Refits—The Radical Option

I just heard about a sad situation.

An experienced cruising couple with serious miles, including one of the toughest and nastiest ocean crossings in the world, own a European production boat built in the middle eighties.

The boat has a lot of miles on her, many of them hard, as well as at least one grounding, and has started to show ominous signs of structural problems, including visible flexing around bulkheads and structural members, accompanied by rhythmic cracking sounds every time she goes over a wave.

The couple plan to embark on another extended cruise, including many trans-ocean passages, but want to fix the boat right before they do, like you would.

A project that's complicated by the internal liner that makes it impossible to see much of the suspected problem areas, and cabinetry that was, I'm guessing, glued together out of veneered ply, that will be pretty much destroyed by the process of removal.

They have already written to the designer and the builder, both of whom are still in business, but both have studiously ignored their communications. That sounds terrible, I know, but, on the other hand, there is no win for either company in getting involved in this, particularly from afar.

Be that as it may, the owners, after not getting anywhere with the builder and designer, wrote to a surveying and structural expert who advised them to hire a competent boatyard with real shipwrights with fibreglass repair experience—not Bubba who slathers a bit of polyester resin around from time to time—to investigate and advise on the needed repairs.

Eminently sensible. And I was about to agree when I got a better idea...which I will share in a moment. But first, let's do some analysis:

Value Of This Boat:

  • I checked on Yacht World and sister ships to the boat in question are listed for about US$65,000.
  • A few months ago, I would have guessed that the actual selling price would be in the $50,000 range.
  • But in COVID times, and probably for years to come, what will they really fetch? $40,000? $30,000? Who knows, but not a lot more.
  • And with these structural issues, which any surveyor worth their salt will find, never mind the moral implications of selling her without disclosure, what's this boat worth now? Not much.

Cost Of Yard Repair

So what will she cost to repair? Well, I have seen such a repair done in a professional yard that went over $100,000, mainly because of the costs of removing and replacing all the cabinetry and liners to get at the problems and then putting it all back. Will repairing this boat cost that much? Who knows, but let's hope not.

But here's the key takeaway: No one will know what the yard bill will be until the job is done. Yeah, I know, get a quote. Good luck with that, and even if one could, the yard will want to get paid for all the disassembly required to assess the damage before quoting.

So let's say the pre-quote work takes US$5,000—that's just 50 to 75 hours at many yards, and remember we need top class people on this—and the quote comes in at $35,000 more to fix and reassemble, the owners now have the boat pulled apart and no choice but to fix her for more than she is worth, plus the risk of cost overruns—based on bitter experience, I'm betting that during the project that "quote" will get elastic as more stuff is found.

This situation is sucking more and more, the more I think about it.

DIY Repair

OK, I know what you are thinking. "Not a problem, John, just fix her DIY". OK, fine, you fix her DIY. I have fixed a fibreglass boat with structural problems, been there and done that, and I can tell you it sucks, big time, and can take years out of your life...and probably off it, too.

This is not fun, interesting, and satisfying refit work like rigging, wiring, installing cool gear, or replacing an engine. It's grinding fibreglass and subjecting yourself to hours of exposure to poisonous chemicals—Colin calls this shit "prison work".

Defining The Fix

And, anyway, how the hell are the owners to know what the fix should be? It will take full-on engineering to be sure of doing it right since the boat's problems sound deeply structural to me.

And the penalty for getting it wrong could be another Cheekie Rafiki tragedy—remember, there were "professional" attempts at assessing and fixing that boat, too.

But assuming they can figure it all out right and want to spend say a six months doing it—remember all that cabinetry that will be destroyed and need rebuilding—what will they have at the end?

You got it, a 35-year-old boat that was built cheap in the first place and probably needs a new rudder and a bunch of other stuff to be really seaworthy—given the grounding and nature of the problems the keel should probably come off, too.

And even if all that work is done, it's still a boat that's been used hard for a long time. What else will need replacing and/or rebuilding? Only time will tell.

A Common But Strange Assumption

Now here's the interesting thing in all of this and the point of this article:

Everyone involved in this, the owners, the structural expert they wrote to, and me, started from the assumption that the boat would be fixed.

And that is the default position throughout the boating industry. Heck, we even have a magazine dedicated to the idea that every old boat can be restored.

But is that sensible? Let's take a look:

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Philip Wilkie

I remember reading somewhere that the great thing about fibreglass is that it lasted forever, and that the worst thing about fibreglass was that it lasted forever.

The refit I am doing on a 30yr old steel hull always had one possible alternative ending, that somewhere at around the 7 yr mark I would scrap the hull, remove all the bolt-on hardware I’ve added and look for something else to do with it. I don’t want to be saddled with an aged boat rusting away in the back corner of a marina along with all the other ferals.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Much as I dislike our “dispose and replace” mind-set and our society’s inability (and dis-interest) in fixing things, I think your notion has merit.
I am reminded of an argument I have made concerning owning a late model automobile: that new cars are so much safer that the differential in money between nursing a 10 year old car with 150,000 miles on it for a few more years and new (or used late model) was not worth the foregoing the safety advances that car manufacturers have made over the last decade. Especially if these vehicles are carrying my grandchildren.
I think it is admirable to wish to bring an old boat back to life (and a great learning experience), especially if it has good bones. That said, I think it is arguable that the boats (or many of them) you are suggesting being scrapped are unable to be returned to where they would be considered safe to do offshore passages. At least in any reasonable way.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Matt

I’d say your car argument is valid, in the car sector, albeit perhaps on a slightly longer timeframe; the difference in safety and quality between a late ’90s car and a modern car is *much* more dramatic than the difference between a circa 2005-2015 car and a modern car.

I’m not sure boats can be treated the same way. There are models from the early ’70s that were well built, with almost the entire original fleet still being safe and seaworthy today. There are also models from that same era where only a handful are left, and they’re in bad shape. There are 5- and 10-year-old yachts out there now which I wouldn’t trust to keep me safe, and 50-year-old ones that I do trust.

I certainly agree that there comes a point, particularly with built-to-a-price production boats, where refitting & repairing is just not economical. One must know when to cut one’s losses.

Alan Sexton

I think I know who you are writing about and if my assumption is correct then that boat owes them absolutely nothing given that it has achieved far more than the designer/builder ever envisaged. In a business that asset would have been written off years ago. In an ideal world the owners should have been building up a “boat replacement” fund over the years for this eventuality.
I agree with the scrap (or sell with condition declared) and replace philosophy. In this situation they will most likely spend the same money to rebuild the existing boat for no increase in its value as they would to upgrade.

Marc Dacey

Remove and salvage the lead keel and invert the empty hull over cinder blocks. Boom, a workshop, shed or bunkie is born. An expired boat can still avoid the landfill with a bit of imagination.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Marc,
There is a automobile garage in Lerwick, the Shetland Islands, whose roof is an inverted rescue boat that I always saw with pleasure in my walks around town. Dick

Marc Dacey

I believe photos of such “shed boats” are what inspired my comment. Also, a pal is considering turning his 1970 Egg Harbor powerboat into a backyard B&B, as he is tired of scarfing in fresh planks every season.

Michael Lambert

By the end of this article I was thinking about how the choices that buyers of new boats effect the environment down the road. I used to build carbon race boats, and to take just one example, every time we vacuum bagged anything, up to and including the entire hull, the bag, blanket, peel ply, tubes, etc were in the trash. Multiple dumpsters/week, for like 8-10 months/boat. That’s the initial building, but I’m thinking anew about how fast or cheap boats are disposable, not unlike sails that get used for one regatta. This way of thinking makes me feel good about my decision to buy a boat whose speed is “historically consistent”. Aluminum is energy intensive initially, but I understand it’s recyclable so that’s good.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

While I agree with what you write in this situation, I think that there is a key element in the situation and that is that the underlying boat just wasn’t that great to start with and the prospective bill is huge.  If the boat in question had been that HR you linked to and the owners had really gotten it the way they wanted, then it probably would make sense to pay a yard to do the repair if they were confident a good outcome was possible.

One thing that always struck me as I sailed on many different boats was that on pretty much all the boats I could come up with a laundry list of stuff that I felt needed to be done even on pretty expensive boats.  I tend to be a bit cynical that I could ever find a truly turn-key boat for me.  That doesn’t mean that we should just buy any old boat but it means that I need to find one that is as close as possible and then budget the time and money to get it where I want it.  Our model of boat goes for around $40k right now and even buying in the top 20% of niceness, I can’t imagine spending less than $20k doing the work myself to get it where I want it for basic coastal work and offshore would be far more expensive. What this means then is that there is a huge incentive not to switch boats once you have gone through that refit process.  Of course, if you haven’t done continuous maintenance since the refit, this negates it.

Our boat is a CS which has a good owners forum which I participate in.  These boats were much better built than most although there were still some poor areas too such as seacocks and the AC electrical system.  They are also getting to an age where people are thinking about repowering.  The question often comes up whether people should repower or just sell the boat and get something different with a younger engine.  When you factor in the cost of finding a new equivalent boat, purchase costs and the cost to customize to your needs, the ~$20k you might pay a yard to do the repower doesn’t look so bad.  On the other hand, if the boat was never a good fit to start with or if you haven’t kept up with maintenance or customized it, then the swap can indeed make sense.  In our case, we did manage to buy a boat that had been repowered by the PO but we are also budgeting to make sure that we have the money set aside by the time the engine turns 30 to do another one if we feel it is needed at that point.  Projects that cost 50% of the value of our boat are a no-brainer that we should do if we can be confident of a good outcome, it takes something much bigger to make it not worthwhile at this point.  Frankly the only ones that come to mind are major hull damage or losing the rig and both of those potentially still may make sense to repair.  However, if the boat had major hull damage on day 2 of our ownership before the time and money was invested, switching would have absolutely made sense.

