Managing Boatyard Costs—Part 1

Hauling "Morgan's Cloud" at Bock Marine in North Carolina.

Colin's two excellent chapters on Surviving The Boatyard got me thinking about the challenges of keeping boatyard costs under at least some semblance of control.

When we boat owners think about this painful subject, it's tempting to just shrug and say to ourselves that all boatyards are a bunch of incompetent crooks and we are going to get screwed no matter what we do.

But after some 40 years of managing boatyard projects—some small, some large, and some huge—my impression is that, in most cases, the people I have done business with are just trying to run a reasonably profitable operation, not take us boat owners for a ride.

Defining The Problem

Rather, I think that many of the horror projects and cost overruns stem from poor project planning and monitoring on both sides.

And, if we think about it, this is not really a surprise, since most boatyard owners and managers have come up through the marine trades with little or no management and cost-control training or experience. And, on the other side of the transaction, few yacht owners have ever negotiated and/or managed a complex custom project before.

Note that I wrote "custom project". Here too lies the root of more problems: Most offshore cruising boats are deeply customized and full of low-volume but high-complexity gear, making it difficult to plan a project in detail in advance—very different from fixing a car, or even building a house, where most tasks have been performed identically many times before.

The result is that:

  • Everyone involved tends to throw up their hands and say, "We'll figure it out as we go along"—a sure recipe for cost overruns and frustration.
  • We owners tend to have unrealistic expectations based on the relative ease of executing the more predictable projects that we have experienced on land.

In short, the average boatyard project is a ticking time bomb right from the start.

So what can we do? Well, I think I can help here because, not only have I been maintaining offshore boats for some 40 years, I also spent a lot of my working life managing computer automation projects, which share many of the same issues as boat projects: custom nature, difficult to accurately define, and unrealistic customer expectations.

But before we get into that, let's look at three ways to approach offshore boat maintenance:

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Jo

John,

is putting the time-consuming expensive screw ups as a only a problem for DIY really fair?

Sure, if you do things yourself, there will be expensive screw ups. This point can’t be contested.

But does having those kind of tasks done by the available “marine professionals” – a term that seems as oxymoronic as “military intelligence” or “friendly fire” – lead to less costs? Given my own experiences and those of boat-owners I know about, I really doubt that.

Sure, if you manage to get people who know what they’re doing, this doesn’t apply. Unfortunately, finding those is a major and not really trivial task. And depending on the location, you might be simply out of luck.

Jo

In my short experience as boat owner I learned the hard way never to let someone else install any kind long cables or hoses where both ends aren’t in the same compartment. Sure, they can help you string them, but that’s it.

As I have a certain affinity to electric things, I do those things on my own too.

Dave

I have a problem with boat yard’s that either refuse to quote or stick to a fixed price for basic services. I can think of few other businesses that do not live or die by their ability control costs on a fixed price bid.
A friend of mine recently said he was quoted a price for repainting his boot stripe. The invoice came in for 50% more than the estimate. This from a large New England boat yard. Always remember, the boat yard has your boat and that gives them lots of leverage in terms of pricing and invoice settlement.

Steven D'Antonio

Dave:

I too have a problem with yards that refuse to quote, however, many simply aren’t equipped to do so, and thus they shouldn’t; it’s their call, and you can choose to not patronize them. It’s no small undertaking to engage in quotes and do so successfully. I did it for 11 years and met, on average, 85% of the quotes I gave to clients. When I missed a quote, I ate it, period.

Fixed prices for certain jobs, haul and wash, bottom paint, shrink wrap etc, makes sense, not sure why anyone would be opposed to this, you know the price in advance, you can shop around, you choose to accept it or go elsewhere.

What your friend got was an estimate, not a quote. That language needs to be defined up front, before given a yard permission to proceed with any work. Once again, the onus is on the boat owner to make sure he or she understand s this. A quote is, or should be, a fixed price bid, as opposed to an estimate which can vary considerably. Some states have laws that govern how much an estimate can range.

Colin Speedie

Hi John
all good points – just a small comment. I totally agree about delegating simple, laborious work to the yard, but do check the hourly rate in advance, or get a quote for the job completed – I have seen cases of what might be termed ‘creative accounting’ where those simple tasks have ben charged out an extraordinary hourly rate given the level of skill required.
Best wishes
Colin

richard

every point you make here lines up nicely with my 30 yrs of similar experience…right now i am between boats thanks in part to hurrs irmaria, and mostly enjoying the downtime along with working subliminaly to shrug off the nagging compulsion learned duing these 30, albeit wonderful, yrs to always be doing one or the other: cruising or preparing (maintaining) to cruise :)…richard s (formerly s/v lakota)

Stein Varjord

Hi John.
As always, interesting and educational, even for someone who’s done ridiculous amounts of boat maintenance. Improving the ability to do things right is always important, of course.
I think there is an additional possible strategy, though, for saving money and time simultaneously. One that is no secret, but still isn’t talked about enough, I think. Most cruising boats are more technically complex than a luxury house. Especially so if the home comforts are replicated. Morgans Cloud is a big, comfortable and very well equipped boat. Many go much further in which luxuries they want. This is no new information for anybody here, of course, but every system we have, every item we bring onboard, means a maintenance cost and time increase.

Since there are properly good reasons for having all types of systems and equipment, we have to find a balance. Normally that balance is found by looking at the bank account. Can we afford that item we want? I do the same, but try to let another question rule the decision: Will having this item make us cruise more or better than having the money and time it costs, (seen in the long perspective)? Normally the answer is a clear NO.

Some go to the extreme in luxury and some, like the Pardeys, go to the other extreme with simplicity. I love the KISS principle but do not go anywhere as far as the latter. Looking closely at the money/time issues, especially at the maintenance side of it, most cruisers might find that much more humble boats would have given them almost the same comfort, but perhaps triple the hours with no worries, just a big smile.

It’s normal to say things like “cost is proportional to the square of the boat length”. Actually I think it’s often even a steeper ratio. The maintenance costs seem to rise even sharper than the buying costs. Some of the problem with big boats is that equipment has to be specially made. Tools have to be professional. Every task is as big as the boat. Forces are huge, and when something goes wrong, seriously expensive damage happens. On a smaller boat, there is often no other damage than the part itself. With flippers and a mask you can scrub the bottom of a 30-footer in ten minutes very nicely. Zero cost, zero worry and almost zero time. With a 50-footer, that’s not an option. It will cost on all of those aspects.

When I started my active sailing, in the seventies, a 27 foot boat was a big boat suitable for ocean sailing. There were also two 31 foot proper ships in our club. Now in the same harbour, the same type of people will have a 45 to 55 foot boat. What has changed? Have the oceans become bigger or tougher? 🙂 Maybe we have become more spoilt? Or maybe we have become too brainwashed by consumerism? I think I’m affected by both the latter issues, but try to control it. More money means that we CAN buy a much bigger boat with more awesome stuff. It doesn’t mean that we need it, and more importantly: It doesn’t mean a better cruising life. Rather the opposite, I think.

The Golden Globe Race starts in not so long, with a friend of mine participating in a 40 years old 32 foot boat around the world alone, non stop. I’m happy to not participate, but I think the race might be an inspiration. Not to use only old designs and old tech, I prefer rather the opposite, but to look for the essence in why we do things and how to keep away from the things that disturb that essence. Maintenance is always necessary, but I think simplicity can remove as much as 90% of the time, cost and worry, putting all that time, money and pleasure into actually cruising. Yes, simplicity means we miss some comforts, but no important ones and what we get for it is, most of the time, sooooo much more worth!

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
I agree completely about the distribution of work. It has been a long time since I did bottom paint and I miss it not at all.
The following (somewhat added to now) was first written for Steve D’Antonio and he used it in one of his writings. He has written extensively about boat yards and their responsibility to their customers. The following is more about our responsibility as owners to give the best chance for a good working relationship and getting the work we want done, done well, and at a cost in the ball park of what was anticipated. I believe we often set the stage for the type of service we receive and that we can go a good distance toward receiving good service by the following (in no particular order):
1. Be clear what you wish to have done and how you want it accomplished. Have your preparatory research done so you can talk intelligently about the details. Go in with the attitude of a starting a consultation wishing to end with a collaboration on a clear, well delineated, plan.
2. Be clear the time frame you are working with and be realistic about your flexibility in this regard. Then, similar to what will happen on any job you attempt on your own vessel, add extra time for the unexpected.
3. Get an estimate of the costs and ask whether there are areas where uncertainty might exist (for ex. The number of hours necessary to remove the fittings on a mast prior to painting, easy if all have been fastened with anti-seize, far far longer if the stainless bolts are corroded to the aluminum).
4. Do not expect that additional work you come up with as the job proceeds or for unexpected/unplanned problems to not affect the job time frame or costs.
5. Do not expect your mind to be read, nor expect that there are clear standards: for example, if you wish all wiring to be tinned make that clear from the onset.
6. Make sure you are easy to reach by phone or email. Better yet find a way to be around for all work while being helpful and an asset to the yard workers.
7. Be sure the area of your boat to be worked on is clear and has easy access. No worker wants to go through a locker that has not been cleaned in years and where paper towels, now soggy, were stored and forgotten.
8. Be clear about what kind of feedback loop you want: on the work schedule and on the work itself as it proceeds.
9. Be clear what kind of documentation you expect: for example, one can expect instruction and installation manuals to be passed on, but will probably have to ask (and pay extra) for electrical schematics to be executed of the work done: same with plumbing.
10. If you need the service manager to go over the job, make an appointment and tell him how much time you will need. Do not try to catch him on the fly.
11. Putting things in writing can often be a big help: for you in figuring things out and for the service manager in being clear of the job as you see it.
12. If the owner wants to participate in the work done, spell that out ahead of time.
13. If the above meets with roadblocks and frustration, it may be time to pull the plug and find another service provider. It will only get worse once the job starts.
14. Pay promptly.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John, I was cognizant of front running the next article, but I understood the next article was on containing costs while my notes were focused more on the relationship between the yard and the owner and the owner’s responsibilities to getting good work. But I certainly understand that that there is no distinct line in these concerns.
My best, Dick

JCFlander

Now, John,
This topic really hit a cord.
If there’s a grammy, emmy or pulitzer price for marine writing, you would have it for this piece – already. This is the most important topic.
To avoid frontrunning to next part, I just say: spec, budget, completion date – pick any two. Cheers!

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I am not so sure I would be completely dismissive of the high-end yards. Although I agree, in aggregate, with your evaluation, there are at least a couple of considerations worthwhile in pursuing the ideals that Steve D’Antonio spells out in his writings on this subject. It might be of interest to generate a list of those yards which consistently, (not just for one job or project), do high quality work and leads to satisfied customers.
There are high end yards that cater to “yachts” and their owners with deep pockets and where owners never get past the front offices. Then there are yards which are high end and where there is a sign in their parking lot which says (from a shaky memory): “Our insurance company demanded that owners not be allowed to visit work areas. We fired that insurance company and found another. Please wander and visit work sites and ask questions”. When I saw that sign, I knew it likely I had found a home.
This high-end yard was certainly more expensive, I would guess on the order of 15-30% depending on the work, but, from my point of view, worth every penny. It was the only yard ever where I did not feel I needed to be always present when the work was being done. It was the only yard where every job was better done than I could have done it: even watching the “easy” jobs being done I learned something. However, it was the intangibles where I was most happy: not worrying about job quality and bugging the workers, access to managers, few delays, organized, good communication, etc. Just none (or little) of the nagging anxieties (and irritations) that seem to go hand-in-hand with the projects I accomplished in most yards I am acquainted with.
That said, I believe the above yard to be rare, maybe unique, which would be a shame. Most high-end yards cater to “yachts” (and are not rare, they are easy to find). I am also quite clear, one does not get work commensurate with the extra moneys spent. (And I believe the yards end up thinking of their boats more as yachts than as offshore sailing boats: and therefore, focus on quite different assessment criteria for their work.)
Another consideration in pursuing Steve’s standards, idealistic as they may seem, is his wish to nudge yards (and the maritime industry in general) toward practices which lead to greater customer satisfaction and to fewer of the horror stories that are told in the watering spots of the marine world. Customers (us) who push for the kind of interactions with yards (see below) that work for all concerned and mitigate unhappiness are good for all: yards and owners. And yards are responsive to customers. We need to push for the kind of work we want done. Certainly, not every yard will be responsive, but if enough nudges come their way (say, for ex., on the issue of providing/standing by quotes) then things will change.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

The following I wrote for another AAC stream but is worth repeating here:
Hi all,
Most all of us have to deal, more or less regularly, with boatyards. The following URLs will take you to a few articles which I believe to be so extremely thoughtful, useful and full of common sense that they just deserve to be widely distributed. The articles are by Steve D’Antonio, who occasionally contributes to this site, and are pertinent, even innovative, to anyone anticipating interactions with a boatyard and wishing their interactions to go smoothly and successfully. Moreover, we can hope, that if enough owners follow Steve’s suggestions, the industry will have to shift its standard operating procedures for executing work and interactions with owners for the better.
(http://stevedmarineconsulting.com/cracking-the-code-part-i/) (http://stevedmarineconsulting.com/cracking-the-code-part-ii/)
(http://stevedmarineconsulting.com/october-2016-newsletter/)
(The last URL has suggestions—last letter in the column– by me for what owners can do to give the best chance for boatyard work to go smoothly.)
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
I hesitated to mention the yard I was referring to in my posts as it has been 12+ years since I was in the US and used this yard. However, I have no evidence that it is changed its practices and some knowledge that it is the same. They are the yard with the sign in the parking lot that I referred to.
The yard is Zimmerman’s Marine and is based in Mobjack Bay on the Chesapeake. As said, I found their prices 15-30% more than a regular yard, but worth every penny. Now it has locations elsewhere (Deltaville and farther south I believe). Steve D’Antonio was yard/project manager until he left 10 years ago to be on his own. He is the one, among others, who set the standards and procedures which, to my observation, ensured the yard worked so well and met (or exceeded) customer expectations.
In general, I found EU and UK yards to be very similar to US yards in their practices, prices and ability to both irritate at times and to also do good work. The high-end yards I looked into all seemed, upon casual research, to be more oriented toward “yachts” and to keep their owners in the front offices. The 2 yards where I got much work done over my years on the other side of the pond were Suffolk Yacht Harbour (UK) on the River Orwell about 40 miles north of the mouth of the Thames River. (They are a yard who does good work, but also home to a good number of independent vendors who are excellent: diesel engine, sailmakers/repair, rigger, canvas etc.). Then there is Sopromar yard in Lagos, Portugal where we got a number of projects completed on 2 separate occasions. I had no experience with Scandinavian yards. In Norway, I explored getting some work accomplished that was not of a pressing nature, but found the hourly rates for engineers/mechanics and other specialists to be more, way more, than I was willing to spend and put the work off till later (UK and Scotland).
Please note that, when referring to Scandinavian yards, these yards are dealing with home grown boats. John and Amanda’s I know to be a Halberg Rassey while I believe that Andy’s is a local boat as well. I know that some of the hassles I bumped into repeatedly (not always a huge issue, but something that caused problems) was that I had a US built/designed boat with US equipment (largely). Certain practices are quite different: for ex., I found it unusual to have anyone use tinned wire and the wire itself was hard to find and very expensive when you do find it. Propane installation practices are quite different, maybe incompatible in some ways. Good quality hose, fuel and fresh water, were sometimes not used or hard to find. With effort similar to most US yards, I found the work I received generally good and at similar prices over-all.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Stein Varjord

Hi Dick.
I’m Norwegian and have worked some in the yacht business (Pelle Petterson, Maxi Yachts) as well as been on the water since 1960. Was almost born in a tiny boat on the way from the island we lived to the hospital… 🙂 Still I can’t say I know enough about possibly good wharfs in Norway. (I think I’d look in the inner end of Leangbukte, west of Oslo…) In general, though, Norway has very high wages, which makes wharfs expensive and people are used to high prices, or don’t really care as many have enough. Also, even though sailing has very old and solid roots in Norway, thousands of years of it, the last decades, motorboats have been dominant, so wharf skills have shifted accordingly.

