How to Throw Away a Boat

14 Mar

boat hole
Now that I’ve been overseeing a boatyard for ten months, I’ve run into the problematic issue of throwing boats away. Boats sink, catch fire, are abandoned, get too far behind on maintenance and repairs, and boats just get old. In these situations, the economically sensible thing to do is dispose of the boat.

Unlike the old days, intentionally scuttling a boat offshore now comes with heavy fines and maybe some jail time.

The cost of throwing away a boat varies widely. Some municipalities have programs for disposing of a boat for free (to the owner, not the taxpayer), but it generally costs $5,000-$10,000 to throw away a fiberglass 40-footer.

It costs this much because all hazardous materials must be removed before disposal. This means every last drop of fuel must be cleaned from the tanks (or tanks removed), every drop of oil from the crankcase (or engine removed), every drop of sewage from the holding tank, batteries removed and disposed of elsewhere, hydraulic fluid drained from steering systems, oil drained from windlass and gear works with oil baths, refrigerant removed and contained, etc.

If you can do all this yourself, then you’re just looking at transportation and disposal fees. Paying someone else to remove all the hazardous stuff and transport it gets expensive. You’d think there would be plenty of value in salvaging parts, but usually the only thing worth salvaging is a lead keel, as lead can fetch up to 75 cents a pound.

Once the boat is free of hazardous substances there are several avenues to disposal: Large men with chainsaws and demolition saws can reduce the boat to manageable chunks that can be thrown in a dumpster, then hauled away to the landfill. Or, the boat can be trailered whole to the landfill, where they will run it over with a landfill compactor. After a few passes it’s unrecognizable as a boat:

This is sad to watch, because even if it was a piece of crap before demolition, it was somebody’s baby once.

There are several promising technologies for recycling fiberglass, but none ready for the mainstream. At $35 to $50 per ton, disposal in a landfill is almost always the cheapest option.

All that composite material will then sit in a landfill forever, or at least, shall we say, hundreds of years. Wooden boats will eventually return to the earth. It seems to take about 100 years for a wooden boat to rot away to nothing in a temperate climate; much less time in the tropics. Steel boats will rust away in about the same amount of time. I don’t know the disintegration time for an aluminum boat, but for a composite (fiberglass) boat, it’s going to be taking up space and being ugly long after we are all forgotten.

With this in mind, owning a fiberglass boat isn’t just this year’s maintenance or next year’s haul-out. It’s the eternal plan for several hundred gallons of polyester resin. And, not to mention any names, but there are certain manufacturers turning out thousands of fiberglass boats every year, and these boats will have a lifespan of 20-30 years, after which they’re not worth maintaining.

It sort of like getting a puppy: If you’re the kind of person who is going to tire of it after the puppy stage, then you shouldn’t get a dog. If you’re going to buy a boat that needs work, not do the work, and then hope to sell or dispose of said boat in worse condition than you bought it, then you, or the sucker you sell the boat to for $1, will be headed for the landfill.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Clark Beek

    Hi All,

    It appears the only truly functioning fiberglass recycling plant is in Germany, as in, they actually extract the resin/petroleum from the composite for re-use. Elsewhere there are a few recycling operations that grind it up and use it as a fiber filler in other finished products, but it sounds like it’s on the razor’s edge economic viability.

    I can’t single out a single manufacturer for building crappy boats, but there are many who have set out to make the Volkswagens of boats: mass-produced and affordable. Some would argue that this is great for boating, in that it provides affordable entry-level boats to new generations of sailors. I’d argue that anyone looking for an affordable boat would be buying second hand, but second hand boat had to be new at some point.

    There’s a difference between affordable and cheap. Actual Volkswagens from the fifties and sixties are still on the road and coveted, because although affordable, they were built well, could be easily maintained, and stood the test of time. Many of these mass-produced boats (power and sail) just aren’t built that way: Fiberboard cabinetry, for example, will look great at the boat show, but in thirty years the entire interior will be crumbling, making it debatable whether the boat is worth keeping.

