I have long been a big fan of buying a new boat before going on an extended cruise adventure. This is different from your typical summer vacation. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that boats that are lightly used and are then expected to be full-time cruising boats will have an untold number of foibles and problems both big and small.

I’ve listened to many owners over the years, and I know with certainty that this is a true statement. Which is why I think it best to buy the newest boat one can afford before considering that dream cruise. Once you get under way and a boat’s systems are expected to function 24/7, it may be unfair to expect the boat’s aging systems to work flawlessly given their expected life cycle and perhaps minimal use up to that point. This is especially true for systems that contain a lot of moving parts and seals. Pumps, motors, switches, and many mechanical devices come to mind. Even generally reliable electrical and electronic gear can become finicky and troublesome, with sporadic performance and loose connections that will be exceedingly frustrating to the owner.

(Below: The new Nimbus 465 Coupe is set to make its debut and will be an exceptional cruising boat to move into.)

nimbus 465 coupe

That is why many experienced and knowledgeable boat owners think about trading in their beloved cruising yacht for a newer one that represents the latest technology and is the newest model available in their budget. I believe things will remain stable and reliable for about 10 years or so. Owning a boat that is newer than 10 years old and you can cruise with more confidence than on a sailboat or trawler that you are essentially nursing along, given it may be many decades old. Cruising on a 50-year-old boat is certainly doable, and many people do just that. But they spend a lot of time looking for parts or finding creative ways to keep things going. In contrast, my Magic Decade philosophy has been proven time and again for as long as I have been keeping track of such things.

It forms the basis of the best advice I give anyone looking to buy a boat to cruise over the horizon.

I recently became reacquainted with a couple who agree with my thinking but approach it from the opposite direction. Jim and Judy Foster have been happy owners of Nordic Tugs for many years. We first got to be friends when we took part in a group cruise to the Bahamas in the early 2000s, our boats among the fleet of 39 cruising trawlers setting off from West Palm Beach in Florida.

After this fun and very successful group adventure, the Fosters traded in their Nordic Tug for a new 42-footer, which they took delivery of in 2004 (below). They ordered it new, and Jim did a few things differently when he ordered the boat. Some extras and slight modifications were among things he knew would be helpful in the long haul they expected to have with the boat.

nordic tug 42 trawler boat 

Like many of us from this generation, Jim got a job as a kid at a service station, being around cars and mechanical things. It is quite a departure from today’s youth. Jim learned how to repair lawn mowers, clean, lubricate, and take care of machines, including cars and motorcycles.

Jim started racing motorcycles when he was 13 years old. While he says he did not win as much as he might have liked, his racing machines did not break, a testament to his growing mechanical skills and understanding. And this experience became the foundation for boat ownership many years later, when he and his wife Judy bought a powerboat to enjoy when he wasn’t spending all his time owning a Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership. He later got into cruising when he sold the business and retired to spend more time on the water.

“Owning a boat is a thinking man’s game,” Jim told me. The boat is never fully finished, in his mind. Wires, hoses, and other parts get old and brittle, and there is always something to be replaced, maintained, or inspected. It never ends.

He is a big fan of checklists, which has been how he keeps track of the tasks that represent normal maintenance during the year. He changes the raw water impeller on his main engine every spring, no matter what. He simply puts a new one in place and knows he doesn’t have to think about it for the season.

Most boat owners don’t spend much time thinking about the main engine’s cooling system, and the need to change the antifreeze coolant periodically. Jim has it on one of his many checklists, which he keeps updated religiously.

nordic tugs 42 sitting at dock with flag

While he doesn’t usually do his own wiring and electrical installations, he is intimately familiar with what has been done and the changes to the wiring on the boat. All wiring gets inspected with an eye toward premature corrosion or loose connections.

His main engine’s alternator is a reliable source of electrical energy for the boat, but it can also be a source of headaches, so Jim never ignores it because it is out of sight under the saloon sole. He carries a spare alternator…and starter motor. Same with all belts. He looks for belt dust every spring, a telltale sign of wear and a heads up that maybe there is an issue somewhere. Much like his years working and racing motorcycles, Jim replaces his engine belts every year. He just doesn’t want any issues and sees no reason to wait until something goes wrong.

As he showed me his 20-year-old Nordic Tug, I was reminded of the Nordhavn Yachts Rally some years ago where owners took their boats across the Atlantic as a group adventure to Gibraltar from Florida, by way of Bermuda and the Azores. Some owners of older Nordhavns experienced issues with their fin stabilizers, simply because these active stabilizer systems had been working in coastal and casual use during the boat’s life for the past number of years. But now were expected to work continuously to cross an ocean. No wonder there were issues. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar to have these systems serviced for the ocean crossing, and many were old enough to have worn seals and other issues.

(Below: Nordhavn Rally - emergency re-fueling.)

nordhavn yachts rally in 2004

Jim expanded on his philosophy as he went through the boat. Why would I wait for a 19-year-old water pump to go bad? And why would I be surprised if it failed now? Just replace it and chill out.

While Jim didn’t use this terminology during our time on the boat, what he was essentially inspecting were all of the single points of failure in systems on the boat. That is, a component in a system where if it were to fail it would bring down the rest of the system. A clogged fuel filter is a single point of failure. When it is restricted to the point of not allowing fuel to pass in the fuel delivery system, the engine stops. Period.

