A hasty purchase becomes a hair-raising experience for the new owner of a motorboat, reports Roger Harper
An unscrupulous boat owner, a dodgy survey and a boat that could have become a fireball on the water
Afew years ago, knowing of my interest in motorboats, a friend called Anne (not her real name) told me she was looking for a motorboat suitable for her and her children to use in the sheltered waters around where she lived in Cornwall.
She went on to say that she’d seen two or three boats so far but the one which interested her most was being offered for sale by a large yacht broker and was moored in one of the yards nearby.
When I asked her what experience she had of boats she told me that she’d done a considerable amount, both sailing and motorboating while living abroad in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf.
It was obvious Anne was quite an experienced sailor, but she did admit she had little knowledge of the mechanical side of things and intended to go on one of the mechanic’s courses which were regularly held at her yacht club.
A couple of weeks later Anne phoned to say she’d bought the boat she’d told me about – a well established type of 32ft, four-berth, twin-engined motorcruiser with a glassfibre hull. Apart from my surprise that she’d decided on such a size for her first boat I agreed with her choice, even more so when she explained the need for a decent toilet and shower, and twin cabins to allow privacy from her children and their friends if they stayed overnight while boating with her.
I asked Anne about its condition and if she’d been for a trial cruise. She told me that the brokers had contacted its owner and arranged an appointment for her to view it the previous weekend. She was quite excited from what she’d seen.
Apparently, the boat’s owner told her that the vessel had only recently undergone a complete refit, with both engines being completely overhauled by a qualified marine engineer, and had a complete list of what had been carried out, with photographs, etc.
The owner had subsequently allowed her to go right though the boat and look
wherever she wished, including starting and running both engines. But he had been unable to give the boat a trial run as the tide was dropping and would not allow enough time to get back to its mooring.
Anne was delighted with the boat’s condition and its cleanliness, particularly after the disgusting state of some of the other boats she’d seen. It was obvious she was determined to buy this boat.
When I repeated my caution about buying a boat without an up-to-date survey she explained that the owner had renewed the boat’s insurance only a few days earlier and that the insurance company had insisted on a complete out-of-water survey before issuing a certificate. She had a copy of that survey along with another set of photographs taken during the boat’s refit.
She took out a file, which showed numerous photos of the boat; both in and out of the water, and the various stages of its refit; engines being lifted out and stripped in a workshop and re-fitted.
The stages of its re-painting and internal refit appeared to have been professionally carried out and I had to agree that it seemed every aspect had been covered in a full and competent manner.
I was even more convinced when I saw the boat’s survey had apprently been carried out by a respected marine engineer. His survey was excellent. He’d obviously gone through the boat with a fine-toothed comb. He’d found one or two minor defects but attached to the survey were photos of all these being rectified.
On seeing this I had no hesitation in agreeing to Anne’s request that I’d bring the boat back to her home port with her the following Saturday.
On our arrival at the boatyard I was surprised to see the boat was not yet afloat, but lying in the mud at the side of the harbour wall. We met the boat’s owner, who asked us to join him on board so he could show us the controls, radar and radio, etc. He kept looking at his watch, and explained that he was flying to Spain later that day on holiday – in fact, as soon as he’d completed the boat’s sale – so he asked that we sit down and complete the transfer as quickly as possible.
To my surprise, Anne took out a large wad of notes and passed them over for him to count. I had presumed she’d already paid for the boat through the brokers who had arranged its sale.
After counting the money, he made out a receipt and completed the boat’s bill of sale then, after apologising for his haste, and saying how much he would have liked to have been present when we cast off, he left.
I was far from happy and asked Anne what had taken place since our last conversation. She explained that after further consideration, she’d called the owner and made an offer to buy it. Initially, he refused her offer, saying he’d taken another person for a trial run and was waiting for the broker to phone him with that person’s agreement to buy. He further explained that she should have contacted the brokers and asked them to forward her offer to him. But on hearing her disappointment at missing out, he agreed that it would be ‘first person first’.
He then complained that the brokers would be taking ‘a large proportion’ of the proceeds of the boat’s sale even though they’d ‘not really done anything to help’. However, if she was prepared to pay in cash he’d accept her offer and not inform the brokers of its sale...
I was horrified, and pointed out that by dealing directly with the seller she’d not only broken her agreement with the broker that she would only deal through them, but also – and most importantly – her purchase would not be covered by the broker’s insurance should anything go wrong. All his talk of another buyer was a typical sales ruse and almost certainly untrue. Furthermore, if he was so readily
‘I noticed the temperature gauge on the port engine was considerably higher than that of the starboard one’
prepared to break his contract with the broker, just how honest were any other of his comments?
Time to cast-off
By now water was surrounding the boat from the rising tide and only a short time later we were afloat. I started the engines. Everything appeared OK so we cast off. Anne was so pleased. Her face said it all!
Half an hour later and we were approaching Plymouth breakwater, just before entering the open sea.
Once again, I walked around the boat ensuring all was in order for our forthcoming passage. It was then I noticed the temperature gauge on the port engine was considerably higher than that of the starboard one. Its oil pressure was also quite a bit lower, so I suggested we head over towards the nearest village where, in calmer waters, I should be able to take another look at the engines. At the very time I was saying this, the port engine slowed, then stopped.
I took over the helm and headed towards the shore. It was then I realised that the boat’s movement in the water felt quite different from earlier.