  2. Tony Johansing

    I like the idea of grinding up the discarded fiberglass and use it as an aggregate filler in building materials, paving materials, or even as part of a synthetic boat building material to replace balsa core and other structural woods in new boat construction etc.

  3. Jay Flynn

    “And, not to mention any names, but there are certain manufacturers turning out thousands of fiberglass boats every year, and these boats will have a lifespan of 20-30 years, after which they’re not worth maintaining.”

    Why not mention names? Call out those making a poor product that will wind up causing us problems.

  4. Picavet

    It is very easy. The constructor should be responsible to recover his boats. This is than of course aded to the sales price. Just like you pay extra for tires and oil change. The ad advantage will be that the constructors will end up with the boats and of course at that moment they will find the right method of re Use. But make sure that they do not ship it to a third world country, like computer/phone industry. It is always the same if you force them to find a good solution they find one. But industry is until, beside some exceptions, not crowned by responsability for environment or human beings. Of course you need to find the politicians who have the courage to come up for it

  5. C.Gains

    Hmm, same kinds of problems we have with cars, trucks, trains, planes, etc. Lead is a soluable heavy metal that has some salvage value. Hulls could be repurposed into reefs or mixed into concrete as fiber reinforcing or used in other composite materials. All labor intensive processes.

  6. Jim Butler

    Chuck Thiesenhusen
    I can’t help with hulls but Dacron is different. I sent thirty Dacron sails collected from Columbia Sailing Club members in South Carolina to Haiti to be recut for fishing boats.
    Mr Sequoia Sun ( provided transportation on his ketch Tandemeer on one of his recurring charity trips to Ill a Vache, Haiti. He has picked up old sails and other boat equipment in Charleston, SC and other East coast ports. And will probably do so again.

    Jim Butler

  7. Daniel J Irwin, CPA

    RE disposing of sails…I have sent a dozen sails to SailBags in exchange for nice party gifts for my club’s annual dinner.

    THey are responsible in how they deal with the old materials and it is just great to see old sailcloth put to good use.

  8. Al Giambalo

    There are bacteria that eat spilled oil. Maybe some smart person can breed polyestermites

  9. Jim Carey

    A lagoon near our marina is becoming a boat dump — VERY unpleasing to look at as the hulls as getting ugly and some masts are the telltales of where the boat actually is. One interesting project will be the sunken 50′ ferro-cement boat. The marine patrol is now starting to “ticket” boats abandoned and fining them $100 per day. Collecting on the ticket will be interesting.

  10. First Last

    Lottsa thoughts coursing through the cracks and crevices of my brain. Back to wood you lazy louts. Structural longevity usually involves harden plastic or ferrous/non ferrous materials. Unless a bacterialphage that will devour metals and plastic we are trapped with our advanced technology that promotes ease of function, maintenance, and longevity. Not to worry. We need not worry about Earth. It will survive.

  11. Chuck Thiesenhusen

    It’d be great to have a sail trade-in program. When I buy my new sail from the local loft, it would be great for them to take the old one.

    I really don’t want a discount, $$, a sail bag, or have to mail them – I just want to EASILY recycle them and know they’re not going in the landfill.

    I’m certain I would buy sails more frequently (or change brand loyalties) if I knew the manufacturer did it’s part to care for the environment.

  12. Tom Delco

    Clark Beek is right on the money with his article on boat disposal. I have been a marine surveyor for the past 40 years and have “totaled” boats for insurance companies for all of that time. My computer tells me that when I do a search using the phase; “constructive total loss” it comes back with 746 hits. That’s a considerable amount of fiberglass to dump in a landfill. Multiply that by all the surveyors out there doing the same thing and you come up with a real big number. It’s an environmental problem that stays with us for hundreds of years if not thousands. It’s time for the scientific geniuses to come up with a biodegradable boat.

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