This has been increased some by the fact that the vast majority of sailing boats are in the Oslo fjord, which is not far from the Swedish west coast. That coast has thousands of islands and is a ridiculously nice place to cruise, really, and in the middle of it is the island Orust, where most of the classic Scandinavian style boats have/had either their production site or their inspiration. Sweden is much cheaper than Norway and wages are much lower. Sweden also has a much bigger population and have kept their ancient sailing traditions better alive. Thus, even skills are in general considerably better.

I now live in Amsterdam. There are a lot of high end wharfs here. Some of them definitely fall in the category that won@t let you touch the boat, but others are very different. Rhebergen Multihull has been in business for several decades. Second generation is now gradually taking over. If you have a multihull, you can expect to be met with a smile and nicer prices than others. 🙂 These guys really know their business and have even built big racing multihulls. I haven’t done complicated projects with them, so I don’t know about ability to keep a schedule, but it seems very good. They’re also just nice people. That also matters…. 🙂

Dick Stevenson

Hi Stein,
I believe I neglected to write back when you posted this as I was on the road.
I spent 6 months cruising Norway over 2 seasons (because of Schengen visa restrictions) and loved every moment. (That Norway has many high prices is clearly true, but the small docks/wharfs etc. in many communities were a delight, usually quite modest in price and often relied on Honesty Boxes: all very refreshing.) It was my observation also that power boats vastly outnumbered the sailboats along the coast: which really makes sense with the fickle winds among the fjords, islands and cliffs. Sweden, with its much lower profile among its island archipelago, had much better winds and better sailing and has kept many more sailboats among their recreational fleet. We circled Orust and visited some of the magnificent yards turning out boats congregated on that Island.
I spent a few weeks at Six Haven visiting Amsterdam and a number of months poking along the waterways of the Netherlands: again, loving every minute. You have a wonderful part of the world there and wonderful people. I feel fortunate that over a number of years, I needed no boatyard for emergency work, but I know I would have felt well taken care of.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Stein Varjord

Hi Dick,
Nice that you have enjoyed my home turf(s). 🙂
The strongest reason for the predominance of motorboats on most of the Norwegian coast, as opposed to the Oslo area and Sweden, is that Norway has been a rural culture for most of its history. Very much based on each individual being self sufficient, in all meanings of it. (This also explains why Norwegians don’t want to join the EU.) In the last century Norway has developed into a more urban and highly educated society, and is still changing, but the culture changes more slowly.

Sweden has been more developed as a society for thousands of years. The much easier (flatter) and more fertile landscape has given a denser population that has had to be better at interacting. Their society has been more advanced, including several layers of nobility, which didn’t exist in Norway.

The Norwegian coast is much longer and more exposed than the Swedish coast. There are also more boats, but the core is boats that have a function for transport, quite often the only connection, fishing or such. Boats are mainly not for recreation, but that’s also changing. Sailing isn’t the most practical solution for those boats.

In Sweden, the historically wealthier population with more social activity and more free time have had a tradition for leisure boating for a long time. Sailing is then much more suitable. Since it’s also associated with high class, it became more attractive for signaling wealth. Outside of the Oslo area, people will still look at sailboats as toys for the rich and somewhat useless people. Motorboats are seen as tough and practical, no bullshit boats, for people that “know what they’re doing”. Thus, buying a sailboat, also named “stick boat”, may be frowned upon among your neighbors.

Well, my attitudes are pretty much the exact opposite, which may explain why I now live where yachting has its birth place. Due to wealth from the biggest company that will ever exist, the Dutch East India Company. Yacht is a Dutch word. Trying to understand the world is fascinating, but I guess this is enough anthropology for now. 😀

Andy

Hi Dick,

That’s not really true. Both Mahina & Isbjorn are ‘US’ boats, in fit-out. They’re 12-V, with US propane systems (I know Mahina has this, as it’s a subject John & I discussed last year). So yeah, their HR was built down the road, but HR rarely does refits (they were at Adam’s Boat Care in fact, not the HR yard), and in any case, we have the same challenges as any other US-boats in sourcing US parts. Our boat was built in the Baltic, in Finland, almost 50 years ago! So that hardly has any influence on the yard and their work.

In fact, I’ve been project-managing this from afar and have used my US contacts to advantage here – we ordered a new Beta 60 from the factory in the UK, but had it EPA-spec’ed and ordered WITHOUT an alternator, as Mark Grasser (through Bruce Schwab), is building us a custom one and sending it over, for the yard to install.

Importantly, Isbjorn is in ‘customs storage’ in Sweden – which the yard handled themselves – so we do not pay any VAT on parts or labour, which is a huge savings (25% in Sweden) over what the locals would pay, net. I ordered another majorly expensive piece of kit from our Annapolis-based dealer (I won’t say what or who to protect the privacy) – since we’re really an ‘Annapolis-based’ boat, the dealer is able to respect that, even though we’re in Sweden. So we’re paying a bit for shipping & import duty, but saving way more than that in the price difference between ordering it from the US versus getting it from Europe (it’s a US-based company who makes the part anyway).

-Andy

Dick Stevenson

Hi Andy, Wow, You certainly sound like you found some work-arounds that are worth knowing about and can make the yards you are referring to wonderful to consider for major refits. And having sailed those waters and visited a few of the yards, mostly as a “tourist”, I can attest that the workmanship is everything you describe.
Thank, Dick

Steven D'Antonio

John:

Another worthy subject, about which too much can never be written. When I managed a boat yard I came to believe the one thing that frustrated boat owners more than anything else was cost, especially when not accurately forecast. This is why I became a strong advocate of quoting, and have pounded that drum in the industry for years.

You said, in reference to my article…

“I would estimate that there are only a few boatyards in the world, perhaps less than a score, certainly less than a hundred, that could realistically live up to Steve’s standard. So for us cruisers out in the real world, the chances of one being close by and having the time and resources available to take on our project are pretty small.

Many, perhaps most, of these yards do not allow owners to do much, if any, work themselves.

Said yards tend to be among the most expensive, with charge rates around US$100/hour and high fixed rates for tasks like hauling and launching.”

I emphatically agree with the first comment, few yards live up to my expectations. However, the good news is more are endeavoring to change, word is spreading, thanks in part to forums like this, that boat owners are not willing to put up with gross overruns and non compliant work.

I disagree with the second two comments. Good yards are not necessarily exorbitantly expensive, however, while not always true you do often get what you pay for. Attracting, training, compensating, and retaining skilled folks is costly. The question is, do you get value for your money? A cheap yard that has to do the job three times compared to a more expensive yard that gets it right the first time.

Many good yards allow DIY work with limitations, such as painting and sanding, for obvious reasons. Paint dust can be an issue for nearby boats, as can spilled paint, solvents etc.

Above all else, I find many boat owners simply don’t approach selecting and working with a yard with enough care, and then get cross threaded in the process. Don’t leave it to chance, hoping for the best is not a strategy, do your homework, and ask lots of questions and vet the answers (on that subject, don’t ask leading questions, instead of saying, “When you install my life raft mount, will you over-drill, reef and back-fill with thickened epoxy holes drilled in cored composite structures, and then re-drill them for the fastener size?” Rather, say,”How do you deal with holes drilled in cored fiberglass?”). If nothing else, it will alert the yard that you are going to be on top of things, and not just drop off the keys, never to be seen until it’s time to slip the dock lines. Yards need to know you are involved and invested, and you need to be…involved and invested.

Again John, a worthy subject, and I like the barbell analogy.

Steven D'Antonio

John, I said, “few yards live up to my expectations. However, the good news is more are endeavoring to change”.. I can’t, and don’t even make such recommendations to my clients for one simple reason, I have no control over a yard’s consistency. A yard that’s stellar today may have a personnel change, losing a key electrician, manager and painter, thereby changing the result of their work. It is for this reason that boat owners must carefully vet every yard and contractor with whom they enter into working agreements, from refits to replacement dodgers.

I’m sure you will cover this subject in part II. The “cheat sheet” I included in my ‘working with yards’ article, includes key questions I believe one should ask in this process, it’s an interview. Cost prediction is critical, and I believe that if more boat owners were unwilling to accept the estimate/WAG approach “don’t worry about it we’re good guys”, more yards would need to change. I’m not suggesting yards are dishonest, of course some are, rather it’s a case of, “it’s T&M, it takes what it takes, and it costs what it costs”, with little risk to the yard. When I counsel yards, I explain two things, they will have more happier customers of they quote more work, and they will learn to work more efficiently. T&M rewards inefficiency.

My apologies for the lengthy responses, boat yards, and the management thereof, is a subject near to my heart. For the most part yards need to get smarter about how they approach business, and the best way to drive that change is through their customers. I can beat them over the head with this all day long with articles in trade publications and industry seminars, but if they lose a big refit to a competitor who is quoting the project, that makes a difference.

Andy

The Vindo yard allows DIY work, but only during normal hours – Isbjorn is inside their heated refit shed, so we can be in there anytime the staff is there and the doors are unlocked, but not on nights and weekends. So while it’s not an issue for us, it would be for most working folks. BUT, the guys will let you work alongside them, and they’re very friendly. Like I said, the jury is still out until the boat gets finished and re-launched, but so far, I’m extremely impressed.

And Henrik, our project manager there, is working with me to sort of co-project-manage the whole thing, with him on-site, and me remotely. He sends photos once a week of what they’ve accomplished, and we have a long email chain of questions & answers going. It’s been really good fun actually!

Andy

Andy

Isbjorn is in the yard right now for a big nine-month refit on all the boat’s systems – we did the rig & sails in the first refit, 2015 in Annapolis, mostly ourselves, and are going the opposite here in Sweden.

Surprisingly, labor costs are lower in Sweden than we’re used to in Annapolis – even at Vindö Marin, where the used to build fiberglass boats of the same name, just down the road from the Hallberg-Rassy yard on the island of Orust on Sweden’s west coast. They’ve been building boats there for literally 10,000 years, so highly skilled labor is in abundance. In fact, John & Amanda Neal of Mahina Expeditions, had their HR refitted right next door at Adam’s Boat Care. Furthermore, it feels like the Swedes charge more ‘fairly,’ if that makes sense, charging for what a project SHOULD cost, rather than adding up every last hour it ACTUALLY took, within reason of course. We ran in to a LOT of “while we’re at it” projects, which we expected, and we reckon we’re staring at a $100,000 bill until it’s all said and done, if not more – so I’m braced for that!

