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Old 07 December 2004, 13:05   #1
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What to look for when buying second hand - Tim Bartlett

What to look for when buying second hand
by Tim Bartlett

This article by Tim Bartlett, author of Navigation at speed, looks at the whole rig -- boat, engine and trailer. Know what to look for! Many thanks to Motor Boat and Yachting for allowing RIBnet to reproduce this piece. < Edit: This article was one of the first things on RIBnet at the beginning in January 1998! JK >

You've combed the magazines and local papers, and maybe tramped around boatyards or let contacts know that you're in the market for a second-hand RIB. It may take weeks, or happen overnight, but sooner or later, you'll find yourself looking at a likely prospect. And it's at times like this that it's obviously worth knowing exactly what you're looking for.

The seller
Legally, a RIB has much the same status as a bicycle, in that it is covered by the Sale of Goods Act. The most important bits of this are Sections 12 and 13, which say that the seller must own whatever he's selling, and that he must describe it accurately when he offers it for sale. Section 14 goes on to specify that it must be of merchantable quality and fit for its intended purpose.

Together, these mean that you can generally be pretty confident about buying a second-hand RIB from an established dealer.

Things are different if you're buying from a private individual. The vast majority of private sales are perfectly genuine, and the final price is usually lower than that charged by a dealer, but you have to be more careful. A private seller has no business reputation to protect. The Sale of Goods Act doesn't help: Section 14 doesn't apply to a private sale; Section 13 is effectively watered down because an amateur can't be expected to have the expertise required to recognise subtle or hidden defects; and Section 12 provides no real protection against a crook.

It obviously pays to avoid the chap who can only be contacted on a mobile phone, who offers to bring the boat to you, and who then insists on being paid with folding money, but it's not unknown for a thief to sell a boat from the driveway of its real owner's home. Asking to use the loo is a useful check that the seller probably does live there!

A third option is to buy through a broker. Brokers hate being compared to estate agents, but essentially they both sell things which they don't own on behalf of their clients. An established broker probably won't jeopardise his reputation for the sake of a few hundred pounds commission, and has a duty of care to the buyer as well as to his client - but he isn't bound by the important 'fit for its purpose' section of the Sale of Goods Act.

One snag is that it can be difficult to tell the difference between a broker and a dealer, especially as many yards are both, with brokerage boats mixed up amongst their own stock.

The engine
The engine is probably the component most likely to need expensive repairs. Often these are due to well intentioned misuse, such as running up the engine ashore. Even without cooling water, the engine won't instantly overheat: it will, however, wear out its water pump impeller, so that the engine subsequently runs hotter than intended, possibly causing extensive internal damage.

That apart, there are six main points to look for:
  1. With the kill-cord out or the ignition switched off, pull the starter cord or put the engine in gear and turn the propeller by hand. You should feel a distinct resistance as each piston rises to compress the air in its cylinder. [ NB Opinions vary on this! Some people insist that you should NOT turn the prop over by hand in gear as it could kick and take your fingers off! JK]
  2. Try to shake the engine, to check for wear in the swivel bracket and mounts. RIB engines are particularly prone to this and it can be expensive to put right.
  3. Slacken the gearbox oil drain plug and see what comes out. (You'll need to take a big screwdriver for this.) The oil should be thick but transparent; 'milkiness' is a sign of water contamination that could have damaged the gears or bearings.
  4. Inspect the propeller: if it's badly 'dinged' or suspiciously new, take the engine out of gear and rotate the prop slowly by hand, looking carefully to make sure that whatever damaged the prop hasn't bent the shaft as well.
  5. Take the cowl off, and look for signs of salt corrosion, particularly around the cylinder head. Replacing a head gasket, on a two-stroke, isn't a particularly serious matter, but a long-standing leak may have cut deep grooves into the cylinder head itself.
  6. Ask the owner whether the engine has been regularly serviced. Even if he can't show you a full service history, he should be able to offer a few old bills.
The trailer
Boat trailers lead a hard life, particularly if they are used for launching into salt water. In the long run, though, the most expensive problem with a trailer may be that it isn't 'street-legal'. The regulations are quite complicated, but lndespension (0800 720720) publish an excellent Trailer Manual which, for £1.25, could easily save you your driving licence.

