The amateur Stella surveyors’ checklist:
Disclaimer: The check list , information and comments below are by no means exhaustive and is given in good faith. No responsibility will be taken by the writer or the Stella Class Association for any incorrect or missing information presented in this article or the conclusions which may be reached about a boat’s condition using this information.
It’s all too easy to fall in love with a boat before you have made an objective assessment of her overall condition and what it may cost to bring to put it right. This checklist provides a guide to making an initial assessment (pre-survey survey), but you will have to be a hardened character if your emotions don’t take over and you buy her anyway.
Good luck and try to be cool!
Paul Tattersall (Owner of Stella Caravelle #83)
You should always have a boat professionally surveyed before buying her. However, a systematic pre-survey by the prospective owner may save a lot of money and wasted time in forming an objective view of the boat’s condition. As well as prospective buyers, owners may also need to have their boats re-surveyed for insurance purposes every few years as well, and it is as well to correct as many faults as possible before this takes place as the surveyor’s report will have to be sent to the insurance company as both an evaluation of value and risk. The better this is, the less likely the insurance company will baulk when a claim is made in the future. Remember that a professional surveyor could spend anything up to 4 hours performing a survey, so take your time and make notes as you proceed.
Access and limitations of survey
Which parts of the boat can’t you get access to?
The boat needs to be on dry land to inspect the hull properly, but you may get some idea of her condition if on scrubbing posts.
How long out of water? Wet wood doesn’t always mean rot, but wood under pools of rain water should be given particular attention. Be wary of new paint – it may be hiding a problem! Paint is only skin deep, and should only be a minor consideration in a structural survey.
It should start easily (with water pump belt off and only for about 30 secs without cooling!), but running without load may not reveal a smoky diesel, big end and other bearing wear, prop shaft alignment or leaking stern gland problems. Any apparent water weeps and oil dribbles? Discoloured paint around the top of the engine can indicate overheating having taken place in the past. Exhaust system in good shape? ‘Swan neck’ and seacock at exhaust outlet if water cooled? Can you detect play in the stern bearing by pulling at the prop in any direction? Any old engine servicing bills lying around? – These can provide some evidence of a well looked after installation. It is said that Diesel engines need replacing about every 16 years, longer if well looked after. They can be reconditioned well, but you need to weigh up the number of extra years you expect to get against the cost of a new installation. The latter can be very expensive!
Do not stick screw drivers or spikes into wood without the owner’s express permission!
A professional survey will systematically work around the inside and outside of the hull with a special tapping hammer and moisture meter. This takes a long time and you have to have experience of what the different sounds and measurements mean.
The best the amateur can do is to systematically look at every plank for splits, paint bubbles or signs of damage and previous repair. This plank on the left is badly split in one place, but can probably still be repaired, rather than replacing the whole length. Seek professional advice on how to do this properly – it’s your safety at stake! Do the planks appear tight? Look for symmetry at bows and stern – damage from impact can show. Are there any obviously loose copper nails and roves? check inside as well. There are lots of them to look at! Look for signs of looseness where the internal floors are screwed to the hull, particularly where the engine is supported.
I am a fan of external sacrificial anodes, as they stop corrosion of the keel, propeller and engine parts whilst the boat is in the water, however some boats do not have them, relying instead on good quality painting of the keel and a local anode on the prop shaft. If the boat is fitted with an external anode, this must be connected internally back to any metal that needs protection, i.e the prop shaft, engine and keel. Check that the anode is connected!
The hull interior and cabins
You need a good torch and access under the berths and cabin and cockpit sole. Check every accessible rib for cracking. The Stella has a tight tuck near the keel and cracks are not uncommon. Is the planking adjacent to cracks compromised? Ribs can be repaired or doubled, but do take time and will run up a big boatyard bill if you can’t do them yourself .The photo on the left shows a doubled rib around a partial crack in its sister.
Check floor knees for looseness, rot etc.
Check the apron in the forepeak – does it appear sound? Shelves, beams, half beams and any other structural members. Chain plates – securely fixed? Signs of rust due to water ingress through between deck? The cabin interior should be in good shape, but look for splits and rot in the mahogany cabin sides.
These should be good quality marine fittings (not plumbing fittings) and should operate smoothly. There should be two cocks for the toilet, one for the engine cooling water inlet and one for the exhaust.
Spars and standing rigging
Is the mast free of darkened timber indicating the start of rot? Some masts inevitably have shakes (long cracks lying in the direction of the wood grain through drying out over the years). Look at this carefully, but assuming that there is no rot around these, it is probably OK. Particularly check joints, it is unlikely that the mast is made from a single tree and these can be failure points if the weather has got into them.