We’ve elected to go the Ideal route, since it’s our offseason and we’re living 5 hours from the boat. So while I’m paying the boatyard to do the work, I’m able to spend time doing the podcast and writing, and make a little extra money on the side, AND be mentally refreshed going into next sailing season, having been away from the boat for a while. We’ve allowed a full month of shake-down cruising and living aboard on the west coast in April before our season starts, and set a deadline for the yard a full month ahead of when the hard deadline is.

It’s a work in progress, so we’ll see how it ultimately ends up, but so far so good.

-Andy

Andy

Yeah, and on the opposite side of that, we know a serial Swan owner (Swedish guy), who’s latest boat is a Frers-designed Swan 56, who had the boat refit in Newport, RI after he purchased it and was absolutely shocked at the bill he got. In Sweden, sailing is an ‘everyman’s’ sport, even on the bigger boats, culturally anyway, so things tend to me much more affordable. He won’t be going back to the US anytime soon for boat work!

-Andy

Steven D'Antonio

Sorry to be repetitive, however, undertaking a refit without quoting it, or the big parts, seems like a recipe for frustration, anger and perhaps bankruptcy.

Much of the blame falls on those agreeing to such open-ended terms.

Steven D'Antonio

Understood, sorry for broaching it early.

Ben Garvey

fabulous discussion folks – thanks. This isn’t meant to detract from the value in the discussions at all – but I couldn’t help but read Andy’s “we’re staring at a $100,000 bill” comment and reflect immediately back to what I initially took to be John’s premise for this thread – how to manage boatyard experiences for most of us who aren’t able to even contemplate $100k refits!

…I say that as a fellow who has watched my parents (unwisely) do an $800k refit on an old A&R classic (for which my widowed mother is still paying), and done two ~$60k refits myself on my own boats, using sweat equity and every favor/friend/bribe/extortion I could find in the process. all of these refits would simply have been non-starters in a ‘real yard’. I wouldn’t have been able to afford the price of admission. Would I do them again? Hell ya. Skills learned, people I met, the growing I did, the foundation for many other aspects of life – all priceless. Were they financially wise? Nope. not even close. But there were other values extracted from the processes that informed me and those around me as individuals and became embedded in our characters. this does have some value.

Now, I run an engineering services company and deal with the complications of estimate vs quote and the related client/provider relationship on all manner of service jobs on a daily basis. I get it now in a different context – I’m constantly hounding my guys to be better at estimating – we SHOULD be able to give a client a damned good estimate now – we’ve done this many times… but there frequently seem to be extenuating circumstances, changes in scope, misunderstandings in objectives, small – seemingly minor – additions. if you’re not extremely careful in EVERY job, you get what amounts to a serious situation of ‘death by 1000 cuts’. any one of the cuts seem minor, but added up, they can sink you.

So many people (the vast majority in my experience) simply do not understand the amount of real effort that it takes to do a job (almost an job of a specialized technical nature) properly, that when you bill fair rates and fair time to actually do said job, the end cost frequently appears to be out of proportion to the real value to the customer. And when you factor in the risk associated with yachts especially (what if that lovely piece of teak happens to just simply crack when i drill it – even with the correct pilot bit) that you only have to have a couple of mistakes before you’re really losing money. Its a tough proposition. The experienced guys handle it well, and they are worth the money in my experience. the issue is when the in-experienced guys claim otherwise and the service doesn’t match the fees…

Andy – truly wonderful to hear Isbjorn is getting what she needs, and you are able to provide it. I hope to be able to do similarly for my own vessel someday!

bg

Andy

Man, we’re excited to get the boat back after all this!

To be clear, we’re choosing to spend the money – it reflects all the upgrades we’re making, NOT the cost of the yard. It’s all on us. Vindö would still have been a great choice if we’d still be in Arcturus, our previous (and much cheaper!) boat.

Vindö gives us option across the board to manage costs – indoor (heated or not) or outdoor storage, DIY work, low labor costs (about $75/hr at current exchange rate), friendly staff, a boatyard dog 😉 and super modern facilities. So we could have saved a ton by leaving the rig up, keeping the boat outside and doing our own work. Vindö is the kind of yard that ALLOWS that flexibility, which I think is exactly what John is getting at.

Andy

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Good thoughts on this tricky subject. We tend to be on the extreme DIY end going to a yard that is basically no more than a parking lot with power and water and doing everything from bottom prep and painting to engine swaps ourselves. I especially like the suggestion of potentially farming out the really easy work as that is not the most obvious to have people do. Some day I am sure that we will pay to have some work done and the hardest part will invariably be if I know that I could do a better job or do it much more quickly.

The more I work and have hobbies that require a lot of maintenance, the more I become convinced that you can’t underestimate the value of good people. Unfortunately, the 80/20 rule holds true for work where 20% of the people get 80% of the work done. It isn’t even necessarily that the people who are slower are necessarily not “skilled” they just may not be good time managers or any of a host of other reasons. One of the hardest things for me to figure out when I interview engineers is whether they get stuff done well and efficiently, figuring out whether they understand the actual engineering concepts is the easy part.

I also like Stein’s point about simplicity. People seem to incorrectly believe that with boat size, there has to be an exponential increase in systems complexity. Sure, that 60’er can’t get away with the same autopilot as the 35’er but who said that the bigger boat needed 2 freezers, a washing machine, a generator and a watermaker when the smaller one doesn’t? I have sailed boats in the 100′ range that are far simpler from a systems sense than many 40′ boats. Everyone has their own definition of the ideal trade-off between comfort and simplicity but I suspect that most people actually set up their boats on the comfort side of their ideal rather than the other way around.

