The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Managing Boatyard Costs—Part 2

In Part 1 I looked at three options for maintaining an offshore boat, and concluded that the best bet for many (perhaps most) of us is a hybrid approach of DIY mixed with delegating some projects to a boatyard or other boat maintenance professionals.

So now let’s look at the project management skills we need, and the actions we need to take, to make this approach as efficient and cost effective as possible.

Scope of Work

The first, and most important, step in managing a project, any project, is to write a scope of work document. Yeah, I know, this all sounds terribly bureaucratic, and a pain in the neck as well, but seriously, this document alone will head off at least half of potential boatyard disasters before they happen and save us a bunch of money as well.

Even if the job at hand seems simple, perhaps just painting the bottom and buffing the topsides, a clear specification is still worthwhile.

In fact, this is such an important document that I’m going to devote much of this chapter to a detailed description of how Phyllis and I prepare one, and then move on to how we use it as a foundation for managing a fair relationship with the boatyard:

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Excellent article. As a engineering project/construction manager i can confirm the absolute most critical document in any project is the scope of work. Bar none! 95% of a projects success is determined by the quality of the scope document, long before any work is even started or parts ordered.

Some suggestions to add to the list:

1) schedule – if the work must be done by a certain date that should be made clear and included. This could drive over time costs, or the yards workload my prevent a timely completion. Likewise if your schedule is flexible you may be able to negotiate a discount if the yard can do the work as a “filler project” during downtime between other projects. Eitherway your expectation should be documented, and the reasoning (i need the boat out of Caribbean before hurricane season for insurance purposes, so work must be completed no later than. ..) to emphasis the importance of the timing.

Also on larger projects key milestone dates and project schedule are a good idea. What progress will the owner see at the end if each week, that way you can check and insure they are on schedule and if they fall behind you know early enough to make adjustments as needed.

2) if the yard is hesitant to quote, or if there are a lot of unknowns, the construction industry often uses an estimate with a “Time and Materials not to exceed” number. Where the yard says “our best guess for this scope is $20k, with these variables that may go upto $30k”. The owner can then say “ok, work time and materials, document any changes above $20k and stop work if you find anything that will drive costs above $30k and call me to discuss”. Gives the yard a little cushion for the unknowns and the flexibility to address known risks without having to stop work and issue a change order (which adds costs to them) and also provides the owner a bit of confidence what the job will cost.

3) any sort of “critical acceptance criteria” should be documented. How are you, the owner, going to determine that yes the job was completed to your satisfaction? Is there an objective measure? The tolerance for laser alignment on a shaft as an example. There may not be one (thinking bottom paint is probably just a visual inspection, but even that should be documented) but if there is a measurement document that measurement and the acceptable range. It is much easier to hit a target when you know what the target is before you start.

Do you need to do a sea trial? Is the yard expected to participate in that trial? Are you paying extra for the yard to participate, is it included in the price (if so how long is the trial they are including), or is the yard doing it on their dime to help troubleshoot and test their work. What are you trying to determine as part of the trial and how will you judge pass/fail. If it fails who is paying for the following haul out etc etc

4). Do you expect a warranty or follow-up work after? Maybe adding chafe protection to a new sail after it is fitted as an example. Make sure both parties understand what that cost is and if it is included or billed separately.

5) what documentation do you expect at the end? OEM manuals? drawings? Is any training required? Are those things included? Is the documentation in your desired language?

And finally you have cost, quality, and schedule. You get to pick two. Dont go in expecting all three, but also remember there is always room to negotiate and horse trade between the three to find a place you can be satisfied in the end. But to do that accurately you need a starting point. What is the cost and schedule for a given scope of work, which is precisely why the scope is so critical in the process. That is the owners contribution to the project, the yard provides the cost and schedule. Spend the time to get it right up front and align expectations and things will flow smoothly from there.


I would certainly agree that the detail needed should fit complexity, and simple projects dont need to be buried in paperwork. However whatever is important to your vision of success should be documented in some fashion.

For a simple paint job adding a sentenace that says “work needs to be completed on or before May 1st” and some general comment around what you expect in terms of finished appearance would still be approprite if those things matter to you. One or two sentences helps define what will make you a happy customer and gives the yard a feeling for what you expect out of them. It doesn’t necessarily need to be 20pages

Likewise If you are only getting a new chartplotter, but you are in France and want the manual in English not French, the yard should know that up front. It may add cost or complexity for them to find that manual. And if you want a couple hours of training included after the install so you know how it all works, again only a couple sentences are needed, but it can make life a lot easier in the end if both parties know that expectation in the beginning.

If you trust the yard to do a re-power and handle all the technical bits and dont feel the need to specify any of that or do a sea trial fantastic. If having the technician on board for a quick putter around the harbor gives you piece of mind and you expect that as part of the project then it should be in the scope of work. However if you expect it, the yard doesnt know you expect then tries to charge extra at the end and you thought it should be included things end badly for everyone.

As you move up in complexity, their should clearly be more detail but just because a project is small doesnt mean it is easy, and doesnt mean the yard can read your mind. the scope of work should define expectations, no matter how big or how small. If it is important to you make sure whoever is doing the work knows that so they can accomodate you, and charge a reasonable and agreed upon fee to do so. At the end if the day, thats the point of the scope of work. Owner defines expectations of performance that is important to them, and yard defines expectations for what they need to be paid to meet that performance.

Marc Dacey

I’m thinking that the “putter around the harbour” would reveal if the panel lights up, if the water is leaving the exhaust correctly, if the alignment seems zeroed in and if the belt or some other warmed up component was emitting “magic smoke”. I don’t consider a sea trial of a repower excessive, just because the engine can be perfectly fine, but all the things to which it connects could have been subject to simple “installer error”. I may be paranoid as I did my own repower with very little experience and was therefore checklist-orientated and used nose, eye, ear and even touch to make sure my installation was as it should be.

John, my thanks to you for this post. In our case, it’s quite timely and a great reminder that there has to be some (well-defined) give-and-take between the expectations of the owner and the capacities of the yard, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas like “is it warm enough in the shed for this liquid gold barrier coat to kick effectively?”

Rob Gill

Great read John and extremely practical series so well done indeed.
I particularly like that you state the project goal on line one – fundamental to any good project plan, but also I like the way you formalise the project scope and project plan in this way – here’s why:
Last year I sent a briefing EMAIL to a boat yard for our racing yacht, with the discussed and agreed requirements. I was also careful to confirm the estimate. We were away cruising the Pacific and it would free up space in our garage to park my car! The job involved a complete plywood hull strip back of layers upon layers of old paint, re-fairing and spray with an epoxy paint system.
So I was taken aback when the invoice arrived for nearly double the estimate, and pretty annoyed too. Speaking to the yard owner, when the old paint was stripped off they realised that over the years the hull had gone “soft”, as had areas of the hull ply due to water ingress. In his view, to simply paint it with epoxy would have been applying a band-aid and we would soon see cracking and water ingress. His solution was to dry the hull (as they had lots of time), apply a layer of carbon cloth and epoxy, then fill, fine sand and paint. This stiffened the boat enormously and will make it faster and way more water tight. In the process we ditched over 10% of the hull weight!
When I understood the reasons for the change of scope I was ready (but not happy) to pay the bill (I have spent more than the boat is worth), but it helps that the yacht in question was my 11 foot classic racing dinghy
– not so digestible had it been for our 47 foot keeler.
Lesson – had I taken the time to provide a formal project scoping document (on paper not email), the yard would in all likelihood have reverted to me, and we could have discussed the situation and way forward, which would probably have ended with the same outcome, but without the bill-shock.


Robert has a very valid point. A huge percentage of complaints that I have heard over the years have had nothing to do with price or quality of work. If you’re sailing season is short or you have fixed plans, it is extremely important for the yard to meet it’s time commitment.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I agree that writing everything down is really important and I use a similar technique as you with following verbal discussions up in writing and blaming my memory (although I am younger so don’t blame it on age). It is amazing how once you write everything down, you often discover that while everyone thought that they understood what the agreement was, it turns out that there is still disagreement that needs to be dealt with.