Boom – originally round section for roller reefing on Stellas, many boats have had these replaced with a rectangular section. Look along the length – this should be dead straight. Rigging – normally stainless steel these days. Inspect cable terminations (eyes) carefully. How old is the rigging? There is some opinion that this should be replaced every few years to avoid possible failure! If you don’t like the look of the rigging or are unsure about possible embrittlement and therefore unpredictable fatigue failure, replace it!
Mast, spars and standing rigging
You can’t check all the mast and standing rigging with the mast upright, but do what you can. Binoculars can help from ground level. Don’t feel embarrassed, it’s your cash you are going to part with! What can’t you see in action?
Fuel and water tanks
Often inaccessible, but try to see as much as you can. Are they secured effectively? (must be metal straps for the fuel tank and no soft soldered joints in the fuel pipes).
A professional surveyor will ask for evidence of sample bolts being drawn and inspected. The amateur should look for any cracks around the joint between keel and boat caused by flexing and tell tale rust stains around the top of the bolts and keel joint. Rust stains can appear around relatively new bolts, so it doesn’t mean the bolts are necessarily badly corroded , but it does mean that there is corrosion taking place.This interesting X-ray photograph was provided by Ben Kemper (Carina) and shows a keel bolt and its square washer plate above the iron keel. It can be seen that this keel bolt is not ‘waisted’ above the iron keel and probably does not need replacing, however you cannot see the bolt within the keel!
Carefully check the condition of iron fittings and wood, particularly at water level. Any rust? How much zinc galvanising is left? Fittings can easily be re-galvanised, but it’s a pain taking them off!
Depth sounder, radio etc – you may not be able to see these working, so ask!
Deck, coachroof and cockpit
The Stella uses marine ply for the decks, and this has to be well looked after to keep in good condition. The most likely places for rot is anywhere where there is inadequate ventilation (owners should always try to ensure a flow of air through the boat when not in use) Take a good look at the ply at the rear of the lazzerette connected to the transom. Ventilation is poor here!Look for rain water leaks around cabin windows. These can be a problem if left, as water will trickle to underside of side decks.
Check toe rails (rain water traps), rubbing strakes and cockpit joinery. Although varnish work is not structural, a lot of work is needed to bring poor woodwork up to a show-room shine!
Check deck and coach roof beams carefully. The beam and supports under the mast are critical.
Some Stellas have had the coach roof and decks sheathed. This is fine, so long as the job was done properly and wasn’t done to cover already rotten plywood (look closely at underside of deck in cabin).
Crawl right up into forepeak this is not often visited.
Gas, toilet, bilge pump, fresh water
Gas is a problem on boats and there are special rules applying to installation. It is not easy to vent a gas bottle on a Stella because of its relatively low water line and you need to look and see how this has been achieved. A marine spirit stove would be a bonus.
Sea toilets don’t last forever without maintenance to the pump seals and flap valve. The only way to check this properly is with the boat in the water. Be sure that the inlet and outlet hoses ride in a arc above the water line, thus minimising the chance of seawater being taken in by sea cocks left open inadvertently. This could sink your boat if not installed correctly.
There should of course be a working manual bilge pump permanently fitted, with the suction tube going to the deepest part of the bilge, under the engine. An additional electric bilge pump and float switch is a useful and an additional safety measure, but don’t rely on it.
Some Stellas have a water tank, connected to a small hand pump. The tank is commonly a plastic bladder type, typically holding around 13 gallons of water when full. The sack should be not be resting directly against the planking, as this will restrict ventilation.
Stellas usually have fairly simple wiring and is not difficult for the skilled amateur to replace if necessary, although this is very time consuming. Remember that wiring to appliances should be run as pairs, preferably twisted, to avoid magnetic disturbance to the compass, including an auto-helm compass.Do check that the battery(ies) are securely fixed in place and have appropriate isolation switching. A battery of more than 3 years old is unlikely to have much life left in it due to the deep charge/discharge cycling it receives in a boat.
A cruising man’s definition of ‘good condition’ will be different from that of a racing man! Inspect all the sails, not just the storm jib which will undoubtedly be in excellent condition! This is best done on clean flat ground or a sail loft.
Remember that a clean sail doesn’t mean that it is not blown out.
Replacing sails is very expensive and represents a significant part of a boat’s value. If you want to race, then you will need very good sails to be competitive. Systematically list condition of sails – tears, worn stitching, unglued joins and other signs of wear. You won’t be able to remember this later.
Anchors (yes – at least two and with loads of chain!), compass, radio, echo sounder, clock, dinghy, log, boarding ladder, bilge pump, autohelm etc. A really good sign of serious cruising would be a compass deviation chart. The above can add up to a quite a bit if you need to provide them, but are not anything like as expensive as buying a suite of sails.