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Boatyard Survival Tips from the Experts

It’s not glamorous but yard time is vital to any operation

February 10, 2020
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View of the front of a sport fishing boat.
Boat ownership requires trips to the boatyard to have work performed, from routine maintenance to significant overhauls and refits, including engine swaps. Austin Coit

Today’s sport-fishing boats are marvels of engineering, with revolutionary designs, outstanding performance and highly sophisticated construction. With these characteristics, maintenance and care to keep these boats running are never inexpensive. At the same time, boatyards have made leaps and bounds where skilled and talented shipwrights, mechanics, ­finishers and in-house engineers stand ready to take on your punch list to repair, maintain, refurbish and update your ride to better-than-new condition.

Boatyard tradesmen are the unsung heroes in the marine industry, so why is it when discussions of boatyards come up, opinions are likely to vary from highly satisfied clients to those who ­relentlessly rant about a less-than-stellar experience?

Whether the work order starts out as a basic haul-out to paint the bottom, or a major refit from bow to stern—perhaps even including a repower—no boatyard wants a customer to leave unhappy, but then again, the yard has always been a ­challenging environment to negotiate.

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Oil filters in a sport fishing boat engine room.
Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a captain’s job easier. Labeling oil filters not only helps stay on top of the maintenance schedule, but it also reduces time spent scrambling to find details when asked for them. Chris Rabil

Stay Ahead of the Maintenance Curve

When I worked as a professional captain, I spent half the year in the northern United States and the rest in the south. Before departing to southern waters each season, a trip to the yard was in order to make sure the boat was ready for the journey, which meant having the bottom painted and the running gear in top condition. Fishing the canyons during summer and racking up hundreds of hours left the engines needing oil and filter changes, coolant checks, and other routine chores.

Preventative maintenance was always the rule aboard my boat, and before heading back north one May, I made an appointment for a quick haul-out at a southern yard to check the bottom. There I discovered an issue that required both rudders to be replaced. I delayed the trip for a couple of weeks to have the work done. My boss accepted the decision, and we never experienced a steering problem for as long I ran the boat.

I used the additional time in the boatyard to address a few other chores, such as replacing the head and repainting the bridge, because I had the time and the opportunity to make it happen. Maintenance is like a sharp hook; there is no point in putting bait in the water if the hook is the weak link, and a boat in need of maintenance might quit on you when you least expect it.

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Modern boats are far more complicated than the ones I grew up on. Maintenance is more critical today simply because boats now have hundreds of systems where there used to be only a dozen or so. Many of these new systems are interrelated and require skilled technical attention that simply didn’t exist years ago. Who knew one day gyrostabilizers would replace a bottle of Dramamine?

Sport fishing boats in drydock at Hatteras Yachts.
Maintenance is a critical issue with today’s boats, many of whom have hundreds of complex systems and components. Courtesy Hatteras Yachts

Keeping a boat in top form means regular ­attention to the details. Whether you do most of it yourself, rely on your captain, or just drop off the boat at the yard, the main thing is that issues are addressed properly, maintenance is accurately tracked, and a pattern is established so the boat remains seaworthy when you are enjoying it, and sellable when the day comes to part with it.

“You are losing the use of your boat, and it is going to cost time and money before you get it back. Our goal is to make it a good experience for both the owner and the captain because that is also good for the industry.”

Randy Ramsey

Boatyard Survival Skills

Boat ownership requires trips to the boatyard to have work performed that you can’t do on your own, don’t know how to do or simply don’t want to do. “No one, especially the owner and the captain, is ever really happy about going to the yard,” says Jarrett Bay Boatworks president Randy Ramsey. “You are losing the use of your boat, and it is going to cost time and money before you get it back. Our goal is to make it a good experience for both the owner and the captain because that is also good for the industry.”

