an improvement! Behan Gifford

Taking this from the other side: the assumption that older bluewater boats are better, because of the build quality differences, isn’t accurate. Something buyers fail to appreciate is that older boats come with old boat problems—like those deck drains, along with chainplates, tanks, cleats, stanchion bases, standing rigging, steering chain/cable, and countless fasteners. It’s a small example but represents the wider problems that may not be apparent at purchase, despite a good surveyor’s efforts. Refitting core components can add up significantly, and may leave a hopeful cruiser struggling with a money pit instead of another fine sunset at anchor.

old and new cockpit drains
The old and new cockpit drains Behan Gifford

Boat listings commonly mislead

Sometimes, buyers are simply so taken by the promise of affordably buying their “proven” bluewater boat that they fail to appreciate the full investment required. Boat listings are often more marketing mud than truth: “ready to go,” “she knows the way,” “hop aboard and sail away!” Our new cockpit drains are only $59 each, an inexpensive DIY repair. Listings that don’t detail rigging age, accurate engine hours, weeping through hulls, or those glassed-in chainplates that seemed like a good idea in 1979 but now represent a serious PITA project may just keep you in the boatyard longer than resources support. There’s a good looking, highly-respected UK built bluewater boat near us staring down a rusty cast iron fuel tank (among other projects) and wondering how much time is left ticking on that bomb.

Jamie decided to follow up on the cockpit drains by removing Totem’s deck drains. These drains aren’t necessary with our perforated toe rail (the lip is about 3/16ths of an inch); water simply doesn’t accumulate. Totem originally came with three drains per side. He removed four of them in 2007, but not the final ones because it meant a cosmetic above the waterline patch job. Now that we’re staring down a paint job, out they’ve come – and the only way was in pieces!  Another case of seriously rotten steel.

Rotten deck drain pipe crumbled on removal
Rotten deck drain pipe crumbled on removal Behan Gifford

Meanwhile on Totem

We’re still coming to grips with the scope of our projects for this haulout, but it’s been a very busy start in several ways. We had three trips to the USA in three weeks. It started with J&J COVID vaccinations at the high school gymnasium in Ajo, Arizona.

people waiting to get a vaccination
Mairen gets her J&J jab at the high school gym in Ajo, AZ Behan Gifford

Then we road tripped with Salvador Cabrales, who runs the show for cruisers in his shipyard, in his big rig to San Diego. Salvador was picking up a boat to truck back to Mexico; we were picking up a car generously loaned by friends. We tagged in a bonus day to spend time with cousins in Carlsbad.

person sitting in the passenger seat of a truck
Jamie in cab of Salvador’s truck, with a bit of Sonora desert landscape Behan Gifford

The subsequent trip to Phoenix got our youngest crew member on the COVID vaccination train (Siobhan couldn’t get J&J; that’s only 18+ currently). Last weekend was our “vaxxiversary” for the J&J shot. It feels very, very good to have our family on the road to all being fully vaccinated.

Little projects like the drains get us into the routine of shipyard life; we have a long haul[out] ahead. There are plenty of projects awaiting this 39.4-year-old boat. Of course, newer boats have their problems too; the newish Leopard adjacent is sorting out puzzling hull coating issues.

two men looking at a sailboat
Jamie and Salvador discuss paint options… a sweet ride loaned by friends in the back Behan Gifford

Maybe the dogma about the capabilities of new and old boats is a statement of crew competency more than actual capability.

notes written on a wood table
Love notes from our seven year old neighbor at the rudder workstation Behan Gifford

Meanwhile, routines return: revisiting favorite taco carts, getting to know shipyard cat Dulce all over again, and sharing a drink with friends at the end of the day – and in this case, sharing it while we all muddle over older-boat challenges: rebuilding a rudder, replacing an engine, replacing rigging, galley remodel… And the list goes on.

In case you missed it

Last weekend on TOTEM TALKS: our topic was – get weather smart! We’ve heard so many sailors say “the forecast was wrong,” when usually it wasn’t wrong… it was mis-interpreted. Replay this session to hear how to avoid the typical mistakes in understanding GRIBs, and tips for downloading GRIBs offshore.


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