I’m helping my friend go over the logistics of outfitting a boat for cruising/live aboard for a long distance trip now for about three months. I’m trying to organize my thoughts here.
There are three general categories for a liveaboard, or any sailboat really: Floating, Moving, Living. In order from most important to least important.
Most important is floating. If your boat isn’t floating it is sinking. The first thing to check is all of the through hull fittings, then through hull valves. Through hull fittings should be SS or Bronze. Valves should be bronze is possible. Some european manufacturers use nickle coated brass which only has a 5 year lifespan in salt water. All boats leak, particularly through the cabin top. If the boat has a bolt-on keel, it might have the “catalina-smile” — keel-hull separation. Check the hull-deck joint for any obvious signs of leaking. Check the chainplates for signs of cracking or soft spots. Make sure the bilge pump works and there isn’t much (if any) oil leaking in to the bilge. Proactive owners have a counter wired in to their bilge pump to see how often it kicks on.
Next most important is moving. Most any boat in any condition will sail moderately well in a light breeze. This may be why owners let their boats sit and rot but still take them out twice a year, because they can get away with it. This isn’t the problem; the problem is sailing in 35 knot winds and 12 foot seas is the problem. You go from 300 lbs of tension in the halyard to roughly 3000lbs of working tension. In no particular order you need to look at these systems: Rigging (cracked swaging, rusting wire), mast (cracks near rivets, corrosion/bubbling paint near winches), steering (wheel steering wire/chain, lubing), sails (hugely variable in quality depending on the previous owner(s)), the variety of sails (2-3 jibs, main needs 3 reefing points), then there is the engine (time for a new paragraph)
Engine needs to be diesel. An Atomic 4 (gas) at the end of the day is hard to get parts for and is in it’s sunset years in terms of repairability on the go and very few parts suppliers. Engine power is only at the top of the RPM range which is not where you want to rev a 30+ year old engine. The engine should be able to push the boat at hull speed against a 2 knot current in 20mph winds. For a 30′ boat that means you are looking at a 18-30hp diesel, preferably on the higher end of that range. You’re probably looking at a Yanmar, Perkins or Volvo. It shouldn’t leak too much oil, spark plugs should look good, compression should be good (80+psi), oil should be the correct color, should have “explosive” acceleration when manually adjusting the throttle. If it stutters in forward but not reverse, the piston rings are shot (rebuild engine) or valves are sticking (remove the head, replace headgasket while you’re at it), the reason why reverse works is due to the reduction gear in the drive system. Check the engine for “freeze plugs” and make sure they aren’t cracked/”used”. They aren’t actually called freeze plugs, the previous owner just wants you to think that. If the engine needs new freeze plugs there’s a good chance the block is cracked somewhere. Check for oil leaks going in to the bilge – the oil will clog the electric bilge pump faster than you can say “where’s all this water coming from?”. Obviously the engine should start right up, batteries + cables should be in good condition.
New paragraph. Running rigging (ropes) will all have to be replaced. Expect to pay $1.00-$1.50/ft. Expect to buy 200 feet of rope. The reason you’re buying the boat is because the old owner got bored of it, and after 3-7 years of the ropes sitting exposed to the elements, they will need to be replaced. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the lines as spares, but there’s no way you’ll want to be caught dead in a squall with your jib line snapped going to wind. Winches should move freely and easily and should not even give the indication that they might start sticking in six months. Parts are getting harder to come by and you can expect to spend $400 for a very basic two speed winch. All the blocks (pulleys) should run easily (try this after spraying them with some fresh water from a hose). All of them. Blocks are $18-55 generally so you should be very happy with how they work.
Living! You’re going to be spending a lot of time on this boat, what works and what doesn’t? You’re going to want a quarter berth; it provides superior interior storage compared to a double lazarette. The table in the salon should fold down in to a full or queen size bed. All berths need at least 6’6″ of space. Don’t settle for 6’1″; that extra 3″ of spaces makes all the difference in the world. The V-berth should have a hatch in the ceiling. Too many boats put the hatch in the head instead. This creates poor ventilation. Quite a few larger boats also have a second hatch, in the main salon for good ventilation. The head should work well, the holding tank and the hoses attached to it should be in stunningly good shape. There shouldn’t be a bathtub ring around the bottom of the boat. That is a good indicator that any encapsulated wood (tabbed in bulkheads, etc) is possibly rotten below that ring mark. Kitchen appliances should all be there and all work. They should be propane. Your boat should have an external propane locker.
You’ll need (want) a GPS unit; don’t skimp on the $300 model; get the $550-800 model, you will use it a lot. You’ll want a backup hand held model as well. Depth finder should work, as should the water speed indicator. The water pump should work, and again, the bilge pump should work. As should the manual pump out. Either the upholstery is perfect, or your girlfriend/wife is going to demand you reupholster, so factor that in to your budget. The VHS marine radio should work on the first try, or needs to be replaced. Stereo needs an ipod aux input line or similar, or needs to be replaced. All of the doors and cabinets should have metal locking latches that work and do not break.
You should expect to spend $5500-7000 to outfit for cruising. This does not include safety equipment, spinnaker equipment or a dinghy.