Charles L Starke

Dear John
Super article! Couldn’t you have written this several months ago????! I’m now in the middle of a complicated refit that seems to be going well, but before the final bill sticker shock.
Just for interest: when you think about something (like reefing), it’s time to do it! I noticed the back pressure on my diesel Racor filter was going up and changing filters did not help. I cleaned out the Racor bowl and found a clump of stringy white material that I assumed was fungal growth and added Biobar. I requested fuel polishing and tank cleaning.
A diesel absorbent pad was found in the
starboard tank partially blocking the outflow pickup!!! I assume that someone (before I bought the boat in 2013) wrapped the diesel fill hose with an absorbent pad that got sucked down the fill pipe.
This was eye opening! Like reefing early, when you notice an unexplained problem, ACT!
Best wishes
Charles L Starke MD FACP
s/v Dawnpiper


I have been very fortunate even while in strange (to me) places to have conversations with locals about the work that needs to be done. Once, while the boat was stuck at Atlantic Highlands due to complete steering failure I interviewed yards on the phone. During the interview (conversation) process, I settled on “John” who promised to do a thorough job of repairing my friend’s classic cruiser. An hourly rate was provided and the amount of time and effort to repair was agreed upon up front. He hit all the marks and when I received the vessel a week later discovered that he did indeed do excellent work. Sometimes you can get a good idea what the yard manager and his crew is like by having a brief conversation about what your plan is.


Hi, many of those salient points on project management is already said here and on previous post. Here’s my points, collected here as a list, on how to run boat repair/refit projects with a better chance of satisfactory result to everyone. These are based on my 7 year experience as a boat electrics subcontractor.

– Every boat project ever done is off quote or off estimate. If it appears not to be, that’s a rounding error. That difference is put up by owner, insurance company, yard, yard workers or subcontractors, depending on their contract and relative bargaining power. As said earlier, fixed price quote includes an insurance premium. It should, otherwise it would be a pure gamble on part of the yard. And yes, some yards are way better on their quotes and estimates than others.

– What needs to be done first, before anything else: reality check, on water.

What works, what doesn’t and why, and what can we find out about how the repairs/installations would be done and with how many hours.
If this isn’t done, work cost and schedule estimate is pulled out from thin air, and could/will cause much trouble afterwards. Even experienced owners can be wrong on their fault finding. Also, there could be very inconvenient bargaining when owner finds something doesn’t work on sea trials. Was it broken already when boat came to yard? It will be word against word without initial checkups.

– Work sectioned to milestones and intermediate inspections.

There’s really no other way to manage cost and schedule risks on medium/high complexity projects. If cost or time overshoots are found out in time, there’s much bigger chance to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone.

– Prioritized specification.

ie. list of scope of work and wished/demanded quality, that has some thought put on what the project cannot live without, what’s really wanted, and what’s liked to have, and what’s nice to have. That would set the priorities straight.

– Particular attention to ‘critical path’ on time-sensitive works.

For example, we cannot run wires on interior until keel job is ready, paint dried, and temporary dust shielding knocked down. Together with prioritized specification, this gives sensible basis to shedule works so that risk of completion date slipping is minimized. And when overshoots are identified, there’s a sound basis on which to suggest a solution.

IMHO, if these points are taken, the work has much better chance to produce a mutually satisfactory combination of specification, time and budget.. Cheers.

ettore gasparini

HI at all,
I’m an italian subscriber,I apologize for the content of this post not coherent with the discussion and for my bad english,but I’m looking for some suggestion about a problem of one friend of mine and John has recommended me to do a post
My friend Augusto have just bought a sail boat(cigale 14)in St.Augustine.His project is to go to polinesia after preparing the boat for ocean cruising and after a cruise in the maine,next summer
this boat needs more works,because the past use,was coastal cruising and races.
specifically it needs: a new rigging,a rollbar for solar panels and wind generator,one more tank for diesel and others
Augusto doesn’t know where to make these works
maybe do you have any suggestion about honest,reliable and affordable boatyards beetween florida and maine,that know well the works in aluminium boats?
I hope someone has some suggestion
thanks a lot
ettore gasparini

Chuck B

Hi John, thanks so much for this. When creating a detailed task description as you discuss under “Work Description,” what would you suggest if one doesn’t have enough knowledge or experience in an area to author a meaningful task breakdown?

Best wishes,

Chuck B

Makes sense John, thank you. First step, obtain a solid grasp of precisely what needs to get done. Second step, find someone who can pull it off. 🙂

Chuck B

Makes sense John, thank you. First step, obtain a solid grasp of precisely what needs to get done. Second step, find someone who can pull it off. 🙂