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:

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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