A corollary is the people who say you should never put more money into a car than it is worth which is totally bogus from a financial perspective (assuming you don’t have reliability issues which have their own costs).  Your car may only be worth $2k but if you bought a new one, you would likely have an equivalent cost of depreciation of more than $2k a year ignoring time value of money which is important.  You obviously shouldn’t routinely put more than $2k/year into it but if you have one bad year and spend $3k, as long as the following years you don’t keep spending that you are ahead.  And if you try to switch cars to something of equivalent value, it won’t be long before it needs a major repair too and you are left deciding whether to switch again.  Like the boat example, if the car is bad to start with, then switching makes tons of sense but if it is otherwise good, you should work to keep it that way.

Probably the most important thing in all of this is to pull your head up every now and then and make sure you fully understand your options and what the opportunity costs are (not just financial).  Given the situation you describe, I would think that most of us would struggle to realize that the rational thing to do would be to move on.

Eric

Andrew Craig-Bennett

I have been guilty of putting an awful lot of time and money into an old boat because I was fond of her and she was beautiful. She still is, at the age of 83, (wood, of course – mostly teak) in the hands of her present owner, but what a lousy investment she was!

Douwe Gorter

Hi John, well put article! In my boating life I owned, build and refitted more than 20 boats, wood, grp and aluminium. I fully agree with you that it’s only useful to put money and effort in a solid design, construction and hull. I believe that if a boat was solid in in the first place that there can be a long life. I build wooden Waarschepen and the last build was a 55 foot aluminium Dykstra designed pilot cutter. Currently we are doing the last bit of work after a full 2 year refit of a 51 year old van de Stadt Gallant 53, in fact it is Express Crusader, Naomi’s James’ yacht that she took around the world 40 years ago. This an example of a rock solid hull, and proper designed and build yacht; minimal flexing at sea, very safe and sturdy boat. I found this boat in Spain where it had been a shore waiting for a new owner for more than 5 years without any attention. Spend 6 weeks to make her safe and seaworthy and took her back to Holland via the Azores in 2018. The refit involved among other things: remove and rebuild Perkins engine, new bearings and propellor. Rebuild steering system, new rudder bearings, partially open up the rudder for inspection since there was water (no damage inside). Partially renew electrical system, take off every bit of deck hardware, full paint and varnish job outside and inside, partially rebuild interior. Some structural work involved repairing two bulkheads that suffered from water ingress. We carefully inspected the chainplates, no issues but had to replace all of the nuts on the chainplates which suffered from crevice corrosion. No keel problems, no keel bolts :-). Replaced standing and running rigging and sails. So quite an extensive refit. In total we spend some 2000 hours and quite a bit of cash. However for the effort and the money we invested I feel we have a great, rock solid yacht that in my view is much more comfortable at sea than most of the yachts sold in big numbers nowadays. Also my personal opinion is that the latest designs and the build “quality” offered today will enforce lots of owners to prematurely scrap boats in the near future. I agree with your example on the HR, a very suitable boat to take to sea. We owned a 20 years old HR 53, a Swan 46, a Baltic 33 and a Norlin 37, all examples of solid build and constructions, if taken well care off these boats will last a very very long time.

Douwe Gorter

Thank you John, I made a typo, it will be approximately 4000 hours work in total. 95 percent was done by a friend and myself, if one had to have most of the work done professionally these projects are not doable from an economical point of view. If however you buy the right boat and do most of the jobs yourself it can be very favourable financially.

Jakob Vedefors

In Sweden we have a goverment program to dispose of old boats (so its free for you, just hand it in to a company that scrap the boat and make sure all material is recyckeld or taken care of), hopefully more countries Will adopt a program like this which will make this Johns suggestion even more viable.

IAN MCCALLUM

I think what is really bad for a GRP boat is to be frequently hauled out and stored with all that weight on a narrow keel not properly supported. Often tanks are full, anchors and all the jewelry is left on deck sides. Sometimes the travel lift drops the boat down hard. That all surely distorts the hull and glass resin matrix, regardless of brand. In Fiji the keel is placed in a pit and the hull supported by tires.

Iain Dell

‘Beyond economical repair’ is an important principle in any organisation that owns lots of expensive bits of kit and your example of the car is spot-on. When you think of it, working out the difference between the costs of repair against replacement isn’t just sound financial practice – its basic common-sense! Trouble is that folk get emotionally attached to things like boats in a way they’d never do at work, or even to other stuff they own like a car. It’s sometimes necessary for a good friend to point out the screamingly obvious, most likely having to tell it like a Doctor breaking very bad news……

Drew Frye

Refreshing, coming from a guy I know is willing to roll up his sleeves and fix boats. You could down-cycle it to a guy that sails bays and gentle coastlines. And goodness knows, structural integrity is not vital for dock queens, only cosmetics.

There are just too many good used boat out there to take on a money pit. We’re attracted to boats by the heart–why else would we sail–but realism is vital.

Drew Frye

I was speaking more generically. Personally, if I can’t or don’t care to keep a larger boat in solid condition, I would down size… which is, of course, exactly what I did. Who knows, maybe I’ll up-size again one day, after a 5 year sabbatical from cruising. Until then, I can’t stand watching a boat age without being used to her potential. It just bugs me.

If a boat is going to fall into serious disrepair, it will have to do it while owned by someone other than me. If through miss adventure the boat became unsound and not economical repair, yup, scrapping is best. Speaking about cars, my grandfather used to say “it’s miles that wears them out.”