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THE GOODS : For Sail Signs : You don't have to be rich to buy a boat. But shoring up your nautical knowledge can help you navigate toward a good deal.

August 18, 1995|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The old saw is that a boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money. A corollary is that if the craft is a sailboat, it will add to that fiscal thrill by making you work like a galley slave simply to get it to go.

That may be true if the boat in question has something like "Bounty" written on the stern. But you don't have to talk like Long John Silver and have forearms like Popeye and have access to the bank account of Donald Trump to tack off into the sunset in your very own sailboat. Today, there are several "entry level" sailboats on the market--craft less than 20 feet long, for the most part--that are simple to rig, transport, store and sail, and that won't deep-six your bank balance.

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Still, they are boats, which makes them exotic items for many landlubbers. Would-be sailors in Southern California may be able to assemble a Porsche 911 from the tires up, but may still refer to the bow of a boat as "the pointy end."

Entry-level sailboats are small, fun and relatively inexpensive, but it's still possible to get a lemon, or to buy a type of boat you don't really want. The place to begin your search for the right small boat is not, however, at a boat dealer, said Brad Avery, Orange Coast College's director of marine programs.

"My first advice would be to take sailing classes," Avery said. "You should at least learn the basics before you start looking around for your own boat."

Check with recreation and parks departments or community colleges, Avery said, to find beginning sailing classes. The classes are often inexpensive and will teach you everything from how to rig the boat to how to right it if it capsizes.

And, said Tom Schock, president of the W.D. Schock Corp., a Corona-based boat builder, learning to sail in a small boat can be even more valuable than learning in a larger craft with more bells and whistles.

"I don't believe you become as good a sailor [learning in a larger boat]," said Schock, whose company builds the well-known entry-level Lido 14. "You don't experience your own weight movement in a bigger boat, or how the boat reacts to your weight. You're not as sensitive. But in a smaller boat you feel the motion and the action and reaction to everything."

The principles of sailing are the same for a Lido 14 (the number refers to the boat's length) or a big ocean-going square-rigger. Rigging and operating most small American-made sailboats have several points in common. Most boats under 20 feet have in common a centerboard, a single mast, two sails (a main and jib) and a tiller. The smallest of them are designed for one small person (the popular, eight-foot-long Naples sabot is generally sailed by children or young adults) and the larger ones are advertised as being able to carry four adults, although some sailing sources say that may be crowding things.

Hull configuration is different for each boat. The Lido 14, for instance, is a classic monohull dinghy design, while the relatively new 13-foot Wave, made by the Hobie Cat Co. of Oceanside, is a break-down two-hull catamaran. Another style, sometimes called a "board boat," is used by the Sunfish Laser Co. of Portland, R.I., in its flat, quick, monohull Laser, which competes in the Olympics.

All these boats, and many more in their size range, make good learning boats, say sailing teachers and builders, and are often sailed competitively in class races. They are most often used in lakes or protected bays, but can also be sailed in the ocean in good weather.

And, in what might seem at first to be an incongruity, they're often seen at Southern California yacht clubs, not far from huge pleasure craft. Which is why, several sailors say, yacht clubs may be the best place to buy and sail entry-level boats.

"The best place to buy a small boat is at a yacht club bulletin board," said Jaime Malm, UC Irvine's sailing coach. "Most yacht clubs are private, but usually the public is welcome to come in off the street to write down the details about a boat for sale on the bulletin board."

The difference in price between a new and used boat is often far larger than the difference in quality. For instance, Malm said, a Laser may sell for $3,500 to $3,800 new, depending on extra equipment. A 10-year-old used Laser in good shape, he said, might sell for about $1,000.

How do you tell if a boat is in good shape? The hulls of most small boats are made from fiberglass, Malm said, so it's important to look for signs of delamination--that is, any peeling of layers of the fiberglass or wearing away at any point.

"You want to look for any structural thing like stress cracks and spiders--anything that looks like a spider web in the fiberglass," he said. "One sign of delamination is that [the hull] is wet inside."

Delamination can also affect the wooden parts of the boat: the centerboard, the tiller and rudder. "Watch for wood finishing that looks unmaintained or very dry," Malm said, "especially if it's not painted with lacquer or varnish."

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