There’s no such thing as a FREE (or nearly-free) BOAT!


Ferry Point Marina_Free Boat

Yep, you know her — she’s the one waiting seductively by the side of the road. Like Circe, the enchantress, she calls your name every time you pass. Like the sirens who mesmerized sailors, she summons you to the sea — you can’t resist her. Her name is FREE BOAT.”

 When you first see her, she has an aura and glow, like a full moon rising over the horizon. In your eyes, she has a few minor blemishes, or maybe more than a few, but certainly, anything can be remedied with a little tender love and care; a little power washing here, a new battery, and a little updating there.  Right?

You envision your fantasy escape with her — running, sunning, and fishing with a 6-pack on ice. Birds are singing, there’s a gentle breeze through your hair, and perhaps the faint whiff of tropical coconut oil wafting.  All the while, waves lap hypnotically…

But wait…

But let’s give you a rude and abrupt jolt back into reality — if only for a minute. In most cases, “free” doesn’t mean that you’ve won the lottery, finding a classic boat with provenance. Ask yourself, “what will it take to ensure that this beauty is seaworthy and deserving of your attention?”  You may be  handy with a putty knife and a paint brush, but mechanically, what’s her status? Does she need a new engine? What’s the underlying condition of the hull? Other problem zones include: the transmission, shaft, cutlass bearing, manifolds and risers, water system, water holding tank, and bilge. What will your actual investment be to get her up and running reliably?

Does she have a history of water damage or compromised foam? Where did she come from? Was she abandoned, seized, or salvaged? It’s a good idea to look at the trailer too and consider your safety. Has it been recently inspected, or will it collapse as you take on that cloverleaf at a hasty 35 miles per hour?

More importantly, who’s got the title and previous registration? Is she free and clear of all charges, or under a mechanic’s lien?  If no papers, how will you register her? Are you prepared to establish ownership, downloading forms for yourself and the previous owner to fill out and sign? Have you chased down her Hull Identification Number (HIN), and is it valid?  Simply put, does the HIN match the brand and model of boat that it’s attached to?

At the marina, we know firsthand, it’s an all too common scenario — things happen that bring an end to a boat’s life on the water.  An owner will pass away, leaving a widow with his prized possession, but she knows nothing about keeping a boat — nor does she truly want to.  Someone’s health will fail, or lack of interest will set in, causing the boat to be put into long term  storage. And for every shelved boat, there are a myriad of stories: locked up or water damaged engines, dry rot in the sails and lines, UV-damaged fiberglass, squirrel or rodent-chewed wires, a fuel system that has taken on water.

Boats can be disposed of responsibly, but more often than not, the owner has a mistaken sense of value (often based upon sentiment or nostalgia). He does not account for depreciation, poor care, or lack of maintenance. And charges for storage and insurance stack up quickly over time. Rather than continue to pay these costs or have the boat “put down,” an owner will choose to give the boat away. It’s a lot like a children’s game of “Hot Potato.”

Let’s explore a bit further. Please forgive our frankness, but if it all doesn’t work out, what will you do then? If she’s not sailable, is she “sale-able?” Many non-profits are very selective about what they will accept these days. If you can’t give, sell or donate her, do you have the time, ability and budget to cut her up and send her to the dump in pieces?

Most motors and machinery will be approaching the end of their natural lifespan after 10 -15 years — especially if there has been any deferred maintenance. If you plan to purchase or adopt a used boat, be sure to hire an objective third-party boat surveyor to look her over and give an unvarnished report; hire another unbiased specialist for an engine survey; then make an informed decision . Some advocate that you should document the transaction completely and give the “owner” a dollar to formalize things.  Otherwise, in many areas, you will be required to pay a gift tax. Also, it is wise to take many detailed pictures and establish condition at the time of the swap.  When you’re head over heels, and about to dive in, remember the age-old adage, “act in haste, repent at leisure.”

If you hastily make the leap, most likely, you will find that you end up putting much more money into parts and labor than you’d ever imagined, in order to actually use your  “free” boat.  You’ll find that money spent outweighs the potential gain in value – the  best you will be able to hope for, after all, is an old boat with little or no resale value.


We encourage you to look at new and nearly-new boats listed at a fair price. Dealers are eager to make a deal, and there’s still a window of opportunity before interest rates, now at near historically low rates, are expected to rise again.

Most importantly, spring is finally here — shouldn’t you be on the water, and not slaving away under the burden of a “free” boat?


Some Helpful Links:

Search by HIN:

Search by Name:

About Hull ID Numbers:

Safety Issues & Defects:


        NADA Guides:

Maryland Abandoned Boat & Debris Program:


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply