Alita is a Sparkman & Stephens yawl (design #1245-S), built in 1962 by Astillero Bottini in Montevideo, Uruguay. She is 39′ 7.5″ long, with a keel/centerboard. She is a sistership of the famous Finisterre, 3-time winner of the Newport-Bermuda race.
Although Alita was built to impeccable standards, she was in sorry shape when I took possession of her in 2009. Having been out of the water for a number of years, she suffered from a dried out hull, severely checked cabin sides, a deteriorated cockpit, lifting toe rails, a “frozen” engine, and many other ailments too numerous to mention. With luck, however, I hope to restore Alita to her former beauty.
The following text describes this project in detail, from the initial search for a suitable boat to the current status eight years later.
I’ve been in love with boats since I was a little boy watching a neighbor build a flat-bottom skiff in his driveway. Since then I’ve built or restored a number of small boats, but with retirement approaching I thought it might be nice to take on a somewhat larger project. Little did I know …!
Over the years, I’ve sailed, owned, maintained, and/or lived aboard a number of larger boats from 26 to 58 ft., so I had some idea of what I was looking for in a boat. For example,
Size: I wanted a boat large enough to live aboard comfortably, yet one that I could handle single handed, if necessary.
Cost: Although I didn’t establish a fixed budget, I didn’t want to spend a small fortune on the project. I guess a limit of $100K is a reasonable target.
Time: Again, I didn’t set a time limit, but I figured that 5 yrs. or so would be about right.
With these goals in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons:
First, with regard to comfort (living aboard and underway), bigger is better. I’ve sailed on lake Erie in a blow, on a 26 ft. Thunderbird, and comfort is not what comes to mind. I’ve also sailed on Malabar X (58′ schooner) in the Atlantic in worse conditions and you could sleep on deck! So big, in particular displacement, is best.
Big boats, however, are expensive – both to build/restore and to own. More material is required, and the scantlings are bigger, requiring special handling equipment. Bigger boats require more and beefier hardware. They also require a larger building shed. Slip fees and haul-out expenses increase with length.
Big boats are also harder to handle underway. Sails are bigger, anchors are bigger, etc. requiring more crew or specialized equipment (windless, roller furler).
Finally, big boats require more time to build, especially when working alone.
The analysis above limits the overall length to between 35 and 42 ft. Anything below 35 ft. is just too cramped and boats over 42 ft are just too labor intensive and expensive.
Build new or restore old?
I really wanted to build a boat from scratch. It’s the purest in me I guess – creating something new and shiny! I could purchase plans for a proven design and create the perfect boat!
I considered a number of construction methods, including fiberglass, cold molded wood, and traditional wood plank on frame. Ultimately, cold molding is just too difficult for someone working alone, and working every day with fiberglass is not particularly satisfying. So classic wood construction it is!!!
Although I still prefer new construction over restoration, I realized that it can be considerably less expensive to restore a boat that to build it from scratch. The difference is in the cost of the fittings/hardware. Although wood is expensive, it pales in comparison to things like the engine, ballast keel, winches, blocks, rigging, and the multitude of custom bronze castings that are required to outfit a proper sailing vessel. So assuming your project boat is not a complete wreck, the cost of restoration should be cheaper.
There is also the philosophical consideration, as pointed out to me by a boat builder on Cape Cod … It’s somehow more worthwhile to save an old boat (a part of history) than to discard it for something new.
Having established the ground rules, it was time to search for my project boat.
My search for a suitable project boat ended when I found Alita on Craig’s List. Alita had been “on the hard” in Connecticut for several years, a victim of neglect due to its owner passing away.
With no one to pay the mounting yard fees, the boat yard was anxious to unload her. So I acquired Alita for a fraction of her value. Some pics of Alita’s interior at that time can be found here (Alita’s Interior).
Alita is a famous design and was well built, so I envisioned mostly cosmetic repairs. Even a professional survey suggested as much. As you will see, I got more than I bargained for( Project Details).