Former sailors Cindy and Ariel Poler decided to buy a motorboat which they could use as a second home in San Francisco, so how come they ended up buying a Princess F50 in Italy?
When our youngest son left for college last summer, my wife Cindy and I decided to sell our San Francisco home and move to our weekend place at Stinson Beach, 45 minutes north of the city. As lifetime sailors, kiters and surfers, we couldn’t wait to wake up to the sound of the ocean every day and be able to get on the water for every lunch break.
We both have flexible occupations, me working with technology start-ups, Cindy doing online maths coaching for kids, so all we needed was to be able to spend a couple of days a week in San Francisco. The idea was to get a small apartment in the city that we could use as our operations base but it soon became clear that, given the local property market, finding a place we would be excited about at a reasonable price was next to impossible.
We then had a crazy idea: what about replacing the small sailboat we keep at the San Francisco Yacht Harbour with a motor boat, and use that as our base? The SF Harbour is a stunning place, in a great neighbourhood with amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Palace of Fine Arts.
The marina doesn’t allow liveaboards, but they do allow you to sleep aboard three days per week, which was more than enough for us. The cost of such a set-up would be an order of magnitude lower than that of a comparable apartment!
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To lifetime sailors like us, the thought of buying a motor boat was blasphemy. We’ve owned, sailed and raced yachts of all types and sizes, from dinghies, such as Lasers and Optimists, to a 65-foot performance cruiser. A motor boat had never held any appeal to us, yet it soon became crystal clear that this would be the perfect solution for our current circumstances.
We knew absolutely nothing about motor boats, so we started with a few basic criteria: a spacious saloon, a flybridge from which to enjoy the views and a pleasant master cabin. Our initial idea was to find a boat that would fit in our 40-foot berth – as berths in the SF Harbour are very difficult to obtain. Our research started with the dozens of reviews and boat test videos that we read in Motor Boat & Yachting and viewed on mby.com.
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We literally went over every boat in the archives! We then found out that the Seattle Boat Show was taking place the following week, so we bought our plane tickets and started to make appointments to see boats.
The hunt begins
The Seattle show was our first experience evaluating motor boats. We quickly realised that most of the boats that looked promising online would not work for us. There were three main problems:
Saloon layout: We would be spending most of our time in the saloon at the marina. We needed a saloon where we could be comfortable for hours on end, and where we could enjoy the view and entertain friends. Yet most of the saloons we saw felt sunken with humungous helm seats towering over them, and a table that would be good for a meal but not for relaxing for extended periods of time. We realised there were two aspects of the saloon that were crucial for us: opposing seating and a raised lounging area.
Quality and craftmanship: My wife and I both come from families of architects and designers. We are very sensitive to details, materials and quality in general. Unfortunately, many of the boats in our initial target list felt cheap. They seemed fine for a day on the water, but not as our second home.
Style: Many of the boats, particularly the Italian brands, were simply not to our taste. Lots of shiny metal, sleek plastics and funky lights. Cindy described them as too “Miami Vice”.
We spent the next month doing more research and visiting boats in Newport Beach, San Diego, Stuart, Daytona Beach and Sausalito. Finally, we went to the Miami Yacht Show. Still we couldn’t find a boat under 40 feet that felt right. The closest one was the Greenline 40, which had the best saloon of all the boats we saw in that size range.
We also loved the exterior and styling of the Cockwells Duchy 35. We even had a couple of video calls with Dave Cockwell, yet it became clear that to address our need for a sociable saloon and a pleasant master cabin, we needed a boat longer than 40 feet.
So we started to consider larger boats, making the bet that we would somehow get a 50-foot berth at our marina. Yet even the larger boats continued to fail in at least one of our three key criteria: layout, style, or craftsmanship. We looked at the Azimut 43, Ferretti 450, Sealine 430, Prestige 460, Absolute 47, Galeon 430 and others. None felt like the new San Francisco home that we were looking for.
We explored some of the more classical looking boats, such as a Grand Banks Europa 43 and a Sabre 42 Fly. We liked the fact that they felt like “sailors’ motorboats”. They checked the style and quality boxes too, but none had the right layout, and their master cabins weren’t great either. We also concluded that we preferred a simpler more modern design.
To our surprise, one single boat surfaced that checked all our boxes: the Princess F45. It had superb craftmanship and materials, an elegant yet understated style that balanced warm woods with simple leather, and a great layout with its elevated saloon and full- beam master cabin. It wasn’t perfect. No boat is.
We weren’t crazy about its external appearance, and the aft cockpit storage felt rather tight. But all the important stuff worked for us. Except one: its price. We started the process with a target price of $500K. The US list price for a properly optioned F45 was $1.6M!
