I think we have pretty much established to everyone’s satisfaction that refitting old boats, while possible, is difficult and time consuming to do, sometimes financially disastrous, and fraught with the risk of finding serious things wrong that were missed in the survey.
But the biggest problem with refits is that doing one well requires a lot of knowledge that is best gained by owning a voyaging boat—Catch 22. Even Poor Stupid Bob (alias John) has since done a not too painful refit using what he learned the hard way the first time.
But how do you get your first boat and get out there? What about buying a brand new boat? That should be great if you have the money, right?
Let me tell you a story about my friends Paul and Pam (not their real names).
Smart People With Money to Spend
Pam was a scientific researcher and Paul a lawyer, both financially successful in their fields. They had sailed and raced boats for years but had never owned an offshore cruising boat. They semi-retired when Paul went 60 and decided to go voyaging for six months of each year. Given Paul’s age, there was no way that they wanted to spend years on a refit, even though they are both pretty handy (unlike many who have spent their working lives in the professions).
Paul and Pam looked briefly at building a custom boat, but decided, very sensibly, that it would take too long, and that they did not have the experience to manage such a project. They also realized that they could get a lot more boat for their US$600,000 budget by buying a new production boat.
Finding The Right Boat
Being smart people accustomed to complex selection and decision processes, Paul and Pam did their research well. They visited boat shows, talked to experienced voyagers, and sailed on a bunch of boats. Finally they chose a 45-foot (14-meter) boat from a reputable and well-known builder and settled on a dealer (agent) to work with.
Drinking The Kool-Aid
While their new boat was being built, Pam, advised by the dealer, took charge of specifying the gear. Being an experienced researcher, she did the logical thing and consulted the industry journals—the sailing magazines. Soon she built a long list of everything that the magazines said that she and Paul needed. Of course the dealer applauded and encouraged every addition to the list, because add-on gear is a big part of how dealers make money.
The boat was delivered to the dealer and the dealer hired a sub-contractor to install all the gear that Pam had specified: a full suite of networked electronics, watermaker, generator, refrigeration, electric winches, and on and on.
The exciting day they had been waiting many months for came and they launched their new boat resplendent in her royal blue paint job.
First off, the boat had a structural problem. At first the builder stonewalled and blamed a boatyard for storing the boat wrong. But remember what Paul does for a living? After an unpleasant and stressful exchange of letters and threats, that got fixed…well, sort of.
Then most of the gear did not work properly or broke, much of it in the first few hours of operation. The dealer blamed the installing sub-contractor, who in turn blamed the gear manufacturers, who in turn blamed the installation. Round and round it went. Even legally trained Paul could not figure out who to go after. And even if he did, what was he going to do? Spend the next five years litigating? He wanted to retire from being a lawyer!
Do It Yourself
After a few months of constant problems and finger pointing Paul and Pam realized that they were getting nowhere and took over the whole project themselves. Being smart resourceful people, they taught themselves how to fix most of the problems:
- They replaced the generator that never worked right, but only after it sucked up a huge amount of money.
- They replaced the windlass…twice. That will happen when you make a windlass of three different metals including mild steel (see photo above), and then install it in an anchor locker where is is regularly bathed in salt water.
- They had all the fixed ports in the boat re-bedded when they started to leak…twice.
- They fixed and continue to fix half a hundred other things.
Fast Forward Six Years
Over the last six years, in-between all that boat maintenance, Pam and Paul have done some pretty cool voyaging: Out to Bermuda, all through the Caribbean, up and down the US East Coast.
The Sad Truth
But the sad thing is that Paul and Pam have really not had that much fun, or at least the fun they have had has been severely compromised by the incessant and ongoing problems they have had with their boat. In fact Pam tells me that over the last six years they have worked on their boat more than they have sailed her. Last year, they lost an entire season to maintenance problems. They are disillusioned with the marine industry, cynical and not a little bitter.
The Real Paul and Pam
This time, unlike with Poor Stupid Bob, I’m not going to tell you Paul and Pam’s real names. And I have slightly fictionalized their story. But rest assured, they are real and this story is no worse than their real life experience.
They Were Lucky
At least Paul and Pam’s new boat is pretty much structurally sound after the builder repaired it without cost to them. Believe it or not, they were lucky in this regard. We have heard several first hand stories of major structural issues with new boats that the builder has refused to make right. We even know of a brand new boat that was written off as structurally dangerous before it even went in the water.
Winning Through Intimidation
One major builder has a reputation for cutting customers off from all further support, warranty or paid, if they talk in public about problems with that builder’s boats.
There are, I think, a few builders, a very few, that don’t have these problems. But in general, based on first hand interviews with new boat owners by AAC correspondents on both side of the Atlantic, I firmly believe that the new boat industry is broken and in most cases is simply not capable of producing an ocean-ready boat out-of-the-box at any price.
The Buyers Are Responsible Too
And it’s not all the builders’ fault either. Reasons for the problems include:
- Too much complicated gear.
- Too much hull volume in the wrong places. (Paul and Pam did not make this mistake. They chose a lovely, proven seaworthy design.)
- Too many options.
- Too much customization.
All of it demanded by the buyers, admittedly with the encouragement of the industry.
It can Be Fixed
But being an optimist, I believe offshore boat building can be fixed. But it won’t be easy. It will require:
- A new type of boat, one that is designed-and-built-for-task, rather than designed-and-built-for-boat-show.
- A whole new way of doing business that aligns the interests of the builder and the client so that both are winners.
- Helping new boat buyers identify the things that really make a good offshore voyaging boat.
We are working on all three, stay tuned.
Have you bought a new offshore capable boat? What was the experience like? Did you have any structural problems? How long did it take you to get all the systems working properly? Was the dealer a help? Did the builder stand behind their product?
I know it’s hard to wash your dirty laundry in public, but I think there is a real problem here, and if we are going to get it fixed, first we need to talk about it.
And if you have had a good experience buying and fitting out a new voyaging boat, we want to hear about that too—the builders of good offshore boats deserve all the publicity we can give them.
Please leave a comment.