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Top Five Trawler-Buying Mistakes

We once heard that trawler owners are some of the most experienced boaters in the world. While we have no hard evidence to confirm this, we can attest to the fact that most owners we've spoken with over the past 10 years have achieved an impressive résumé of cruising experience. Like us, their experience had progressed over time and has included some degree of trial and error.

Even with 30 years of boating experience—including commissioning two new Nordhavn trawlers and living aboard part time—there are times when we feel like novices. One area in particular that provides clear evidence of our "still learning" status is the process of purchasing a new boat. Let's face it: not many people buy enough boats in a lifetime to become experts, so the opportunity to make a big mistake is always lurking around the corner. Today, as we begin preparing for our third trawler purchase, we find ourselves dusting off our list of the "Top Five Trawler-Buying Mistakes" in hopes of staying clear of any storms that may lie ahead. Our list includes both mistakes we've made and missteps that other trawler owners have told us about.


Having unrealistic expectations is probably the easiest of the five mistakes to avoid, as long as you are willing to do your homework and collect and analyze the information you need to make accurate decisions. Doing research and getting some actual experience are the only true ways to steer clear of, or least minimize, this mistake. Our approach starts with some serious soul-searching and honest discussion on how we plan to use the boat over the following three years. Three years is about as far as we like to project, due to life's countless opportunities for change.

Once we've agreed on a plan, the search begins for the perfect boat. Hull design, safety, and comfort normally make up our top three considerations. Once we've identified all the prospective builders, we start to research each company and its product line. Between the Internet, magazines, and boat shows, we usually can narrow our search down to one or two builders within a year.

Once we've decided on models we're interested in purchasing, sea trials follow. Understanding the handling characteristics of the boat is very important to us, and we take each sea trial very seriously. There is always time to evaluate the static aspects of the boat while at the dealer's dock, so we schedule long sea trials and hope for sloppy weather to put the boat through her paces. After we return home, we discuss how the boat measured up to our expectations for the couple of hours we were at sea, and we try to envision ourselves on the boat for days or weeks at a time. Even after we've confirmed that we have selected the right boat, we sit back and address our personal expectations one more time.

When we purchased our first Nordhavn 40, we both assumed that a weeklong, 1,000-mile cruise from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, was on the agenda. It wasn't until after we had owned the boat for about a year that the first mate decided a weeklong cruise exceeded her level of fun! While the boat remained the perfect choice and exceeded our technical expectations, our personal expectations had changed, and we needed to rethink how we would use the boat.


Underestimating the cost of ownership is a common mistake. When we started researching our first trawler, we had a heck of time locating accurate, real-time, well-documented information on ownership costs. Chores like bottom cleaning and replacing hull zincs weren't things that appeared in our visions of long summer cruises, barbecues on the aft deck, and sipping margaritas at sunset. Add in monthly slip fees, insurance, boat washing, semiannual waxing, property taxes, fuel, oil changes, spare parts, and satellite TV and radio, and it adds up. All these costs are added to our monthly boat payment, making the total cost of ownership significantly greater than what we planned for. Now that we have gone through this experience twice, we would like to think that we are better prepared for trawler number three.


Buying the wrong type of trawler is another mistake we came very close to committing. Since we would be using Maria Elena as a part-time liveaboard due to a job transfer (yes, some guys do get lucky), living space was a major concern. While Maria had no issues with the quality or layout of the boat, she would have preferred something with a little more room. Our nominal budget limited us to the smallest of the Nordhavn displacement-hull fleet; I was not willing to give up quality and safety for a larger boat from a different builder. Thankfully, the layout on the N40 is perfect for a couple (and occasional guests), and things have worked out very nicely.

An area that didn't work out as well for us was the slow speed of a full-displacement hull. When you take your wife, who is used to fast cars and day boats, and ask her to settle in for a nine-hour boat ride at 6.5 knots, you can expect some resistance. During one of our first trips, I remember telling her of a cartoon I had seen: a snail sitting on the back of a turtle with the wind in its face, saying "weeee" as the turtle crept along. In our case, we were the snail and the Nordhavn was the turtle. It became worse when the occasional sailboat would pass us.

While Maria came to appreciate the "journey" aspect of the trawler rather than the destination, she will not let go of the snail and turtle joke. The lesson here is to make sure the size, type, and speed of the boat meet your needs. If they don't, there is a good chance the boat will just sit in her slip, and no one will be happy.


Not getting the first mate's approval—something we consider the worst mistake in our "top five" list—is a guaranteed recipe for disaster at sea. We have spoken with a large number of couples from coast to coast in which the first mate had serious reservations regarding the whole trawler adventure, slow speeds, and long passages. We could hear reluctance in their voices and seriously thought that some of these arrangements would not work out. The number of relatively new, million-dollar trawlers that go up for sale less than a year after purchase could be an indication that we may not have been far off the mark.

While we managed to escape this hazard, it was not without compromise on both sides. Perhaps the secret to successful trawler ownership is the same as the key to marriage itself: compromise. Bottom line is, even with the right boat, a budget large enough to manage the QE II, and the best of relationships, if spending time on the water is not an equal passion for both parties, you may easily find yourself in very treacherous waters.


Buying on emotion is something many dealers dream about during boat shows, but it is a very big mistake. That being said, emotion is part of this great adventure of cruising, and, at times, it is difficult to contain. Those who have significant cruising experience are less likely to fall into this trap, while newcomers to this lifestyle need to be careful. If I could offer only one suggestion to a prospective trawler buyer, it would be to never sign a contract during a boat show. Most reputable manufacturers do not have to use artificial boat-show pricing to try to lure buyers. A reputable builder with a quality product should have nothing to fear by educating prospective buyers prior to having them make their purchase decision.

Take your time, and do your homework. Even after you have found the perfect boat and your first mate is totally on board, step away for a week or so, and then ask yourself if you still have the same level passion and desire to truly take on the trawler lifestyle. If the answer is "yes" and your enthusiasm is still high, then fulfill your dreams and start your journey.