Let’s face it: Boats are an expensive investment. There is no getting around that fact. So with that in mind, coupled with the unique circumstances of the boating market in early 2021, we approach the scenario of those who might be faced with the choice of either building a brand-new custom boat or extensively refitting an older model. Each has its strong points. We leaned heavily on the professional advice of three custom-boat builders who are quite experienced on the refit side as well: Randy Ramsey, president of Jarrett Bay Boatworks; Michael Rybovich of Michael Rybovich & Sons; and Dominick LaCombe Sr. and his son, Dominick Jr., president and general manager, respectively, at American Custom Yachts.
Defining a Refit
“Everyone has a different idea of what a refit really means,” LaCombe Sr. says, “so that’s an important starting point—to actually define what you mean when you use that term. Some might think it’s a refit when it’s really just an upgrade.” He points out that there are three stages of work that are typically done to a boat: maintenance, upgrades and a full refit. “What some owners might see as a complete overhaul is really just maintenance,” he points out. “To us, a major refit is taking the boat down to nearly the bare hull, replacing the major components, and either replacing or rebuilding the engines.” Timewise, projects like that might take nine months to a year to complete, and it’s all based on just how deep you want to go. On the other hand, upgrades are generally defined as adding a new electronics package, gyrostabilizer or other equipment; while maintenance is repairing, repainting or replacing things that get worn out.
Another factor to consider is the current state of the used-boat market. It is definitely a seller’s market now. Inventory levels are among the lowest in recent memory, and if a boat is in reasonably good shape at a fair price, it usually sells quickly. A strong economy and COVID-induced social distancing are two of many factors driving the used-boat market, one that shows little sign of cooling off as we head toward spring and summer.
If you want to buy a boat and move right into an extensive refit, or start that process with an older boat you currently own, the first of many steps is to obtain an extensive survey. Knowing what you’re working with right up front is key. LaCombe Jr. points out that there are no Carfax history reports for boats: You are completely dependent on the survey as well as the maintenance records and reputation of every yard and mechanic who has worked on the boat over the years since it was built. Some areas of concern might be noticeable right away, but others can be much harder to uncover. And some problems you’ll find only in the midst of an unrelated repair, or never at all.
The engines and generator(s) should be surveyed as well; this could not only uncover unforeseen issues, but also help maintain resale value, raising the level of confidence for a prospective buyer. Making sure engine-maintenance schedules are followed in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations will keep you on top of what exactly needs to be addressed and where you stand in regard to the major service intervals and updates. Any good captain—either yours or the previous owner’s—should have available a log that tells the story. If no log or records exist, then an engine survey will help determine a starting point. If in doubt, going above and beyond will benefit you in the long run.
So what makes a boat a good candidate for a major refit? Ramsey suggests finding a boat with what he calls “good bones,” one that has performed well for its previous owners and that has a solid reputation. LaCombe Sr. says the same thing: Look for a strong boat with a good shell. “A lot of people seek out our older ACYs and Montereys for this reason—because of their reputation of being overbuilt,” he says.
Rybovich advises to ensure there is sufficient room to install modern power, and that the boat itself will accept the higher horsepower. He says that it should also be fairly close to the owner’s end desire. “Don’t buy a boat and say, ‘I don’t like the current layout, but we’ll gut it and then rebuild it the way we want.’ It should be something close to what the owner really wants for the best result.”
And not all boats, especially much older models, were designed to handle today’s high-horsepower engines or modern electronics: “There wasn’t a lot of room on the bridge for electronics on the old boats, for example, so if you have to have the biggest screens along with two of everything else, you’ll need to keep that in mind, otherwise it’s not going to look good,” he says.
Look Deep Inside Yourself
So if the boat passes the survey with flying colors and proves to be a good candidate for a refit, the next step is to do some serious soul-searching on how you intend to use the boat. As Rybovich points out, it’s difficult—and expensive—to turn a three-stateroom boat into a five-stateroom one, or to greatly increase the boat’s range with additional fuel that it wasn’t designed to carry in the first place. You should be realistic in the expectations for speed, range, accommodations, and options such as modern electronics and gyros; this way, you will be rewarded with a closer match, spending much less time (and a lot less money) than you would trying to turn a boat that’s not what you want into something you do.
The length of time you plan to keep the boat is another important factor that each of the builders touched on. The concept that you can sink a pile of cash fixing up an old classic and then somehow flip it for a larger pile of cash is flawed right from the start. “You have a smaller initial investment in a refit compared with purchasing a new boat,” Rybovich says, “but the resale value is less as well. The right way to approach it is [to think] long-term.”
As with many of his previous builds, Rybos are famous for their sentimental value and sturdy construction, and are therefore prime candidates for refits because their owners might keep them for their entire boating careers, or even hand them down to their children. “The same people who enjoy working on old boats are the guys who enjoy restoring classic cars, for example,” he says. “You may never recoup the investment, but it’s something you like doing, and you also know you have a solid boat under you.”
Engines are one of the most expensive parts of a major refit, but merely having new power doesn’t dramatically increase the overall value of the boat. “Just because you replace a pair of 1,000 hp engines with brand-new 1,100 hp ones, the boat will probably sell more quickly, but you’ll gain only around 50 to 60 percent of that investment,” Ramsey says. Once again, long-term ownership is the key: Enjoy the benefits of that new, reliable, fuel-efficient power—and the corresponding warranty—for the next eight to 10 years.