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Jarrett Bay handles yachts up to 140 feet and generally has 45 or so active projects ongoing at any time—including repowers, interior upgrades, engine-room work and painting jobs—in ­addition to new boats under construction. Some of the skippers stay with the boat in the yard and take on chores such as routine maintenance and cleaning, as well as keeping their boss in the loop regarding the progress. “We welcome that,” Ramsey says, but he also notes that “quality suffers when you don’t allow the yard enough time to do the job right.”

A boat dock worker repainting a boat helm.
Repainting the hull is just one of the many jobs that are handled by a professional boatyard. Tom Spencer

Even the best intentions, however, can slide sideways and cause anxiety for all parties involved. Mike Samuels, who heads up customer ­service for the Viking Yacht Company and runs two service yards for the boatbuilder in Riviera Beach, Florida—points out that his group ­handles more than 550 projects a year, including routine ­maintenance, warranty items, repairs, ­repowers, mechanical installations, painting and engineering retrofits. “You cannot overcommunicate in this side of the business,” says Samuels, a 20-year veteran of the company in various capacities, as well as an avid tournament fisherman. “A boat owner who comes to the yard with a plan that we agree to honor and who does not deviate from that strategy is a customer who understands the program. When items are suddenly piled on while other work is in progress, it gets sketchy because of the time, materials and also the required manpower involved.”

Every boatyard job requires time, materials and manpower. Every boat is different. When plans change from the original schedule, it often means pulling workers from one job to another. If it throws the sequence out of whack because of other challenges such as weather, waiting for parts or an emergency with a vessel in distress, the situation reverberates into a tense problem for everyone involved. Even on the best days, planning can never be taken for granted. People call in sick, ­others go on vacation, and equipment ­manufacturers change or discontinue products. That’s life.

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A repainted sport fishing boat in dry dock.
Scheduling plenty of time for the work to be completed is critical, knowing that delays will probably arise somewhere along the way. Austin Coit

Prior Planning Yields Optimal Results

Samuels recalls an episode with a recent customer’s lengthy list of maintenance items, starting with the removal and replacement of the raw-water hoses throughout the engine room. This was a 60-foot sportboat with standard runs for accessory equipment, as well as dedicated hoses for the engines and generators. Not only are there miles of hose, but the extensive undertaking also would require the removal and reinstallation of the bait freezers in the cockpit in order to gain access to the workspace. The owner also requested a completion date that fit his schedule. Before agreeing to that date, Samuels acquired a list of all hoses that would be replaced, and tasked his service team to verify which hose was in inventory on-site and which would need to be ordered.

A call went out to a vendor to inquire about the availability and delivery date of the hose to the boatyard. Within 24 hours of the customer’s original inquiry, Samuels and his team had a workable plan and told the owner when he should bring in his boat.

Two main criteria boat owners sometimses ­overlook is that boatyards don’t have the room to inventory the myriad equipment found aboard modern yachts, and suppliers and vendors can also run low on inventory due to seasonal shortages or other breakdowns in the delivery cycle. Had the owner not been proactive in reporting exactly what he wanted to do in the engine room—or worse, brought in his boat unannounced—the story could have had quite a different ending. “Plan to communicate with us and be understanding about what you want and what you expect the yard to do,” Samuels says.

“Sometimes it upsets people, but things happen and problems can snowball—from bad weather to back-ordered equipment that is late to show up, or is damaged in shipping or even defected direct from the manufacturer.”

Dominick LaCome Sr.

Weather or Not

Getting things accomplished in a boatyard also revolves around lead time and understanding what is involved in each process. Dominick LaCombe Sr. of American Custom Yachts in Stuart, Florida, suggests boat owners allot 20 percent more time to keep the boat on its original schedule. “Sometimes it upsets people, but things happen and problems can snowball—from bad weather to back-ordered equipment that is late to show up, or is ­damaged in shipping or even defected direct from the ­manufacturer,” he says.

