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Working with your boatyard

Learn what you can do to help repairs and other projects go smoothly

Learn what you can do to help repairs and other projects go smoothly

We’ve all heard the horror stories about repair yards. Many of us have experienced them. My first haul-out was in the 1950s. I rolled my 12-foot skiff on three logs up into a public park at the end of Main Street. I had no “yard problems” because I did all the work, and I wasn’t in a boatyard. (Maybe that’s why the skiff rotted away a few years later.)

My yard experiences since then have ranged from great to terrible. I’ve owned more than two dozen boats from 8 to 53 feet, and I’ve used many yards along the Eastern Seaboard. I’ve also done much of the maintenance and repair of my boats myself. The lessons I’ve learned over the years may help you when your boat goes into the yard.

Basics of the relationship

As a boat owner, it’s easy to not fully appreciate the yard’s perspective, that it’s a business and it must make money. I realize this subliminally, but I also can’t help but be passionate about my boat. Passion and business often mix poorly. And further, I don’t believe that only wealthy people should be able to own boats and afford to pay yard bills. But, again, the yard must make money.

Not only must it make money, it must comply with many laws and regulations, including those pertaining to the environment and to worker safety. Further, it must follow certain standards, such as those of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), to assure the owner’s safety. These different perspectives can lay a foundation for bad yard experiences, exacerbated by poor communications.

We all know that clear and courteous communication is important to ensure that everyone stays on the same page. But this can be very difficult in the context of yard work because the boat owner often lacks a good understanding of the facts of life in a typical yard, and of the issues of his or her particular job. Knowing what’s going on can help both you and the yard because most yard owners are honest businesspeople who want repeat customers and good referrals. You’re the key to that.

Choosing the yard

Two distinctly different types of boatyard lie at the extreme ends of the spectrum. At one end is the yard that caters to people with enough money to say what they want and essentially sign a blank check. The jobs are expected to be done “just right,” following all codes and official standards. Workers are expected to be highly skilled and trained, and equipment on premises allows them to perform sophisticated tasks. These yards turn out near-perfect work, but at a cost.

At the opposite end is the yard where the workers might be poorly trained and where the capabilities of the facilities are limited. They might get the job done very inexpensively, but they might also take short cuts that can cost dearly later. And, of course, there are many yards at varying positions between the two extremes.

Use a boatyard that’s familiar with the type of work you need and is within your budget. If the job is simple, such as hauling and painting, a yard at the lower end of the spectrum may do. If it is more complex, like replacing an engine, installing a bow thruster, or repairing damaged running gear, you might want the high-end yard. But remember, if that “real deal” yard that’s just going to paint the bottom also drops the boat in the process, things could get very complex very quickly.

Do your homework

Ask around; word of mouth is a good indicator. But remember that people tend to be overly critical, especially about boat work, so don’t settle for abstract opinions. Ask specific questions. Exactly why does Joe at the club say these guys are crooks? Does he really understand the problems and issues involved with his job? What types of boats has the yard serviced? Do its customers regularly return? Has there been frequent turnover in ownership, management or workers?

Little things tell big tales, so pay the yard a visit. For example, are the jack stands bent and rusty? Are the threads greased? Are the chains that stretch under the boat from opposing stands in good shape? How about the notched crossbars to which the chains attach? Check the tires on the lift. Are the straps threadbare, and do the hydraulic lines seem to be well maintained?

Check if the yard has a well-stocked parts shop. This may not matter if you’re just getting bottom paint, but it does say something about the yard and its capability to quickly handle an unexpected problem.

Watch the workers. If they are standing idly around boats, beware. See if there are organized break periods. Talk to owners with jobs in progress.

Talk to the yard management. Will they understand that you aren’t a billionaire? Will they be easy to work with? Are signs posted joking that they charge extra if the owner is present? This isn’t really funny. It’s your boat; it’s your money; and it’s your rear end that’ll be going into the drink if the job isn’t done well.

A boat often is more vulnerable to equipment theft when it’s on the hard. Check out yard security if you feel that’s an issue in your area.

If you wish to do some or all of the work yourself, ask if that’s allowed and assess whether the yard is friendly to the do-it-yourself concept. Find out if there will be electricity and water on-site, if there are any special fees, and if you must buy such materials as paint through the yard. If so, try to determine if the price is marked up significantly.

A buyer’s market

Yards usually are more anxious for business during their slow seasons. Generally, on the East Coast north of Florida, spring is the worst time to have work done. Everyone is clamoring to get their boats ready, and it’s a seller’s market. During the summer months, most yards have a Monday morning line of people wanting to get the things that broke over the weekend fixed before Friday. Fall is less busy, but there will be work on boats heading south early in the season, and winter haulouts just before it gets cold. During winter, yards often are anxious for work. If possible, try to have work done during the slow times in your area.

Choosing a boatyard may be just the beginning. The following are things to do that will increase your odds of a good experience. Some of these aren’t relevant to all jobs, such as a simple bottom painting. And if you’ve done your homework and found one of the many good yards, the potential problems discussed below won’t be of concern. But it always helps to understand the dynamics.