A few boat lengths from the beach I slowed the remaining engine, took it out of gear and went forward to drop the anchor. After undoing the anchor’s fastenings I found I had to lower it by hand as the winch was seized solid.
Then, after only a couple of metres of chain, I saw the end coming up through the hawse pipe. No more chain, just a short length of rope!
Fortunately, we were near some empty mooring buoys, so I stopped any thought of using the anchor, and was lucky enough to be able to pick up one of the buoys, bring its chain on board and drop its end over of the mooring bollard at the boat’s bow.
After this I went back to stop the starboard engine, but on pulling its stop cable nothing happened. I lifted the engine cover and tried to move the stop control on the side of the engine’s fuel pump with my hand. I burnt myself – it was glowing red.
Not being able to stop the engine in a normal way, I took a rag lying in the bilges and held it over the engine’s air intake until the engine stopped.
It was then that I took another view of the boat and its engines. I was horrified! The engine compartment was awash, with water almost covering both starter motors. I quickly went to the switch panel and tried the one marked ‘Aft Bilge Pump’ and fortunately it worked. I felt very relieved!
After a few minutes’ pumping, the engine space began to empty and I tried to see where the water was coming from. It seemed to be from somewhere underneath the starboard gearbox, but as it had stopped flowing, I thought it more likely to be a leak from the engine’s cooling system.
I was furious, both at myself for taking the boat’s survey at face value, but also at the man who had quite happily taken Anne’s money while obviously knowing the boat was unseaworthy.
I decided to try and limp back into Plymouth, moor up and try and fix the problems the following morning. However,
‘i lifted the engine cover and tried to move the stop control on the side of the engine’s fuel pump with my hand. i burnt myself. it was glowing red!’
when I tried to restart the port engine, I only got a quiet ‘thunk’ from the starter.
It would not even turn over. It was either seized or its battery flat.
The starboard engine did start, but by now the exhaust manifold was so loose that flames and fumes were coming straight out into the boat rather than going down its exhaust. I also saw that water was again pouring in and realised that the leak was actually from this engine’s cooling system.
Knowing we’d not be taking the boat any further, I decided to radio the coastguard, explain we were safely moored, then ask if they knew anyone who could tow us in.
To add insult to injury, the radio would not transmit. Fortunately, I had my mobile with me and contacted the coastguard with that. I learned that as the Port of Plymouth is under the control of HM Harbour Master I would have to arrange our tow back to the marina with them.
Apparently there were some ‘naval movements’ that day and to avoid any chance of our tow interfering with these we must use a Navy tug. The sight of this huge leviathan approaching would have been frightening had we not known it was coming to our aid.
It took but a few minutes to tie us up alongside. I had thought we’d be pulled on a long rope but was told they’d not have any control of our movements on a rope, so alongside it must be.
Although the tug moved quite slowly – for a tug – to us it seemed as if we were flying! But naturally all pleasure has to be paid for, doesn’t it? Water was being forced the wrong way through the starboard drive leg. Not only was the engine space flooding, but it was overflowing into the hull as well. A quick shout brought some attention from above. The tug slowed as we were asked our problems. A large pipe was passed down. Two gulps and the hull was empty. Another gulp from their pump and the engine space was empty too. To have such a suction pump must be fantastic. I later saw its size: bigger than both Perkins engines fitted to Anne’s boat.
I was beginning to worry about the cost: four men, this large tug, fuel etc. It was probably more than the boat was worth!
After we’d tied up, the captain came aboard and started to calculate the account. He must have seen my face as he gave me his bill. I need not have worried. It was far less than I had expected. He then explained that as he was on his way back from towing a vessel out to sea, he had only charged us a nominal amount, adding that he thought it unfair to profit from someone else’s misfortune.
Once back in port Anne asked me what she could do? From the seller’s comments about going on holiday it was obvious he had no intention of being contacted, even if still in the area. So I phoned the engineer who’d supposedly completed the survey on which my friend had bought the boat. He told me he had absolutely no knowledge of the boat and had never even seen it, let alone surveyed it.
This whole affair was getting murkier and murkier and I felt we had no alternative than to contact the police. The vendor had well known the state of this boat before allowing us to take it to sea and must have been aware we could quite easily have lost our lives.
However, the police did not seem interested. I pointed out this was similar to a person knowingly selling a car in a dangerous state with a fraudulent MOT, but they refused to take the matter any further. Anne’s solicitor tried to obtain some form of satisfaction through the courts, but after discovering that the vendor was a ‘man of straw’ he advised us to leave matters as they were and make the most of a very bad job.
The boat was eventually lifted out and surveyed by a different qualified marine surveyor. This survey negated just about every point in the one given to my friend; it even listed the fact there was severe corrosion on both exhaust manifolds and that one had corroded to a large hole, pumping exhaust gases and water back into the boat.
We had the engines inspected and were not surprised when told there was no sign whatsoever of these units ever being overhauled. Just about everything on the boat had to be repaired or replaced before it could be re-launched.
Then, while moving some upholstery to get ready for the refit, Anne discovered a copy of a survey that had been carried out on that very boat a few years earlier.
From reading it, it was obvious that the vendor had not only copied that survey word for word and sent it to his insurers to ‘confirm’ the boat’s state, but also – and of more importance to us – to influence my friend’s decision over its purchase.
‘Although the tug moved quite slowly – for a tug – to us it seemed as if we were flying!’
properly maintained or rebuilt – like this one – a perkins 4108 diesel should give years of dependable service
A Navy tug towed the malfunctioning motorboat back to port