Finding Your Dream Boat: Should You Buy New or Used?


When deciding whether to buy a new boat or a two-year old vessel, reasonable minds disagree. Opt for the new vessel, and you get to customize everything, so it shines, sparkles and smells new. But you are also the builder’s guinea pig. The manufacturer inevitably tries out new configurations of equipment or placement in the engine room, and your first year of ownership serves as the builder’s testbed.

Empty Nest, my new, semi-custom-built Endurance 658L, was delivered to us just as I retired from my faculty job at Johns Hopkins, and it was perfectly timed for our first snowbird winter. My wife Ann and I left Annapolis, MD, on October 26 with our dog Gimel and made our way down to Key West over six weeks.

We spent three months at The Perry Hotel & Marina on Stock Island, FL, with a weekend side trip to Dry Tortugas. Traveling and living on board for such a long time is the best way to uncover issues while still under warranty. I don’t believe such a thing as a bug-free boat really exists, and as the boat size increases, so do the number of systems that can fail. Our 71-foot trawler is no exception.

A Somewhat Smooth Start

Empty Nest leaving Key West | Avi Rubin

All things considered, the first six months with Empty Nest were relatively successful. The builder, Hampton Yachts, included MAN 1200 engines instead of the CAT 18s used on previous hulls. Given the differences in shape and arrangements in these two models, one would expect that swapping out such a major component would introduce unexpected side effects. It turns out one would be right. For example, we have a transmission cooling issue that remains unresolved at high RPMs.

Additionally, the impeller for the main engines cannot be removed without disassembling and removing a sensor. Since changing the impeller is an annual service item, this may lead to complications. Furthermore, we already had one port-side engine sensor fail, leading to scary error messages and a reduction in engine performance, as well as a travel day that was several hours longer than needed. I’m concerned that having to move the sensors on both engines to change the impeller may lead to more sensor failures and/or false alarms. These are sensitive components.

We experienced other artifacts of the testbed effect. One day in Key West, Ann noticed water dripping from the master head ceiling. We called Seattle Yachts, our broker, and attempted to diagnose the issue over the phone. At their suggestion, I removed the ceiling panels (which involved cutting the low voltage wires for the lights) revealing ruined insulation on the copper pipes in the ceiling leading to the air handler.

A local mechanic I found did not want to attempt a repair, and so Seattle Yachts sent a service person down from Ft. Lauderdale. He spent several days on board dealing with this issue as well as several other ones, such as refrigerators that iced over and a gelcoat repair on the flybridge starboard side docking station.

The master head ceiling pipe insulation was replaced with higher grade pipe covering, and a vapor shield was installed. However, we were concerned that the pipes in other areas might “sweat” as well, so we added a punch list item to open the shower enclosure and change the insulation.

In the first few months on Empty Nest, we had to replace the flybridge refrigerator, get the trimtabs repaired (that involved hauling out the boat, and unfortunately, they still do not work), and fix the stabilizers, which have had ongoing issues. Ultimately, we had the entire ABT stabilizer control box replaced and a new 10-meter run of wiring installed in the engine room.

I won’t soon forget lying upside down on a bank of batteries in a loud and hot engine room while under way, screwdriver in hand, swapping out one of the stabilizer plugs while Ann was on the flybridge dodging crab pots on the way back to Key West from Dry Tortugas. I may have underestimated the role of “owner-operator.”

Smoke on the Water

AC control panel where we had sparks and air handlers tripped | Avi Rubin

Our worst experience so far happened just outside Marathon on what was supposed to be our trip to the Bahamas. We first noticed a problem when Ann observed that the air handler display was blank. This happened once before when we had a shore power outage, so I assumed that the AC power had cut out. I figured it was a generator issue, which was not entirely surprising, as this generator had just been repaired but not really tested.

Ann took the helm while I went down to the AC power panel where I noticed that the air handler breaker had tripped. I switched it back on, and a very large spark came out of the panel. I heard a large crackling sound and smelled smoke. Uh oh.

I opened the engine room door and saw smoke billowing in the aft, port side of the room and noticed a strong smell of burnt tires. I quickly closed the engine room door and yelled as loud as I could for Ann to stop the boat. I was pretty sure that no fuel was in the area where I saw smoke. It was by the chiller system and the circulator pump, away from the engines and fuel tanks. But I also felt a sense of urgency.

I was able to get a hold of the Seattle Yacht mechanic who commissioned our boat. He walked me through some troubleshooting and determined that the boat was usable, so we found a slip in Marathon, and he immediately drove down from Ft. Lauderdale to meet us. After a few hours on the boat, the problem was identified — the generator was outputting over 400 volts, instead of the 240 it was supposed to, so several systems that were powered by the generator were fried, including the control boards for the air conditioning and some AC panel displays.

Our trip to the Bahamas would have to wait, and we took Empty Nest to Ft. Lauderdale where Seattle Yachts is working to repair everything as I write this article.

The Debate Continues

Back to my original question, should you buy a new boat versus a late model? I probably would not buy new again. The initial period on a new build can feel like you are living on an advanced prototype. Many of the issues we experienced in the first 10 months of ownership were one-time hiccups that once identified and fixed are completely resolved. Yes, any boat is going to have parts fail regularly, but I think the initial hit of all the systems being integrated for the first time is overwhelming compared to the ongoing issues that a boat experiences.

I’d like to end on a positive note. We love our boat, and I would not trade it for the world right now. I believe that we are at the point where most of the initial problems that one encounters on a new boat have been successfully addressed under warranty. As long as you are patient, flexible and willing to accept that part failures and mechanical/electric issues are par for the course, you can be a happy boat owner.

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