‘The boat sunk in her berth’: one owner shares how to avoid losing your yacht

A little weekend cruising boat was great fun for Tiffany Butler, but keeping up with maintenance proved a challenge

After her boat sunk in her berth, Tiffany Butler decided to share her experience to prevent it from happening to other sailors.

Before living part-time aboard our Gozzard 36, my husband Charles and I were avid sailors, writes Tiffany Butler.

However, our relationship with sailing changed when our yacht became both our home and our hobby.

Going out for a day sail as liveaboards involved stowing the trappings of our daily life, rather than the previous ease of simply casting off the lines.

We’d stopped daysailing as frequently as we were accustomed to within a few months of moving aboard. Instead, extended sailing trips became a thing for long weekends and holidays.

A man wearing a hat lowering the main sail of a yacht with a blue hull

The couple hoped that buying a daysailer would help them get out on the water more. Credit: Tiffany Butler

Day-sail downsize

After spending a season alongside other liveaboard couples who we suspected felt similarly about sailing their homes, Charles began to search for a small daysailer.

‘Take a look at this,’ he said one evening. I scooted closer to him on the settee and looked at his iPad. ‘I’ve found our daysailer.’

A photo of a small sailboat filled the screen. Her tan-colored mainsail was a stunning contrast to her navy and white hull. ‘Yoshi,’ he said. ‘She’s a
1979 Precision Seaforth.’

‘She looks so small,’ I said, mentally comparing her to the boat we were on. ‘24 foot,’ he said. ‘I’ll teach you to singlehand her.’

We discussed Yoshi’s benefits before we scheduled a test sail: our Gozzard is heavy and hard to get moving in light to normal winds.

Three people sailing in a small boat with a blue hull

Tiffany fell in love with the Precision Seaforth daysailer on the test sail. Credit: Tiffany Butler

Yoshi would be easy to take out with only a few moments’ preparation. She had an outboard and a tiller so there would be no diesel maintenance.

Two days later, we sat in Yoshi’s cockpit with a hand on the tiller. We were excited, anticipating the adventures we’d have aboard such a small, nimble sailboat.

It was a gorgeous day on the Chesapeake Bay. The wind was just enough to fill the sails and show us her best sailing. It was almost as though the Bay wanted us to buy Yoshi as much as we wanted her.

The owner accepted our first offer because we’d brought cash. She was rare, he told us, mentioning that only nine were left on the water.

He needed some time to remove his personal items. We made an appointment for the following afternoon to sail her home.

A lively sail home

Sailing Yoshi home was a different experience to our test sail. The weather was unseasonably chilly, the windiest day of the week.

We took turns at the tiller and practised tacking.

The manoeuvre was quite different in Yoshi’s small cockpit to what we were used to on our Gozzard.

Two men wearing hats sitting in the cockpit of a small yacht

Charles takes the helm for the first time, before buying the boat. Credit: Tiffany Butler

There were few other sailboats on the Bay that day. It felt like we had the water to ourselves as we got used to how she heeled and how she took the waves.

Once she was ours, we replaced the standing and running rigging and installed two new, heavier bronze self-tailing winches.

It felt great to be back on the water for the summer and autumn.

We sailed Yoshi as often as possible to make up for the time we’d spent alongside. We sailed her that autumn until it was simply too cold to be out on the water.

Winter is our busiest season at work. We didn’t have as much time for sailing but we had plenty of time for planning.

We dreamed about Yoshi’s first big sailing trip that winter. Charles planned to circumnavigate the Delmarva peninsula. It borders Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay in the east and the Atlantic in the west are connected by a narrow canal.

Striped cushions on the berth inside a boat

The boat had just enough space to make a base for Tiffany’s writing when not being sailed. Credit: Tiffany Butler

Spring arrived with numerous work projects, so we put the circumnavigation on hold.

Instead, we enjoyed day sails on the Chesapeake Bay, often making excuses to leave our business early and only returning to the marina in the last vestiges of twilight.

That winter Charles jiggled Yoshi’s rudder to move some floating ice away from her hull. The rudder, a 1979 original, cracked.

Fortunately, it floated, and he was able to bring it aboard. I tasked myself with finding a replacement.