That is also why he replaced his boat’s cutless bearing twice already during its 20 years of use. He doesn’t wait for it to become a problem. He also puts blue mechanics towels under the fuel connections on his copper fuel lines. He monitors them to make sure he will notice any leaks right away, not when a leak introduces air into the fuel system and the engine stops, which will usually happen at the worst possible time.

Other things are not quite so obvious. He had the injectors replaced on his diesel engine, not because he had a problem, but just because of the engine’s age. While the original injectors were “fine,” he says the engine runs much smoother after they were replaced. Only an experienced gearhead would know this. After 2700 hours, his single engine runs strong and smooth, and that is no coincidence.

“Don’t wait until you have a problem,” he cautions. Be prepared. Have a bucket set aside and handy, with a spare fuel filter, gaskets, and maybe even the tools needed to change the fuel filter.

Jim and I are from the same generation, and I commented that we may be the last men to know the taste of gasoline, back from our days of si phoning gas when we ran out of fuel in our cars back in the day. He laughed as he totally agreed with me. “Do people today even know their cars don’t carry spare tires anymore?”

A couple of years ago, Jim replaced both bow and stern thrusters on his Nordic Tug. They still worked, but they were 17 years old. Judy said the difference was astounding. They were once again loud and powerful, and any anemic performance was gone, even though the original thrusters still worked. He had them rebuilt once, but they were nowhere near as powerful as when they were finally replaced with new units. The difference was immediately noticeable.

Another component on the boat that Jim knows can creep up on an owner is corrosion on light bulbs, both interior and exterior. It makes sense to periodically remove and clean the bulbs and sockets and remove any buildup of corrosion or dirt. And light bulbs age and grow weak, particularly incandescent bulbs from before LED technology. Replacing these bulbs will make a significant difference in brightness.

Jim and I agree there is value in having an engine survey done when one buys a boat, a survey separate from the vessel survey. And it can be helpful to do it again after so many years as well. An engine survey involves different skills than a vessel survey and will result in a list of items a new owner should be aware of. While not cheap, a good engine survey from a reputable technician will provide wonderful peace of mind. And it is a great starting point for keeping things shipshape and reliable.

(Below: Schedule an engine survey is always a good idea and can solve potential problems before they arise.)

survey being done on boat engine

Foster’s Nordic Tug 42 is now 20 years old, yet, in many ways it is a much newer boat. He replaced the boat’s water heater, simply because it was 17 years old. Why do you have that to worry about?

I find no fault in that logic.

The boat has 2700 hours on the engine, not a particularly huge number of hours on a diesel engine. Scott Flanders had well over 12,000 hours on his engine when he finished cruising on his Nordhavn 46. He told me he wouldn’t have second thoughts about going around the world again on the boat and its single engine.

While Jim did not mention his windlass, I have no doubt he had it rebuilt at least once, or even replaced it at some point. That would be very consistent with how he embodies the boat ownership experience.

As we sat inside the saloon of the Nordic Tug, Jim pointed out some of the softer areas where he went the extra mile to keep the boat new and fresh. He has measured 126 degrees inside the boat because of the sun’s heat, so he made up dark tinted Lexan port covers that he keeps over all port lights to reduce the heat and damaging effects of the sun’s UV radiation. He hasn’t been able to keep sun and age from destroying the plastic covering on his radio’s microphone cord, and he knows there are limits to fighting the elements as the years go by. Boats also work and vibrate, and we can only do so much to minimize the effects.

(Below: The inside of a different Nordic Tugs 37 currently on the market, built in 2004, could still pass for a boat built today!)

inside of 2004 nordic tugs 37

I can see doing all of the above on most any quality older boat, certainly not just a Nordic Tug, whose reputation for quality design and construction is well deserved. Even if I owned any one of the popular cruising sailboats from the 1970s and 1980s, I would not think twice about using Jim’s mindset to keep all of the important systems within a few years old.

It is much the same on the trawler and cruising motorboat side of cruising. Boats that come from established yards to designs that have stood the test of time can be counted on to provide many years of enjoyable cruising. Most trawlers and other cruising powerboats built during the last 25 years fit this category. When a hull, basic construction, and design is just as good as anything newer, their systems can be refreshed, replaced, and rebuilt to stay as good as new.

But access is an essential factor in this equation, of course. If you can’t get to the windlass installation without taking the boat apart, it is going to be a hard road to travel. The same is true for many of the propulsion, power generation, and comfort systems that spell the difference between carefree cruising and a trip from hell in paradise.

There is also the list of “nice to have” projects on every boat. If you decide your boat is a keeper worth this continuous upgrading program, how easily can you accommodate this list over time?

For example, adding a second midship cleat might be the ideal way to improve the dockside manners of how your boat is secured to the dock. On a bigger boat, especially, the existing cleat is often only large enough for one dock line. How does one add a second spring line using the existing hardware? Ganging two dock lines onto a single cleat can be frustrating and has always seemed unsafe to me. But if it isn’t possible to reach the underside of the deck to install a solid backing plate under the additional cleat, it is folly to pursue it.

Is this a compromise you are willing to accept?

Jim and Judy have a solid, well-built boat that gives them lots of opportunities to keep it new and updated. Their Nordic Tug 42 has proven to be an ideal cruising platform for long-term boat ownership.

We are now in boat show season, where many are looking for the right boat to live their dreams. It is worth thinking about all of this. Forget the nice curtains and cushions in the saloon. Will you be able to keep the boat new and fresh and do all that is necessary to maintain the boat to most-current standards?

If you approach it right, the rewards are well worth the effort to find the right boat that allows you to enjoy cruising for many years to come.


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