Break Out Another Thousand (BOAT) – or not!

The author saves some dough by doing her own brightwork. Photos courtesy of Stephanie Gardiner

The author saves some dough by doing her own brightwork. Photos courtesy of Stephanie Gardiner

We recently received an email from a reader of our blog, asking us if we had any money-saving ideas for boaters. After spending a few minutes online searching the topic, we can see why the reader asked — there’s not much information out there. And that got us thinking.

Unless you have a tree planted somewhere that grows dollar bills (which we don’t), saving money on the water is a necessity and there are hundreds of ways to do it. Some ideas we came up with are tried and true while others are new, but all of them work.


Regular maintenance extends the life of your boat, decreases the need for repairs and helps keep a crew safe. Know your boat and keep an eye out for anything and everything that might need attention — from replacing worn halyards to regular oil changes. But the work doesn’t stop there. It’s important to wash your boat regularly and wax it annually to help protect the gelcoat from the elements (especially bird droppings) and avoid more expensive repairs down the road.

Fix things yourself

Every cruiser will tell you the same thing — boat jobs are expensive. Add a marine professional into the mix and your costs can quickly skyrocket. Before all is said and done, you can lay out a small fortune (plus your firstborn child) to have somebody come aboard and sometimes (yes, sometimes) they don’t even fix the problem. Here in the PNW, the average hourly rate runs $75 to $110, depending on the type of work you have done. Considering the amount of time it takes to do anything on a boat, that adds up quickly!

David Gardiner servicing the boat's hydronic heater

David Gardiner servicing the boat’s hydronic heater

But if you have to hire somebody, shop around. When we first arrived in Washington, David wanted to have a hydronic heater installed. He came up with several quotes, and an independent contractor out of Canada was the cheapest. One of the benefits to having a boat is that it moves; so we did. Not only did we save thousands of dollars, we got to spend several weeks tied up in front of the Empress Hotel in Victoria. It was a win-win situation. Well … almost. After all was said and done, David realized he could have handled the work himself and saved even more in the process.

Treat your boat systems well

Take care of what you have and it’ll take care of you. David’s fastidious when it comes to our house batteries and never lets them fall below 15 percent of their overall capacity — now that we have a solar panel array, that number’s even less. He took care of them and they took care of us — for 15 years (yes, you read that right).

Our inverter/charger is another example. It’s turned off unless we’re using it and never left to run in the background. When we’re under sail, the radar is turned on but remains on standby. If we need it, it’s there without wearing out the magnetron or cooking people in the vicinity with radiation. Not only does this save wear and tear, but it also saves amperage. By the way, both devices are 15 years old as well (although the radar has been professionally serviced since we’ve owned the boat).

But there are two sides to every coin, and it’s also important to USE your equipment and let it work every now and again. It’s not enough to come down to your boat on the weekend to run the engine. It’s also important to run your systems. Like the old adage says, “Use it or lose it.”

Repair rather than replace

The wet climate in the Pacific Northwest is hard on a boat and one of the places it shows the most is the cockpit canvas. Ours is seven years old and every season it’s something else — loose stitching, broken zips, cracked isinglass (or “clears”). It’d be nice to have a brand new set-up; but at a price tag of at least $9,000, it’s not going to happen, so we repair it regularly. We invest $100 to $200 each season, which adds up over time but is still cheaper than replacement.

Another example is the coil fans in our heating system. Three out of four had bad solder joints and started to leak, so David brought them into a radiator shop for repair. The fix was about $75 per unit, a savings of $175 each over new ones. Sometimes it’s tempting to replace things onboard, especially with the advances in technology (who wouldn’t want the latest in radar, with a color screen and weather overlay, when theirs starts acting up?), but we stick with what we’ve got whenever we can.

David Gardiner tackles some work on the windlass

David Gardiner tackles some work on the windlass

Oftentimes we find our older gear was built better than what’s currently on the market. Case in point:the new windlass we added last year (a Lewmar CPX) has turned out to be a huge disappointment. Had we been able to repair the original unit (a far more substantial Muir Atlantic 1250), we would have, because replacing it with the same one didn’t fit our budget ($6,500).