LaCombe Sr. describes a process he recently went through with a current ACY owner: “He didn’t want to replace his engines during the refit, but what we did do on his boat was install larger exhausts as well as make the boat ready for an engine swap in the near future,” he says. “That way, when the owner goes to sell the boat, he can list it as being ready for the new higher-horsepower engines without having to absorb that expense himself. Smart move.”
Avoid Costly Missteps
There are definitely some common errors made on the refit side that need to be taken into consideration. One of the biggest for Rybovich is taking a timeless old classic and trying to turn it into something it’s not. “We’ve been building boats for a long time, and it’s great to see how they are maintained over the years,” he says. “But sometimes we see a boat—ours or another classic—that someone’s redone with all the new 21st-century trends, and it has mistakes all over it. They thought they had a better idea than the builder, but they just ended up taking a beautiful piece of art and turning it into a hodgepodge. You just don’t take a beautiful, older gal and try to dress her up as a trendy hipster. It completely ruins the pedigree of the boat, which will directly affect the resale value.”
Being sure the boat fits the owner’s plans is another key factor. “A fair number of the Carolina boats that were built in the past 20 years were what I would call dayboats,” Ramsey says. “They aren’t the best choice for an operation where you are fishing in a lot of foreign destinations, traveling long distances, and having the owner, his family and the crew staying on board for extended periods. Those boats were just not designed for that. They were usually built around a specific power package and also to carry a certain amount of fuel, and to change those things sometimes doesn’t turn out well.”
Along those lines, LaCombe Jr. points out that many owners want to pack the latest and greatest into used boats that might not be designed for those kinds of accessories. “Gyros are a big one right now,” he says. “Everybody wants one, but in some boats where you have room to install a gyro, that placement can change the [center of gravity] and make the boat ride funny. We have lost work because we’ve told owners that we won’t do things that will adversely affect the overall performance of the boat.”
The New Build
When is the right time to write the big check and build new? “A new-boat buyer for us is someone who has been fishing for a while and has owned several boats. They tend to have a long list of likes and dislikes in what they want, and they come to us to build their dream boat,” Rybovich says. “It’s more expensive than a refit, but it’s the customer’s choice—they can invest in a new build, do it right, design it so the boat appeals to a wide range of people, and they’ll maintain a damned good resale value on it. It’s a completely different approach than just fixing up an older-model boat.”
LaCombe Sr. has seen the same thing in his decades building new boats at ACY and Monterey. “Our new-boat client has probably owned six or seven [boats] before they decide to build one of their own, and at that point, it becomes part of the family. We have owners who will never sell their boats for any reason because of that sentimental value. They can also bring us the ideas of what they liked about their previous boats, and we can incorporate them into the new build. This is where we try to deliver exactly what they want, not what someone else wanted at the time.”
And as Ramsey says, you can refit an older boat and get it pretty close to what you want, but it won’t ever be an exact match. “We just went through this with a customer who was considering a major refit,” he says. “We kept circling back to what he wanted in the end and the fact that he just wouldn’t see the return on his investment in a refit, so he decided to build a new boat. We have another customer who is building a boat with us whose key point was timing: By doing a refit on his current boat over the winter, he can be back on the water by this summer while we’re in the process of building his new boat.” Refitting a current ride while having a multiyear new build underway is an attractive alternative for some, allowing them to enjoy an updated version on the water now while watching the dream project come together over time.
One of the many benefits of new construction is warranty, as LaCombe Jr. points out. “There are plenty of people in this world who always trade in their vehicles every three years, or who choose to lease rather than buy so that they are always covered under the warranty. It’s something to consider in a new-boat purchase as well.” Along with the latest in engines, new boats are also designed right from the start for next-generation electronics, gyrostabilizers, sonars and other modern equipment that can often be difficult to pack aboard an older boat, so that’s something else to keep in mind.
And then there’s Viking Yacht Company, the world’s largest builder of production sport-fishermen. While refitting older Vikings is incredibly popular, they are perhaps positioned better than any other builder to offer customers a stepping stone to their next new boat—larger or smaller. They have a robust worldwide dealer network, which stands ready to assist their clients in trading in an existing Viking for a new one. The company’s model line neatly steps up in size from the 38 Billfish all the way to its 92-foot flagship, so it’s relatively easy for an owner to move from, say, a three-stateroom 58-footer to a four-stateroom 62 as their family grows and their needs change over the years. Every model in the lineup is engineered from the factory with dedicated space for a gyrostabilizer as well as all the modern conveniences. And since Viking is vertically integrated, they can easily deliver a turnkey-ready boat fully equipped with tower and electronics.
Making the Call
The decision to refit or build new is weighted heavily and based on a large number of factors, any one of which can steer that choice along one course of action or another. Budget. Length of intended ownership. Sentimental value. Timing. Percentage of return on investment. The list goes on. As Ramsey suggests, it’s best to go into the process with your eyes wide open. Ask questions of the builder and the boatyard, but also turn those questions to yourself and be honest with your answers about how—and how often—the boat will be used and for how long you intend to keep it. Then once the decision is made—either way—dive in and enjoy the entire process from start to finish because boats truly are a labor of love.