In the print version of this story, published in the April 2019 issue, there has been some confusion about which yard was named in the lawsuit. It was not Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, Maine. A photo of the Front Street facility accompanied the print version of the story, but the image was selected to illustrate general points about the characteristics of a good service and storage facility.
A $15 million lawsuit against a boatyard in Maine raises questions for all boat owners about how to make sure a vessel is in good hands when it’s taken to any shipyard for work. The lawsuit, filed at the end of January, involves a 95-foot sailing yacht that appeared to need work done on its steering gear. According to the claim, the yacht was put on stands and then fell over, landing on its port side and causing “catastrophic structural damage.” An attorney for the shipyard told Soundings Trade Only, a sister publication of Soundings, that the yard had “coordinated a complicated effort to stabilize and secure the damaged vessel.”
With the lawsuit pending, more details are still to come in that particular case, but the incident raises the immediate, bigger-picture question of what boat owners should look for in evaluating any shipyard’s quality before leaving a boat behind for paint work or repairs.
Ed Sherman, vice president of education for the American Boat & Yacht Council, says the first thing any boater should do is simply use his own eyes. There’s no expertise required to look around a boatyard and figure out whether the machinery is in good shape or falling apart.
“I look at the overall condition of the equipment,” Sherman says. “How well maintained is it? I look for things like rust, fraying—one cloth, one material, you don’t even want to get near it. It’s a powerful visual. If something is beat up and worn out, you’re going to see it, and it should raise a red flag.”
Sherman says he also looks around at the general terrain. Again, there’s no expertise needed, but what you see can mean a lot, especially in areas where boats are being put up on jack stands that need a stable base beneath them. “Are there mud puddles all over the place? How soft is the ground?” he says. “Soft ground is not good.”
Bruce Kuryla, general manager at Bruce & Johnson’s Marina in Branford, Connecticut, agrees that general upkeep and cleanliness say a lot about a shipyard’s level of professionalism.
“You just look around,” Kuryla says. “If you walk into my yard, you’re going to see that it’s pristine—the grounds, the docks, the sheds, we take care of everything, and we take care of the customer’s boat that way. You’ll see peripheral protection, like blankets and buffers to protect the boat. It’s night and day with some yards, where you might see a dump versus a place that’s nice. You have to check it out for yourself.”
If maintenance is expected to be done with a boat up on stands, Sherman says, then a good question to ask is whether the yard follows ABYC’s recommendations for how that work should be performed. For instance, ABYC code TY-28 covers boat lifting and storage. It describes things such as proper blocking, minimum block dimensions, the stands themselves, cradles and storage racks. Knowing what the code says will guide any consumer in asking smart questions at a shipyard—and will reveal any shipyard that hasn’t even looked at the code.
A Travelift itself can tell a story, Sherman says; the fact that a shipyard has one that’s made for marine use is a good sign, compared with a shipyard that’s lifting boats with a standard crane.
“I get pretty nervous when I see cranes, because it’s a single lift point versus multiple lift points,” Sherman says. “The weight distribution is more controllable with a Travelift-type arrangement. Can it be done with a crane? Sure, with a proper rating, but you need very highly skilled individuals to operate the thing, and that’s a big maybe.”
Jay Mulrooney, project manager at Newport Shipyard in Rhode Island, says the seven red flags consumers should watch for at any shipyard include a slow (or no) response to requests for meetings and estimates; estimates that seem too good to be true; a yard that will take your project even though it pushes the yard’s capacity and staffing limitations; a yard in a bad area where security may be an issue; a yard that is disorganized or dirty; confusing documents; and a lack of recommendations from other boat owners for similar work—especially from fellow owners you know who keep their vessels in good condition.
“Few or no recommendations from peers in the industry, whether it’s from poor prior experiences or just no volume of customers moving through that yard—this can be a major red flag,” Mulrooney says.
Kuryla suggests that boat owners talk with all kinds of technicians inside a yard before signing a paint or repair contract. Start with the general manager or main point person for consumers, and then work your way down to whoever will be turning the wrenches or applying the paint. Ask to see what those employees are working on now, and ask to see boats that are still in the yard and recently finished.
“If you’re here for an Awlgrip job, you might want to talk to the head painter,” Kuryla says. “The guy who you talk to for the work has to be a good listener. You don’t want a guy who’s going to oversell you right away. For me, and I think a lot of the guys I work around, they’ll listen to your priorities.”
Also ask the workers whether they enjoy their jobs, Kuryla suggests. You want to be in business with people who are focused on your boat, as opposed to worrying about other things.
“We have six heated indoor sheds, so our staff can work in all weather, and the guys are comfortable doing it,” Kuryla says. “At many locations, if a guy’s trudging 150 yards through the snow and ice to carry his tools up into a boat, it’s not the same as a guy working comfortably in a sweatshirt in the winter.”
Mulrooney agrees that consumers should look at the faces of every worker they can see as they walk around a shipyard. You want to see the employees happy and smiling.
“Trust me, there is a difference, and it is not superficial,” Mulrooney says. “Ask to meet the office staff and yard teams. You can gather a good sense of what your experience will be and how it will be run. You will be working and speaking with these folks on, at least, a weekly and potentially daily basis.”
Yet another good practice, Sherman says, is to look in the mirror and ask some questions of yourself. If you’re handing your boat over to a yard to be hauled out and put up on stands for maintenance, then make sure you have first done what you need to do—such as draining all the fuel and water, and removing all kinds of stuff that has piled up on board in order to meet weight requirements.
Ask the yard directly, Sherman says. “Tell them if you have a lot of gear on board. Ask if you need to take any off to meet weight requirements before they lift it and block it. The answer should depend on the capacity of the equipment and on whether they’re going to place the boat stands appropriately, and how many they’re going to use.”
Last, Kuryla says, is trusting good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. With jobs like exterior hull paint, he says, it’s easy to see whether somebody has done good work in the past, but for mechanical work, sometimes the best thing to do is ask other boat owners which technicians they’ve learned to trust. “You can always ask,” he says. “I think with mechanics, paint and fiberglass , and riggers, reputation is important.”.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.