Boat Buying At High Elevations
By Barbara Theisen

When Tom and I first decided to pursue our sailaway dream, we were living in Vail, Colorado with no boat, no money, and with very little sailing knowledge. That didn’t stop us. We just started at square one. First we did our homework. Part of “doing our homework” included a vacation to Washington State to attend the Seattle Boat Show. After returning home to Vail that September, we had sailboat fever and we were hot. We knew it was time to get a boat and start putting some miles under the keel, even if those miles came in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. We weren’t ready to burn all of our bridges yet and follow our dream of living aboard and cruising, but we were ready to start a little fire. We felt we had a good feel for the used sailboat market and after trampling all over boats at the show, we thought we knew enough to find ourselves a good “starter” boat. In fact, we were able to find a great boat - perhaps because we were prepared, but mostly it was pure luck.

Trailering the Balboa 26 at the top of Vail Pass.

Financially we weren’t sure if we could afford a boat yet, so we talked about getting a sailing partner. My sister Renee volunteered immediately and we were off to look at used boats. There aren’t a lot of places to look for sailboats at an elevation of 8,000 feet so we drove over Vail Pass to Lake Dillon - elevation 9,000 feet.
There we found several used boats for sale in the 22-24 foot range. The owner of one, a lawyer from Vail, tossed us his keys and told us to take her out for the afternoon. “Just tie her back in the slip and return the keys to me at my office tomorrow,” he generously told us.

Well, we weren’t about to turn that offer down. Off we went. It was a crisp September day with a startling blue sky and mountain peaks draped in fresh autumn snow. One-year old Kate never stopped smiling - and neither did the rest of us.

As much fun as we had, we weren’t really excited about the boat. She was a bit tired and worn and the asking price a bit much for her condition. We tucked her back in her slip and returned the keys. The next weekend we had an appointment to see a 26-foot boat in Denver. On our way down, we stopped back at the Dillon Yacht Club to check on another boat. When Tom stepped out of the car, his mouth fell open. “We sunk the boat,” was all he said as he gazed down at the marina. Renee and I didn’t know what he was talking about but Tom finally managed to point down to the slip where we had left the lawyer’s boat. All we could see was the top foot of the mast sticking above the water. We rushed down toward the boats in disbelief.

“What did we do!”
“We didn’t do anything!”
“We couldn’t have done anything!”
“Did we do something?”

We were all talking at once, wondering what could have happened and why it had to be a lawyer’s boat that we had sunk.

Balboa 26 at Utah’s Lake Powell.

Our appointment in Denver didn’t go much better. We found the address and saw the boat sitting in the backyard but no one was home. After an hour we gave up and then got lost trying to find our way back to the interstate. That’s when I spotted a forest of masts. We turned into a boatyard called Little Ships and asked owner John Doremus if he had any boats for sale. Well, he did just happen to have one used sailboat for sale. He was doing some fiberglass work on her. It took Renee and I about three minutes to know that this was the boat for us. Tom likes to contemplate things a bit longer. He knew it in about ten minutes.

She was a 1976 Balboa 26 named Centennial. She hadn’t had much use in her eleven years. In fact one of the sails had never been used and the alcohol stove was still wrapped in its original wrapping. The boat had been damaged when another boat broke loose in a storm and pounded her stem severely. The owner had pocketed the insurance money and John at Little Ships had himself a boat project. He was just finishing up the fiberglassing, and the boat looked like new. John didn’t want to hold on to her all winter and was willing to sell the boat and trailer for $8,000. We became boat owners.

Yes, it ended up being our lucky day. The lawyer said it was lack of maintenance that had sunk his boat. A thru-hull fitting had failed causing the boat to sink. But he was willing to lower the price if we didn’t mind a wet boat!

We wasted no time learning to sail the Balboa. We trailer her to Utah’s Lake Powell over Thanksgiving weekend. The hardest part of that adventure was getting her up Vail Pass - elevation well over two miles high. The scariest part was getting her down Vail Pass! Now that was adventure trailer sailing.

That winter we would drive the six hours from snowbound Colorado to the desert of southern Utah to sail whenever we had a long weekend. In May we brought her back to sail on Lake Dillon. It wasn’t long before we were sure that the cruising lifestyle was for us.

We couldn’t have asked for more from our fist sailboat. She gave us a chance to get our feet wet - giving us some much needed sailing experience while having the time of our lives. But it was time to burn some bridges. We sold the Balboa for a nice profit, moved to Wisconsin and began looking for our next boat. We couldn’t wait to move aboard and begin cruising. But this time, we did it a little closer to sea level.

Barb Theisen lives aboard “Outward Bound”, with her husband, Tom, and two daughters, Kate and Kenna most of the year. They are currently in Wisconsin..