Last summer, I decided that I had to have a boat. I live in Boston and don't have a driveway or a garage, but I figured that's the beauty of a boat: it sits in the water. Unlike my other unreasonable future possession - a rally car - there's no garage needed. And I figured I had a foolproof plan for thrifty boat ownership. I'd buy an older boat with a solid outboard motor. Vintage outboards have no valvetrain, don't need oil changes, and have no through-the-hull fittings to leak or bind.
So, I bought a 1988 22-foot fishing boat with a 200-hp Johnson motor. I drove it back across the sea from Martha's Vineyard, and my theory seemed sound. It ran well, but, being a mechanical perfectionist, I chose to give it a comprehensive tune-up.
That's when I made the unfortunate discovery that not only are boats more complicated and expensive than most cars, they're more complicated and expensive than most high-end escort services. For instance, to change the Johnson's water pump, a normal preventive maintenance measure, you need to remove the entire gearbox and lower unit from the powerhead. That wasn't difficult, but unfortunately my gearbox decided that it hated working for Mr. Johnson upstairs and, like a gangrenous severed limb, resisted all efforts at reattachment. Eventually, with my mechanic threading the shift rod and driveshaft back into the powerhead and me squat-pressing the lower unit and screaming like Icelandic strongman Magnús Ver Magnússon towing a bus full of anvils, we put Humpty Dumpty back together.
Perhaps you've heard of the Empathy Belly, the weighted prosthesis that's supposed to show men what it's like to be pregnant? Well, to take that idea a step further, I believe most men could gain an appreciation for the stress and exertion of actual childbirth with the Empathy Johnson Water Pump. And by the way, you're supposed to change the water pump every other season.
The next surprise came when the mechanic announced that he had to sync the carburetors. "It has more than one?" I asked. How naive. He removed the airbox to reveal a full six-pack, one carb for each cylinder. When I expressed my amazement at this setup to tech editor Don Sherman, a fellow boat guy, he was unsurprised. "You've got to remember, to make that much power out of a motor that compact, it has to be in a state of tune like a Ferrari." Great. I buy a twenty-year-old outboard, and now I'm gonna have to retain a wizened old Italian man named Fazio to sniff the exhaust on a daily basis and tell me if carb number five is a little bit rich.
I eventually got her all tuned up and purring like a meth-addled, two-stroke mountain lion, but only after spending way more money than I expected. You might point out that with an old boat, your lower cost of admission comes with the certain expectation of maintenance costs, and you'd be right. But new boats play in an even more demented financial realm, a fact you quickly glean from reading boat magazines.
I have before me a boat magazine, open to a random review of a 34-foot cruiser. The boat in question is handsome but unremarkable, not the sort of thing that would wow anyone at the marina. It's powered by twin 300-hp General Motors LT1 350-cubic-inch V-8s - the absolute latest word in 1993 Chevy Camaro Z28 propulsion technology. Price: a mere $286,000. Assume that a marinized LT1 costs, what, six grand? Why is the rest of the boat so expensive? I don't get it. But I do know that for that sort of dough, you could get a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder or a Ferrari 430 Scuderia or his-and-hers Audi R8s. Exquisite possessions - and ones that don't use fifteen-year-old Camaro engines.
Last week, I got to drive the new, 600-hp Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed, and when I peeked at the sticker price, I saw it was somewhere around $245,000. That's the kind of price that prompts bystanders to gasp, "How could you ever justify spending that sort of money on a car?" The answer is that it's all relative. Because later that week, when I booked my modest boat for a slip at a local marina, I noticed that there were two reserved parking spaces right down by the dock. Both were assigned to particular boats, and both were occupied by Bentley Flying Spurs. I never encountered the owners of those cars, but I think they'd agree: compared with a boat, a Flying Spur is a screaming bargain.