Eric

Marc Dacey

I’m at a weird stage in my refit process because I considered it essential that I learn how to do so much of this sort of work myself. The reasons are twofold: firstly, I had to know my systems back to front, because you never have a breakdown drifting into a Travelift basin, do you? Secondly, I had to understand when I should just break out the wallet and to what degree.

Basically, once we start our voyaging, if I need a big job, I will pay for it. But only testimonials even suggest who to use for what jobs. An example is a friend of mine here in Toronto with a similarly sized metal boat to our own who got an estimate for a haulout into a heated shed in order to have the bottom taken back to bare metal, regalvanized, barrier-coated and with a few coats of anti-foul. He was told $10,000. The bill was $22,000.

By contrast, I contacted some Nova Scotia yards with paint sheds and marine railways big enough to take fishing boats far bigger than our steel sailboat (minus mast). When I gave the dimensionals, all were $1,000 within $8,000. Commercial places with a sideline (or off-fishing season) in recreational craft may offer attractive deals to keep their cash flow in place…once the local fleet is out, it must get quiet. So while a commercial boat yard with a primary trade in commercial marine vessels may not be one’s first choice for the precious length of fibreglass, it should not be ruled out on that basis. Our bottom is getting done in Nova Scotia.

Shawn Green

Howdy,

Just a Thought.

I’m pretty serious when it comes to the DIY mentality. So much so, that I am building my boat from scratch.
However having owned several previous boats, and been in the clutches of the boatyard managers (pirates) I have some experience in that world.
My contribution to the discussion is really based on two things.
First, Selecting a boat that Will be easy enough for you to maintain and improve yourself. While not always possible, some careful thought about the long term future of any vessel should be considered before getting into it
For example; i chose to go with bilge keels in order to facilitate easier bottom maintenance without the enormous expense of using a travel lift.

Secondly, I think it is important to utilize the community that we all share.
Just about all cruisers that i have met have some degree of specialty or talent in a particular field whether its electrical, or diesels or sail repair or fiberglass.
That being said, WORK TOGETHER! Being a welder, i have had lots of opportunity to work on other peoples boats. Services can often be exchanged in kind, I.E. I weld your pulpit, you make me a new canvas dodger.
Lots of this kind of thing can be done in and out of boatyards and also allows us to connect with one another. I would never hesitate to fly a sign in the rigging offering services for sale or trade.

Marc Dacey

That’s very true that “services for services”, or, less informally “will work for diesel and rum” can be a way within the cruising community to operate. I would hesitate, however, to fly a sign in the rigging, as in many places such a brash announcement of commercial intent, even on a barter basis, not only will contravene a lot of local labour laws but will severely annoy whatever local tradespeople rely on helpless transient cruisers.

So I would operate on a contingency basis and with an eye to discretion. And cash when necessary, but not necessarily cash.

Drew Frye

Good article. I’ve had all good experiences, but I come from background in refinery engineering, where you always plan the work given to contractors, and use internal resources for what you can. Understanding the work and planning are everything. I’ve had friends that had terrible experiences, but they used the “we’ll figure it out” approach and didn’t understand the scope of work.

I figure that to own a cruising boat, you either need a huge mound of money or a background that prepares you with serious craft skills. At first glance I felt that the maintenance and refit hours you quoted were quite high, but then I realized that my boat has always been in a semi-continuous state of refit (I do a lot of projects), that I have learned to work fast at a high level of reliability (refineries demand this), and that…

… I have a huge supply of tools and supplies. In addition to underestimating the time and skill required, it is easy to underestimate the quantity of tools and supplies required. I’d guess the stuff in my work room would cost more to replace a retail than my current boat. But like the skills, they were accumulated over 40 years, often as cast-offs, yard sales, and project left overs.

Accumulating the skill set was even harder, and it is still growing.

To me, all of this is part of “seamanship,” a skill set I am still developing. Hopefully, I will never get there. I would get bored.

Philip Wilkie

Having literally just got my 12m boat out of ‘gaol’ and back onto the sea, I have to say how impressed I am at some of the costs being tossed about here. We’ve just had:

1. Steel hull blasted to white metal below waterline
2. About 2 days of fairing
3. 4 coats of Jotun 90 Hi Build Epoxy
4. 3 coats Jotun Seavictor
5. New anodes
6. Basic engine service (anodes, impellors, filters, belts etc)
7. Repair to exhaust elbow
8. New Rule 2000 bilge pump and switch (not done perfectly but good enough for the next month)

All up about A$10k. I suspect that for a first-timer I’ve gotten off quite well, and I’d be happy to recommend the yard to others, albeit with some mild reservations. Lots of lessons learnt, some at greater pain than others.

The big issue really has to be the cost of all this. On board I have documentation from 2001 when the original owners had to replace the entire rig, mast, boom, standing wire, sails, the lot while they were stranded in the Azores. The total invoice is UK4500. Including UK1500 of transport! I doubt the same job could done now, just 16 years later for 5 times that price.

While there are folk who I know do cruise on microscopic budgets (and more power to them), the entry level dollars is getting well out of the reach of most ordinary people. Unless you can happily write cheques well on the other side of half a million dollars to buy the boat and another 100k every other year or so for maintenance … you’re going to have to be pretty smart and hard working to afford this game.

