The real cost of boat ownership

4th March 2021 Mike McKiernan

I’m sure most sailors and boaties can relate to the experience of flicking through the Book of Dreams (aka the boat classifieds), seeing a renovator’s delight with a bargain price tag and thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe.’ Thoughts such as, ‘Is this too good to be true?’ are quickly pushed aside. And many a boatie, myself included, finds themselves thinking, ‘Why not?’ and buying the boat.

Soon enough, the proud new boat owner discovers that the bargain price tag comes with added extras such as dripping stern glands, ill-fitting sails, corroded electronics or even dreaded osmosis bubbles on the hull. Even the savvy boat buyer who factors a bit of new paint into the purchase price quickly becomes disenchanted at the cash rapidly draining from their wallet and their weekends spent at the slipway rather than carving up the waterways.

So I thought it was time to take an honest, realistic look at the coast of boat ownership.

In the words of superyacht captain and engineer Mark James, you need to think, ‘How much cash am I willing to spend every year and not cry?’

I’m not trying to ruin any boating dreams; I just don’t want to see those dreams end in tears.

Even a brand spanking new boat requires significant financial outlays to keep it sparkling. And, of course, shiny new paint comes with its share of deprecation so make sure you take a look at what similar boats are selling for on the second-hand market to give you a rough idea of a future sale price.

According to Captain Mark, a good rule of thumb to maintaining and enjoying a new boat, or one that’s been kept in great condition, is 10 percent of the purchase price per annum. While Mark’s advice is based on years of running superyachts, it’s solid advice for your average boat as well. It’s not rocket science to work out your own numbers, but the important thing is that you do consider ongoing costs instead of pouring every last cent into the purchase. Some expenses are annual, and others are only every few years.

Each type of boat comes with its inherent costs, for your average size runabouts, walk-arounds, cabin cruisers, trailer sailers and small game boats. In the case of sailboats, most owners will have to replace the sails and rigging at least once over the lifetime of the yacht. If you're unlucky enough to get demasted, it will need to be fixed. If you need to replace the mast and boom, prepare to spend anywhere between $15,000 - $25,000.

For smaller boats and runabouts, the trailer will be one of your biggest outlays. Motor boats are subject to wear and tear. Particular attention needs to be paid to hull cleaning and maintenance. For cleaning an aluminium boat, the needs to be cleaned to remove water-line staining and oxidised dullness without damaging the surface. For fibreglass boats, regular washing and cleaning is needed to maintain the integrity of the gelcoat.

Deprecation of boats is just a fact of life for owners, and consideration needs to be taken when around areas such as moisture, salt and ultra violet (UV) damage to the deck, upholstery, console, canopy, seals, hardware, ropes and fittings, as well as wear and tear on the drivetrain. On larger boats, electronics and instruments can fail and so can batteries or solar panels in electric system not to mention battery chargers. Even for small open craft and tinnies, you should have your outboard motor serviced every 2 years or every 100 hours. Of course there are extras associated with different types of boats, including the installation of biminis, new upholstery or furnishings.

And for those boats that come with a bit more age and neglect, you’ll need to add on the cost of a refit before you can go back to a more modest yearly spend. A full survey will give you a good idea of what this refit cost is likely to be, and most definitely don’t forget to factor in a generous contingency.

Additionally, the cost of boat storage is a substantial part of ownership. marina berths are perhaps the most expansive option, and in most instances renting a mooring is the best alternative. Some marinas even provide hardstands for half the cost of marina berths.

Insurance is a significant cost but one that is essential.The cost of boat insurance will vary depending on by the size and make of the boat and the level of coverage you want. Shop around to find the right insurance that protects your vessel on and off the water.

On top of all that, before you actually head out, your boat will need some essential items. According to the NRMA, costs can really stack up when you factor in safety equipment:

  • Life jackets - $75

  • An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon - $300

  • Marine flares - $200

  • Fire extinguisher - $35

  • A GPS - $1200

  • Boat oars  - $80

  • Ropes - $100

  • Marine radio - $250 

  • A boat trailer - between $1500 and $6000

So next time you’re flicking through the Book of Dreams, keep your ego in check: you may love that 70ft cruiser with the bargain price tag, but remember to account for what you’ll really need in order to sail off into the sunset. Cheaper isn’t always cheaper, or may come at the expense of a lot of time and stress. Maybe a 40ft beauty in perfect working order is better than a 70ft monster that will keep you at the maintenance dock, emptying your wallet.