Make it yourself

Whether you need new covers for your fenders (an inexpensive pair of sweatpants and a little sewing will take care of the job), or you want to clean your teak decks (the active ingredient in cleaners is oxalic acid — something you can buy at your local hardware for a fraction of the cost), making it yourself can save a lot of money.

Oxalic acid makes for an inexpensive teak deck cleaner

Oxalic acid makes for an inexpensive teak deck cleaner

Want a wifi booster to keep you connected when you’re on the water? Research the components online and build one yourself. Need a battery monitor? Ditto. Whatever it is you’re in the market for, from cleaners to electronics, it’s worth taking the time to see if you can make it for less.

Know your prices

We spend close to six months of the year cruising in Canada, where everything is more expensive than it is in the U.S., so we pack what we can and take it with us (including fuel). But it also pays to know your prices locally. Regardless of what you think about Walmart (hate it), we can’t afford to pay more at a competing store for the same product every time we buy something.

When purchasing fittings, hardware, teak oil, deck cleaners and the like, we look at hardware stores first to save money. When it comes to fixing a proprietary piece of equipment aboard, like our Hurricane heater, we check part numbers online for replacements. When David changed out the fuel pump recently, he found the same one through Amazon for $100 less than Hurricane wanted for it.

If we need to resort to a marine store, we start online with Defender or Jamestown Distributors, which offer discounted prices, before moving on to Fisheries Supply in Seattle. Fisheries will do everything it can to offer competitive prices with the added benefit of a knowledgeable staff. If you aren’t sure exactly what it is you need, they can help you find it through a description of your problem or a photo (you can even email it). For further savings, you can join their email list to receive coupons and learn about specials they’re running as well as information about new products, how to complete a project, and invitations to webinars.

Buy it right

From boats to boat bits, quality lasts and that saves money in the long run. Simple as that. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into “new” rather than “used.” Just because you buy a new(er) boat or new(er) piece of equipment doesn’t mean you won’t have a problem at some point (even straight out of the starting gate). In our experience, it boils down to regular maintenance and how we care for our equipment while using it.

Buy in bulk

From toilet paper to teak oil, we buy in bulk. At first I didn’t think it would be feasible on a boat, but I’m always amazed at how much I’m able to fit inside Cambria’s bilges. And the savings add up.

Polishing Cambria's hull

Polishing Cambria’s hull

For example, 303 High Tech Fabric Guard for Sunbrella canvas costs, on average, $0.90 an ounce in smaller quantities, but a gallon runs $0.47 an ounce. Same goes for engine oil. We buy ours at Costco in three-gallon packs for about $13 a gallon. Go to West Marine and you’ll pay $20.

Navionics for iPad

You can spend thousands on a chartplotter for your boat, but why? Navionics (among others) sells an app for your iPad, iPhone or tablet. When we bought ours, it cost $39.99 for the app and all the charts for U.S. and Canadian waters (including lakes). At first we were a little leery, but the charts are very accurate and we trust Navionics as much as any other electronic chartplotter.

Use your local library

Check out cruising guides at the library. It gives you plenty of time to look them over and decide if they’re useful to you before making a purchase. Not only does this save you money by not buying something you don’t really want, but it helps keep your bookshelf free from clutter.

PDF versions of cruising guides

For those of us cruising the Inside Passage, having a copy of “Waggoner Cruising Guide” is essential. But replacing it yearly is costly, so we keep an older version aboard and consult our free PDF copy for updates. We don’t spend a lot of time in the San Juans or Gulf Islands, so instead of laying out $100 for cruising guides we wouldn’t get much use out of, we downloaded free versions from Salish Sea Pilot. They’re updated regularly and meet all of our needs without costing us a cent.

Choose a credit card without foreign transactions fees

If you spend any time outside the U.S., you already know that some credit card companies can charge you up to 3 percent on your foreign purchases. Forget about it! Here’s a comprehensive list of companies, from Nerd Wallet Finance, that manage to provide good customer service without the extra cost.