Coming from an industrial automation/electrical engineering background, much of what I’m seeing in the recreational marine business falls well short of what I’d call a ‘good value life cycle’. So many components installed with little to no thought of future maintenance and the inevitable upgrades. The hulls may last 30 – 50 years, but the systems inside of them may well be replaced entirely 3 or 4 times in that period, more or less at random intervals in a totally uncontrolled fashion. As a result every boat is both unique and barely documented.

This is why our yard costs are so high and unpredictable; plus every job you touch seems to create 10 more. That’s tough enough for a DIY’er, imagine the challenge for the yard manager who has to pay staff and show a profit!

Great discussion as usual here, and lots of food for thought.

Philip Wilkie

Yes $100k pa is over the top, but it’s a lumpy number, some years very modest and others quite ‘immodest’. But it seems to me the unpredictable nature of these costs is the most disagreeable aspect.

And yes the Adventure 40 was exactly a step in the right direction. And not just from a manufacturing pov, but ideally in terms of a planned and scheduled maintenance perspective as well. A plan that extends over at least a decade and can evolve with time, new technologies and ideas.

The three biggest obstacles to achieving this are:

1. A lack of a formal industry wide documentation standard. Process engineers use what are universally know as P&ID’s (Piping and Instrumentation Drawings) as the core document. They’re amazingly powerful and universally understood.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piping_and_instrumentation_diagram

With minor adaptations they’re work perfectly on any boat. Probably there are some production houses who already use them.

The P&ID drawing then enforces a naming and labeling standard. From here it’s not too big a step to proper electrical drawings with loop numbering and wire numbers at each end of every cable.

Now you have the basis for orderly an instrument and mechanical list, and from here it’s a short step to a planned maintenance schedule.

2. Access. The killer. Jobs that should take less than an hour turn into expensive multi-day boat yoga sessions. Much more thought needs to be put into all the hatches, removable sections, thru-holes, etc to enable easy access to every part of the boat. These should be part of a simple mechanical layout drawing, so that every important component has not only a clear location, but details on how to access it and it’s ancillary items.

3. And perhaps the biggest obstacle is ourselves, so many boat owners really get so much pleasure out of dreaming up and implementing their own boat projects, that over time all boats are going to diverge in quirky and uncontrolled ways from any ideal. Yet simple engineering systems, that are comprehensive, flexible and universally understood could go a long way to providing a better framework to track all these changes.

Imagine sending such a set of engineering documents to your yard manager for a haul-out and refit quote, along with references to the relevant marine and electrical industry specifications you want to comply with. NOW the dude has the information needed to make an accurate quote, and more importantly, both parties have explicit documents to point to when the inevitable ‘negotiations’ arise.

Ben Garvey

Excellent points Phillip. We are always asking a lot of boatyard managers when we expect them to apply ‘industry standard’ costing and quoting processes on what is almost always a process of new discovery… even if this shouldn’t be so.

Documentation is always the key… and almost always absent!

best-
bg

Marc Dacey

That seems like an extraordinarily good deal to me, having reviewed the Canadian-Australian exchange rate and having a 12m steel pilothouse cutter needing a bottom job. The steel expedition boat Brupeg’s owners, currently in a Queensland yard, and with whom I’ve been in touch, also favour Jotun coatings: I may have to learn more about them compared to Imron, Endura, Ameron and other commercial-grade metal boat paints. Thanks for that list.

Philip Wilkie

Marc,

The yard is Rosshaven in Townsville. Locally I kept hearing ‘mixed messages’ about them, but in my case they seem to have treated me very fairly. The current manager, Grant, is a yottie himself and I think I owe him a big round of thanks for looking after me.

The other things that worked in my favour was a willingness to be flexible in my timeline, and that they’re really a big commercial yard. Right next to us in the blasting yard was a massive 150 ton fishing vessel getting major hull work done. These guys can spend upwards of A$1m in just a month on the hard, so my little job barely registered as petty cash!

And as John has suggested, if you can afford the time to be onsite and keep informed about what’s going on, it helps a lot. There were some frustrating days where nothing much happened, and as a complete novice to all of this I kept wondering exactly what the hell I was doing, but in the end being courteous and inquisitive seems to have kept it all on track.

The yard stock the usual local paint variants, Jotun, Altex and International, but I went with their recommendation and positive comments from one of the fishing boat guys. Not exactly scientific research, but they do spray tonnes of the stuff every year.

The only point where I got a bit concerned was getting them to properly clean the hull after grit blasting and before putting the first coat on. I wanted them to wash it with a passivator, but this would have made a mess on the ground, so in the end I settled for a good solid air blow. Paints like Jotun 90 are designed to be applied in less than ideal conditions so I hopeful it’ll work out.

Marc Dacey

Good data points for me, as I will likely have a commercial yard do our work as the boat is a rather bulky motorsailer. And we can wait our turn. It would be nice to do something tidy or pretty for a change instead of industrial.

Petter ;-)

Thanks again for a great thread starter of an article, John. When I peddle AAC subscriptions (without commission) to fellow cruiser, I often talk about the value of the comments that follow. Pretty clear this has value from reading above, but now to the real question; As a person that try to undertake as much of the task as possible on the vessel, you left me – and the rest of the crowd – with a real cliffhanger in writing;

“Not only did he show me a cool low-risk way to remove a stuck injector, he also gave me his handmade extraction tool, saying that he could whip up another one back at the shop in half an hour.”

To me that would most likely be highly useful info. Care to enlighten the readers and maybe add a photo of the tool?

Monday greetings,
P 😉