It would have to be custom. I learned just how expensive it would be.

To save money, I ordered a custom rudder with no due date.

Rather than paying mooring fees, we moved Yoshi to the hard.

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Hopes thwarted

Winter moved into spring. I began writing a book. I needed a quiet, dedicated writing space and Yoshi was the perfect solution.

I refitted her interior with an air conditioner and heater, an electric cool box, a desk and a WiFi extender to pick up the boatyard’s signal.

I finished the book just as Yoshi’s new rudder was being installed. We re-launched after almost a year on the hard.

It felt great to be back on the water again.

A yacht with a blue hull and tan sails

Tiffany and Charles were attracted to Yoshi’s tan sails and blue hull. Credit: Tiffany Butler

Charles was excited to revisit his Delmarva peninsula circumnavigation plans as Yoshi’s first sail of the season.

Unfortunately, he never left the pontoon. ‘I can’t raise the mainsail,’ he said when I called to ask him how the preparations for the journey were getting on.

I could tell how disappointed he was. ‘Looks like the sheaves at the top of the mast are stuck firm.’ ‘You might still be able to leave tomorrow morning,’ I said, trying to be optimistic because I knew just how badly he wanted this sail.

We weren’t able to find replacement parts nearby. Ordering them would take as long as he’d planned for the trip.

We placed the order, disappointed to miss another adventure. We meant to do the repairs ourselves.

However, another season got away from us. Soon, it was winter again.

Swallowed by the sea

With each delay, we believed we’d be back on the water soon. Yoshi was a way for us to sail frequently. We had so many plans.

We couldn’t imagine a scenario in which our time with her would come to an end.

That winter, we promised ourselves we’d complete the repairs and get back to sailing regularly.

A boat sunk underneath the water in a marina

The boat sunk in her berth: Unable to check the boat during COVID, blocked cockpit drains and a failed battery for the bilge pump led to Yoshi flooding and sinking. Credit: Tiffany Butler

That spring, the Covid-19 pandemic occurred. It impacted our business and time seemed to stand still. Sailing took a back seat yet again.

Yoshi sat inertly in her berth. We visited her regularly at first, but less often with the pandemic’s lockdowns and uncertainty.

We kept the bilge pump’s battery charged with a trickle-charge solar panel.

Neither of us knows when it failed, so everything that happened next is speculation.

The cockpit scuppers were likely to be clogged by debris. Summer downpours probably filled the cockpit with rain.

A woman wearing a black top and black trousers and wearing sunglasses and a hat helming a boat

Tiffany Butler divides her time between a Gozzard 36 on the Chesapeake Bay and a tiny house in Virginia. She lives with her husband and dog, and writes fiction and essays that are not all fun and games. She coaches writers and teaches workshops. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work appears in a variety of journals and magazines. She has completed a collection of short stories and has a novel in progress. Credit: Tiffany Butler

With a failed bilge pump and a cockpit full of rainwater, she would have sat heavy and low in the water.

Yoshi’s outboard sits in a short open well in the cockpit.

When the well dipped below the waterline, I imagine it could only have been moments before she sank to the bottom, still moored in her berth.

My boat sunk in her berth: Lessons Learned

  • Finding time: Make sure you have the time to commit to a yacht. The fantasy of owning a small, single-hand daysailer catches up to you when you realise the upkeep takes time and money you might not have. Things change. Sometimes life gets in the way. Make sure you have room in your life to fit in a boat.
  • Keep checking: Visit your boat often or pay someone to do it for you. Boats don’t like to be neglected. Even if you don’t have the time for sailing regularly, you’ll need to be present on a fairly regular basis. Make sure the cockpit drains aren’t clogged. Make sure the bilge pump works. Examine lines for chafing.
  • Don’t get complacent: Beware if you think something will never happen to you. If you’d asked us about the possibility of one of our boats sinking, we’d have laughed and talked about neglect. Yet, here we are, the butt of the joke, totally guilty of what we’d have said would never happen to us.
  • Check your boat insurance: Ensure your paperwork and credit cards are up to date. The credit card we used for autopay at our insurance company expired. We missed their email about it, and they cancelled our policy without a second notice. We’ve not only lost a boat but also a few thousand dollars.

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