Buying a Boat

Second-Hand Love—How About a Used Canoe or Kayak?

By Farwell Forrest

Used boat. It doesn't exactly get the pulse racing, does it? It's not sexy. It's not glamorous. It's even a little frightening. And that's too bad. The prices of new boats now start off at around three hundred and fifty bucks—not including such essential "accessories" as PFD, paddle, float bags, or helmet—and they climb steeply from there. They don't level off until they reach the stratosphere somewhere around $5,000.

Even at the low end, new boats aren't exactly cheap. If you're an ordinary working stiff, or if you have a houseful of kids, you may be priced right out of the market.

What's the alternative? Well, you can always build your own. A number of companies sell kits of pre-cut materials for both canoes and kayaks. But this isn't for everyone. You need tools, for one thing, and tools aren't cheap. You also need a safe place to work. And you need 20-80 hours of free time. In the end, even if you don't count the cost of your time, you probably won't save much over the price of a new canoe or kayak. There are many good reasons to build your own boat, of course, but economy usually isn't one of them.

Which brings us back to used boats. On any given day in North American, there are probably thousands of used canoes and kayaks for sale. So why not buy a used boat?

That's a good question. If they're well-treated, modern plastic and fiberglass boats will last for years. A ten-year-old canoe or kayak can be every bit as serviceable and seaworthy as a new boat taken right from an outfitter's rack. And national classified listings like those at make it easy to see if the boat of your dreams is for sale anywhere near you.

Don't neglect your local Pennysaver, either—or community lawn and garage sales. Many outing clubs have swap meets in the spring and fall, too. These can be great places to pick up a cheap boat. If you're in the market, keep your eyes open. You'll be surprised at what you find.

How can you tell if a boat has been well-treated? It's not as hard as it was in wooden-boat days, happily, but it still takes time. Don't buy any used boat sight unseen. Has the boat been stored inside or under cover when not in use? (Ask, if this isn't obvious.) Sunlight is a killer. Now look closely at the hull and deck, inside and out. Canoes are easy. Kayaks are harder. Remove the hatches and float bags. Use a flashlight and a small mirror. Superficial scratches don't matter. Ignore them. Deep gouges or cracks, on the other hand, are warning signs, particularly if they penetrate to the cloth in fiberglass boats. If water has found its way into the laminate, a boat may be irretrievably damaged.

Older, heavily-used, or abused fiberglass boats may also exhibit delamination. In addition to searching for gouges and cracks, look at the hull in oblique light. Note any discolored or wavy areas. Then place the boat on a soft surface. Put the palm of your hand over the suspect area(s). Now press just hard enough to make the hull flex slightly. (BE CAREFUL! This usually takes very little force.) Listen. Do you hear cracking or grating noises? If the answer is yes, you're better off looking elsewhere. Repairing delamination is a big job.

No problems? Keep looking. Examine the seams of fiberglass kayaks. (You'll need your flashlight again.) They should be neatly finished off, with no evidence of separation or delamination. Is the cockpit coaming smooth and securely attached? Good.

The gunwales and thwarts of a canoe are important structural members, too. Check them carefully. Are all the fasteners in place? They should be. Are there any cracks? That's not a good sign, particularly in a gunwale. Wooden gunwales require especially careful scrutiny. Remove the bow and stern decks, if possible, and look for evidence of rot at the ends, paying careful attention to the underside of the inwales. Is the wood blackened or otherwise badly discolored, and can you force your fingernail into the surface easily? If you can, you'll probably have to replace the gunwales. It's another a big job, though it's not as big a job as repairing a delaminated fiberglass boat.

If your preliminary inspection goes well, ask to take the boat for a short "test drive" on a nearby pond or lake. (You did bring your life jacket with you, didn't you?) Does it paddle well? Are there any unexplained leaks? (Open all the hatches and check at the end of your test drive.) Can you adjust the foot-braces to fit? If the boat has a rudder, does it work smoothly?

Once you've satisfied yourself that the boat is in good condition, you're ready to do a deal. How do you determine a fair price for a used canoe or kayak? There's no universal formula, of course, but I wouldn't pay much more than half the current retail price for a boat that had seen a season's use, and I'd offer even less for an older boat, or for a boat that showed much wear. Pay very little (if anything) for a badly damaged boat, or any boat requiring major repairs. Materials aren't cheap, and repairs take both time and skill. In many cases, it's cheaper (and easier) to build from scratch.

Once you agree a price, be prepared to pay cash, and ask the owner for a receipt that mentions the Hull Identification Number. Now you're ready to take your new old boat home. With a little care, it will give you years of pleasure—at a bargain price. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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