How to determine if your boat is a good candidate for an overhaul, and how to find the pros whose work won’t disappoint you
Dollars and cents drive many backyard boat projects. Jeff Koenke didn’t have the money for a new boat, so he found a 1984 Boston Whaler Outrage 250 that was damaged in Hurricane Katrina and restored it.
“I paid $3,500, which isn’t a whole lot, and I have the title,” says Koenke, 46, who is from Sarasota, Fla.
The restoration took about two-and-a-half years, and he has around $30,000 invested in the project.
“I’m a patient kind of a guy, so the outcome is going to be better than most newer boats, and a new boat — fully rigged, turnkey — is $100,000-plus, and I can’t afford to do it that way,” he says. “I would rather just take a little extra time and scrape together money here and there and take on a project.”
Restoring an older boat can be an appealing option, whether it’s your current pride and joy or you’re looking to buy a fixer-upper. Perhaps you simply prefer older boats and their heavily built hulls. Regardless of your motivation, there are several factors to consider before you take that boat and repair the stress cracks, have it painted, upgrade the wiring and electronics, and rebuild the soft transom or deck.
First, there is the cost. If the price of a new boat is beyond your budget, a complete stem-to-stern refit also might break the bank unless you approach it in stages, especially if someone else will do the work. Also, restoration pros recommend having the boat surveyed — the hull, stringers, decks, transom — before committing to any work, even if you’re just improving the boat cosmetically.
And then there’s the pedigree. Whether it’s a beloved boat that’s been in the family for decades or a classic that you’ll keep or perhaps turn around and sell, there’s little sense in restoring a no-name brand, says Dan Patten, the owner of Dan’s Marine Fiberglass (www.dansmarinefiberglass.com) in Westbrook, Conn.
“It’s best to pick a popular design that excels in looks and performance, like a Donzi Sweet 16, which is equivalent to a ’55 to ’58 Corvette,” says Patten, 61, who also lists the Formula 233, Bertram 31 and 20 Bahia Mar, 23 SeaCraft, Makos, Fountains, Tiaras and Blackfins as good candidates. “Think of cars,” he says. “Would you restore a Rambler or a Pinto? I guess you could, but why?”
If the Pinto, like a family boat, had a lot of sentimental value you might. “With an old family boat, especially a family with kids that spent lots of time in the boat, it’s hard to let go,” says Steve Clancy, 55, of Newton, Mass., whose 1973 SeaCraft was restored by Metan Marine Restoration (www.metanmarine.com) in Halifax, Mass. “I was initially inclined to go look for something new and bigger, but my kids were especially emotional about keeping the family boat — too many fond memories. These sentiments compelled me to invest the time and cash into the total restoration. Plus, when the boat’s a classic, that makes it easier, too.”
It’s not just the brand that matters but the era as well, says Wilco Marine owner Jodi Wilkinson (www.wilcomarine.com). For example, Mako, Grady-White, Pursuit, Stamas and SeaCraft are trusted names, but watch out for boats manufactured in the early 1990s, says Wilkinson, 51, who established his repair and restoration shop in 1980 in Newbury, Mass. “Many boats had major gelcoat problems,” he says. “Gelcoat was cracking in stress areas because the gelcoats were being sprayed on too thick.”
When looking for a shop to work on your boat, be sure to go with an established business with plenty of experience in marine restorations, as well as solid knowledge of boatbuilding, he says. “You have to have a lot of technical background as far as being part-chemist and knowing boats,” says Wilkinson, who runs a small shop (one full-time employee and two part-timers) that works mostly on powerboats from about 15 to 40 feet. “A lot of these repair shops are glorified auto-body shops. We used to build boats for a living, and you have to know how to build a boat before you repair one. A lot of shops don’t want to hear that, but there are a lot of hack shops up and down the East Coast.”
“Find someone who knows the chemicals we use in this industry, someone who knows the difference between epoxy and ester-based resin and the lasting effects,” says Tommy Solomon, owner of Tommy Solomon Yacht Repair & Restoration (www.TommySolomon.com) in Edgewater, Md. “For instance, if your boat is built of an ester-based material, you should use an ester-based material for repairs. A chemical bond is far different than a mechanical bond and is precisely why so many repairs fall short of their expected life.”
That process is known as “matching the hatch,” Wilkinson says. “In a vacuum-bag repair you have to make sure the resin is the same kind that the boat was built with,” he says.
Bottom line: “Find someone who knows what he is talking about and plans to do the same job — in the same way — over and over again in the future,” says Solomon, who established his business in 1996.
The shop should also be able to provide proof that it produces a quality finished product. “Ask to see the shop’s work that is 3 or 4 years old, not six months and not what they’re currently working on,” Wilkinson says.
Solomon says a paint job is often unnecessary and that he points about a half-dozen customers a year to less-expensive options. “Some have gelcoat that was never taken care of properly and is oxidized to the max,” he says. In these cases, he says, wet sanding, using compounds and buffing can be done instead of painting.
It’s important to keep in mind that most restorations won’t put a lot of money in your pocket if you’re going to sell the boat, unless you do a lot of the work yourself, Wilkinson notes.
Carrying out a refit is a viable alternative to buying a new boat, and it usually brings great satisfaction to the owner. Another plus is the bragging rights an owner earns when the compliments come rolling in. “He has something unique to show off,” says Wilkinson.
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This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.