Again, there are six main points to check:
  1. Does it fit the boat and provide adequate well spread support?
  2. Rust often looks far worse than it really is. A simple test is to tap suspect areas - including those that have been recently painted - with a light hammer or the handle of that big screwdriver. After superficial rust has dropped off, sound areas will produce a healthy clang, rather than a dull thud.
  3. Brakes, too, are a common problem even on well-maintained trailers. Don't condemn one just because its brakes are seized - so long as they release when the trailer is nudged backward or forwards, or when the drums are tapped with a hammer. But do check that the cables look in good condition, and that the brakes don't bind or scrape when the trailer is being towed.
  4. Wheel bearing failure is potentially catastrophic, especially if you lose a wheel from a two-wheel trailer on a motorway. Check for weakness by grasping the wheel with your hands 180 degrees apart, and trying to rock it. Any movement of the wheel rim should be no more than barely perceptible.
  5. Make sure the coupling bolts are tight, and - on a braked trailer - try to wiggle the hitch to check for wear. Then try to push the hitch back towards the trailer: it should slide slowly, and with resistance, rather than being seized solid or slipping in easily.
  6. Finally, inspect the winch mechanism for worn or jammed pawls, and the strap for serious cuts or chafe. If it has a wire cable, assume you're going to have to dump it, because internal corrosion can make an apparently sound wire cable snap without warning.
The boat
Most RIBs have a glass fibre hull stiffened with wood or ply, but the tubes can be made of any of three types of material. Even experts sometimes have difficulty telling them apart, but it's useful to do so, because the material used can have an enormous effect on the cost of repairs.

Hypalon is the traditional fabric, used by the majority of builders. It smells slightly rubbery, and quickly weathers to a matt surface, which can be glued very effectively. Almost any repair is possible, and minor amateur repairs are likely to be reasonably reliable.

PVC is the mid-tech alternative, used mainly for light and relatively cheap dinghies because it lends itself to mass production by welding. It smells slightly plasticky and keeps its bright, shiny finish, which cannot be glued as easily as Hypalon. This makes professional repairs more expensive, and amateur repairs less reliable.

Polyurethane (PU) is the relatively rare hi-tech option. It's strong, and very resistant to abrasion, but was never intended to be glued, so repairs are an expensive and specialised job.

Apart from the problem of identifying what it's made of, inspecting the boat is fairly straightforward, because very little is hidden. It's not a bad idea, though, to take a bucket and some washing up liquid with you to wash the tubes and show up any minor leaks.
  1. Patches shouldn't detract from the boat, so long as they have been done properly. If any are starting to peel, try to pull them off by hand: a good patch won't come off, and a bad one will need re-doing anyway.
  2. Leaks from the seams are much more serious, especially in a PVC boat. In a glued PU RIB, they're terminal. In very old boats, the fabric itself may have become slightly porous: this, too, is irreparable.
  3. Small star-shaped cracks in the hull can usually be ignored unless the boat is kept afloat. Much more serious are longitudinal cracks along the chine. Worst of all are long athwartships cracks, usually just forward of the transom, which show that the boat has 'broken its back' and is effectively a write-off.
  4. The transom is a vital structural member, subjected to very high loading. Again, minor cracks along the base are nothing to worry about, but watch out for a transom which is not flat: if it appears to have folded at deck level, it means that the internal wood has rotted. Look, too, for the early stages of the process any signs of softness or springiness around holes or fittings.
  5. Decks are similar to transoms, with a ply or PU foam core encapsulated in GRP, so they suffer the same problem. If there's any sign of springiness, you might as well give up, as repairs could cost almost as much as the boat is worth. Cracks around the hull-to-deck joint are not serious in themselves, but can eventually let water or spilt fuel into the deck sandwich.
  6. Consoles are often the weakest part of the boat: it's not unusual to find them cracking away or coming unscrewed, It's a minor problem, and easily rectified, but the old screw holes must be filled to stop the deck softening. A console which is cracking up is more expensive but scarcely more complicated. You just buy a new one!
  7. Lastly, check out the ancillary equipment. If the boat has a fixed fuel tank, make sure it's well secured and not leaking, and if there are any electrics in the tank space they should be properly supported and free of any joints or connections. Fuel lines, too, should be in continuous lengths, without joins. Stiff controls may need their cables replaced - not a particularly expensive job, but one that needs to be budgeted for. If there is any free play in the steering system it may need a new steering box, which could be a couple of hundred pounds.
It's easy, when you're looking at 'your' new boat to fall into the trap of overlooking her faults on the basis that everything can be fixed if necessary. It's important to be realistic, however, because a dozen minor jobs can, all too easily, add £1,000 to the total price. It's just as important to avoid going to the other extreme, and turning down a sound boat just because it shows signs of having been used.

Apart from the fact that the price should reflect the fact that it's not in pristine condition, a well-used and well-maintained boat may be a better bet than one whose weaknesses have yet to be discovered because it has lain idle.
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