American Custom Yachts is a popular ­hurricane haul-out site, and when Hurricane Dorian threatened to strike the Treasure Coast this past September, ACY hauled out 327 boats in two to three days. Work stalled in the boatyard in preparation ahead of the storm and, while Dorian fortunately traveled away from Florida, the boatyard was a logjam of boats that needed to be relaunched. Some boat owners figured that while their boat was on the hard it was a good time to schedule a bottom job, tend to running gear or other repairs. Meanwhile, other customers already at the yard prior to Dorian needed the work done to their boats that was already scheduled or ­underway but were delayed by the storm threat.

LaCombe’s service team managers met weekly and followed a strict schedule of start and completion dates, working through the boats as efficiently as time permitted. “Captains don’t run this schedule,” LaCombe says. Even if captains want to do some of the work on their boat, every yard is faced with certain environmental restrictions. At ACY, for example, no work below the waterline can be done by anyone other than the yard’s own workers.

A sport fishing boat undergoing inspection in dry dock.
Running-gear inspections are a must after haul-out. A good pressure washing will reveal what items are in most need of servicing. Here, the main engine-intake screens will be removed and ­acid-cleaned for optimal raw-water flow. Peter Frederiksen

Plan the Work, Then Work the Plan

Saunders Yacht Works, with locations in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, is celebrating its 60th year in operation, according to customer service manager Tim Gibson, one of three professionals in this position. “Basically, we establish relationships with customers; each one of us is familiar with all of the boats that come into our two yards,” Gibson says. “Ten separate departments—including fiberglass, mechanical, electrical, carpentry, painting, electronics and bottom gear—keep these yards busy year-round. While we don’t see a slowdown in the offseason, we have more activity with smaller boats that are being used throughout the summer and larger projects the rest of the year.”

Gibson addresses his customer’s service routine with what he calls a triangle plan, which ­consists of the costs, the time needed to complete the tasks, and an understanding of the technical factor. “I like to ask questions to fully understand the boat owner’s position about why he’s at my yard and what he expects us to do,” he says. “When you listen, you can learn a lot about a customer’s experience, his needs and budget, and develop a level of trust that is beneficial to all.”

After Gibson’s first meeting with a client, he will typically send an email back to the boat owner to reiterate what was discussed, where he can elaborate more on what the Saunders yard can do for him. “For example, if a customer has a boat that ran aground, I would want to know the history,” he says. “Was it a soft, sandy bottom, where perhaps just the prop was affected? Or was it a hard hit, where maybe the shaft should be pulled out to make sure it wasn’t bent, or the cutlass bearing isn’t pinched and damaged. We want the customer to be satisfied with the work we do so he can enjoy his boat and not have to worry. Sometimes we can call in a marine surveyor for a third-party view if the owner is unsure about what he wants to do and is interested in another opinion.”

Worker repairing metal work for a boat repair.
Be sure to set realistic expectations for your time in the boatyard, knowing that delays most likely will occur. Capt. Jen Copeland

Gibson’s triangle strategy basically keeps the owner abreast of what can be done, and at what cost to meet the owner’s expectations. He also recommends keeping a written log of work done to the boat, with part numbers of equipment, dates, tech names and other pertinent details. This comes in handy, especially when the boat is traveling and needs service or repairs from other sources.

By having realistic expectations regarding the time and cost of routine maintenance, repair or refits, and keeping an open line of communication between the boat owner and the boatyard staff, your next visit to the yard can be much less stressful, and hopefully, you just might leave feeling a little less challenged.

Boatyard Survival Tips

  • Be sure to visit the boatyard you’re considering before you need it, looking at works in progress and their condition/cleanliness.
  • Give yourself plenty of time for the project to be completed in full.
  • Be sure to ask if the crew is allowed to assist with the project.
  • Remove the contents of the refrigerators and freezers, and clear the boat of any items likely to spoil should the power be interrupted.
  • Captains should stay in constant ­communication with the service writer and keep the owner advised of the project’s progress.
  • Be sure you are easily reached should an item come up that needs immediate attention.
  • Any changes in the work order should be communicated to the owner before it is completed.
  • Have a written record of all sea-trial data.
  • Wash the exterior as time and conditions permit.
  • Treat all yard personnel with respect.
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