A search for a used F45 turned up nothing, as the model was quite new, yet we found several relatively recent F49s listed at under $1M. Still more than what we wanted to spend but getting closer. The F49, which last year became the F50, is very similar to the F45 but slightly larger. It was an even better boat for us. There was one catch: all the available boats were in Europe.
At this point, and with a Princess F49 in mind, we began to find new uses to help justify our purchase. Sure, it would make a fabulous second home in San Francisco, but it would also be great for surfing and kiting excursions, for exploring places with friends and family, and even for cruising to our Stinson Beach home during the holidays. With this in mind we decided that, if we could get a boat that we loved at a good price, we would be willing to spend more than our original budget.
The next question was whether it would make sense to buy a boat in Europe and ship it to California? From a financial standpoint the numbers seemed to work. The cost of shipping and importation was significantly less than the price differential between buying in Europe and America – not to mention the lack of used Princesses in the US.
The primary difference between the boats was the electrical systems: 240 volts at 50Hz in Europe vs 110 volts at 60 Hz in the US. How big a problem would that be? Our previous sailboat had European systems, and we never thought that was an issue. We found out that we could install a relatively inexpensive frequency converter to connect a European boat to US shore power.
Our conclusion: buying the boat in Europe was not something for the faint hearted but a totally sensible option for someone comfortable with the implications and extra effort involved. Besides, using the boat in the Mediterranean before shipping it back could be a lot of fun. We could spend time with our Italian and Spanish friends, and maybe even explore the surfing spots of Southern Portugal.
We were starting to think about a trip to Europe to see the most promising F49s when the world changed. The coronavirus pandemic exploded. At first it seemed like our boat buying project would have to go on hold. But then two developments made it even more compelling. First, the British pound started to plummet against the dollar.
From the already attractive rate of $1.31 when we started the process, the pound quickly dropped to $1.15. The European boats had magically gotten 12% cheaper! More significantly, we discovered that several dealers in mainland Europe had new F50s in stock and were motivated to sell them.
The European question
Buying a yacht abroad in the middle of a pandemic seemed insane. How bad would things get? How long would the market take to recover? When would we be able to travel again? We thought about the many scenarios, and while some were grim, very few would change our desire to replace our San Francisco home with a boat. It was possible that delaying the purchase would be a better option, but most scenarios pointed in the opposite direction: the crisis was an ideal time to buy our boat.
I don’t think we would have been comfortable buying a used boat remotely, sight unseen. But a new boat under warranty from a reputable dealer was a different matter. After lots of back and forth with the various dealers we had our pick of three new F50s, all priced below the cost of the used F49s we’d looked at. I should mention that most of the used boats had the handicap of having the VAT paid, which was a waste for us as we were going to export the boat.
Another factor that helped our decision was that keeping the boat outside of California for a year would save us the local sales tax. Even if we were unable to fly to Europe to enjoy the boat in the Mediterranean, the time wouldn’t be wasted. Furthermore, on its way to California, the boat would first be shipped to Florida, where we could enjoy it with the many relatives and friends that we have there.
We decided to purchase an F50 from Princess Yachts Italy in San Remo. We felt good about our interactions with them, the boat configuration was close to our needs, and they agreed to keep the boat in their marina at their expense until we were able to go get it.
We also liked the boat’s location in the Mediterranean. We retained a local surveyor, who identified a couple of minor issues and took possession of the boat on our behalf. And while we waited for travel restrictions to ease, Princess Italy made some modifications and additions that we had asked for.
We named her Octavia in honour of our former SF home’s street name and waited patiently for the chance to go and see her in the flesh. Finally, in September we were able to fly to Italy and do a proper hand-over of the boat. We also performed the 12-mile exportation cruise needed for VAT purposes, as this was time-sensitive.
The bad news is that due to the COVID-19 situation, we were only able to stay in Italy for five days. So, how are we feeling now? In a word: great! The boat is exactly what we hoped it would be. And the team at Princess Yachts Italy did a fantastic job with the work we had asked for. They also helped us familiarise ourselves with the boat.
We are disappointed we weren’t able to enjoy the boat with our European friends but at least the two of us got to enjoy it for a few days near San Remo. And we hope we can still organise some adventures in the Mediterranean and Florida before Octavia reaches San Francisco next year.
Financially, and in other ways, the stars aligned for us as once lockdown started to ease, the demand for boats rose again and the availability of stock plummeted. But even without this slice of fortune in a world full of misfortune, we still feel great about our F50. Now we are looking forward to the next stage of this adventure: shipping and importing Octavia to the US…
First published in the December 2020 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.