Some people shop around for sponsors to help support their cruising. In exchange for a product review and a permanent placement on their blog, the company will either provide them with a free product or one at a significant discount. But, and this is a big “but,” you have to have a popular blog and be able to prove it!

Be your own entertainment

David and I are both homebodies (which is exactly why traveling by boat suits us so well) and prefer to watch DVDs rather than go to the movies, cook rather than eat out, listen to satellite radio rather than go to concerts. When we socialize, we do it aboard (our cockpit or yours?). It’s not that we’re particularly cheap (well, I am) or that we’re living on a strict budget. We simply don’t find the value in these things, so we tend not to do them. Over the years we’ve found that free activities suit us better — kayaking, hiking, playing the guitar, beach combing, etc. That’s what cruising is about — simplifying and getting back to basics.

And last, but not least:

Anchor, anchor, anchor

Not only does this save a TON of money over visiting marinas, it’s our preference. Unless we need to provision, do laundry or have an overwhelming need for a taste of “civilization,” we avoid marinas whenever we can.

The rates in the Pacific Northwest are reasonable but can still run anywhere from $0.50 to $1.25 a foot during the summer months. At 43 feet, that adds up quickly, and it only takes six nights in a marina over the course of a month to double our expenses.

And there you have it our list of a few of the ways we’ve saved money over the years and kept ourselves afloat, with the exception of one piece of sound advice: If you’re looking for ways to save money on the water, the best answer is to NOT buy a boat. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?


6 Responses to Break Out Another Thousand (BOAT) – or not!

  1. Scott Wilson April 21, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    I’ll add another tip that probably goes under the “Know your prices” section… there are a whole lot of “marine” goods for sale that are actually just regular old off-the-shelf components with a fancy label and higher price tag slapped on them. Researching the provenance of your goods can result in some significant savings…

    We’re in the middle of replacing a busted gearbox on our windlass. It’s old and hard to source parts for. Most marine suppliers say they can get us one for around a thousand dollars. But a little scraping and deciphering of part numbers shows that, in fact, the gearbox is a pretty standard unit used in many industrial applications, and can be had for around half that price from other suppliers (even less if you go with the cheap Chinese knock-offs! We won’t, but we wonder if the original manufacturer does!).

  2. Captain Gary Peterson April 21, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    Something I’ve found of use in my onboard library are books put out by Sail magazine years ago pertaining to inexpensive things that work on boats, a DIY aid to just about everything from cleaners to ???. Here’s a link to books for sale on Amazon which can sometimes be found cheaper on e-bay;

    • Scott Wilson April 21, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      Those are terrific, Gary, thanks for bringing them up… we have a whole stack of them and pick up ones we don’t have whenever we run across them in the used bookstore.

  3. Stuart April 19, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    Nice article, Stephanie. Love the recommendations. The people I know who spend to much on their boat repairs tend to be the people who know next to nothing about their boat systems. Granted, some of them are complex (I’m not doing a DIY radar repair anytime soon.) On hiring professionals, I’ve found a way to make that count: I hire professionals who will allow me in to assist on the repair or the installation, and I always ask them for maintenance tips before we are done. Reading Nigel Calder and the manual of the whatever you’ve got is always good, but repair folk know things that the manual doesn’t tell you, and they can show you what it is that Nigel is talking about, even if his diagram doesn’t match whatever is in your boat.
    I have hired people who in hindsight did a job even I could do (I’m nowhere near as clever as David), but I rarely rue cutting the cheque because I employ them as consultants and trainers as well. The outcome is more knowledge about the system being repaired.
    A fine, well-written article. Hope to run into you guys soon!

    • Stephanie Gardiner April 20, 2014 at 11:57 am #

      Cheer, Stuart! That’s a good point about helping the professionals whenever you have to hire them. David does that too, but I totally forgot about it! But the follow-up questions is even a better idea! We hope to run into you guys as well; that’d be a lot of fun!

  4. Jennis Bay Marina April 15, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    Thank you for such an informative article! Being the Manager of our very small and remote Marina, your article has provided me with a tremendous amount of information to assist me in understanding the needs and desires of the boating “community”.

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