Written estimate or quote

Usually, an estimate is an educated guess, without a guaranteed ceiling. If you elect to get an estimate, get it in writing and check that it specifies what is included. Insist that you be informed immediately if it appears during the job that the estimate may be too low and why.

A firm quote should have a ceiling for the work specified. The yard will need to be sure that it’s high enough to give an adequate profit margin for the job. With simple jobs, such as painting the bottom, a firm price is seldom a problem. But quotes for complex jobs may require a lot of time to prepare, for which you may be billed, regardless of whether you go ahead with the job after seeing the quote. If you think the estimate or quote is out of line, ask other owners who have had the same job done, and consider consulting an independent surveyor if it’s a big job.

If possible, get your quote or estimate prior to being hauled so that management will know there are other yards bidding. If you must get hauled for the estimate, say that you’re prepared to walk away if the bid is too high, despite the haulout fee. (Establish this fee before the haulout.)

Some yards might say boat work is hard to predict and that too many things can go wrong. This is true, but the yard is supposed to have proper equipment and trained people who have a reasonable idea about what’s involved when they say they can do a job.

Understand pricing

The issue of what the yard charges for and how it charges can lead to problems. For example, long time increments for labor charges can be unfair. Usually, the shorter the better, although it’s seldom that you’ll find increments shorter than 15 or 20 minutes.

Look for less-than-obvious charges. Does the yard charge for “planning time,” as when a couple of supervisors come out in the morning and stand around your boat figuring out scheduling? Find out what’s included in flat rate services. For example, haulout fees usually include a power wash, blocking and relaunching. Often there will be an environmental surcharge to help recoup the yard’s costs of complying with environmental regulations. If you’re charged for this, perhaps you shouldn’t also be charged for things like the tarp they spread under your boat or “cleanup.” Know what you’re paying for and why.

Ask about variable rates

Some yards will bill at one rate for a job quoted, but when you add another project they bill at a higher rate, stating that since it isn’t a bid item it disrupts work scheduling. However, workers are expected to look for and recommend other needed projects. Indeed, you will want to be told if something turns up. At some yards, workers who bring in extra projects get bonuses. Ask your yard’s policies, and if you sign on for more work, be sure you know the price structure.

“Skilled labor”

The definition of “skilled labor” includes a higher degree of training and experience in a particular type of work. Verify this. The worker normally should be able to make significant progress for the time spent, should show up on the job with the correct tools, shouldn’t need to spend a lot of “figuring time,” and should be familiar with the concepts and techniques of the job.

I once employed skilled labor to sort out some electrical problems. I discovered that the person was behind the electrical panel reading a book about the issues. While it’s conceivable that this may be something for which you should pay, normally the skilled person already should know about the issues and you shouldn’t have to pay for someone’s education.

Find out how the yard defines skilled labor. Sometimes the line between skilled and unskilled is vague. For example, you don’t need skilled labor to sand and paint the bottom, but you may need it to paint the topsides. Determine whether the yard considers your job to require skilled labor and why. Some have several levels of labor of which you should be aware.

Materials and supplies

You should seldom need to pay the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for materials. If the yard wants to charge you much more than what you would pay in the area’s marine stores, something may be wrong. Paint is a great example. Watch the markup.

The boatyard is entitled to make money on materials, but it should get materials at wholesale, which is lower than what you would pay at retail. Its profit should be fair to both of you.

Read the paperwork

After you’ve done your homework and are “checking in,” someone in the front office might push a contract across the desk, saying something like, “Just sign here and here and here. Everybody signs it. It just means that we can do the work for you.”

Despite the apparent good intentions, this isn’t really the type of legal advice you want to rely upon. It may be true that in most cases people do sign the agreements and that no problems ensue. But these agreements can be one-sided and full of legalese. If something goes wrong, you may be up the creek without the paddle that they were supposed to have fixed.

These contracts might contain clauses that waive your rights to sue the yard if there’s a problem. The contract may require you to hold the yard harmless for any losses it might incur if a third party successfully pursues a claim against the yard that relates in any way to your boat. And it gets worse. Some of these clauses may void your insurance coverage.

Some boat insurance policies contain terms that allow the insurer to deny your coverage if you do anything that adversely affects the ability of the insurance company to recover against third parties, or to defend claims against you. A “hold harmless” or “waiver of rights” clause in the yard contract may do just this.

Check also to see if your insurance covers you while you’re being hauled, transported across the yard, and in storage, and if it covers you for claims of people working on your boat. The yard should have insurance to cover this, but you should have some coverage of your own. Ask management about the yard’s coverage; an underinsured boatyard isn’t a good sign.

Keep it under control

The most effective way to assure that things go well is for you to keep an eye on the job without unduly interfering with the work. This may be difficult and inconvenient for you, but it also may save you money. Make notes of any issues that arise. These should include times, specifics and, if possible, worker names. These will be invaluable if it becomes necessary to bring an issue to management’s attention or if there is a question about the bill.

When you see potential problems or things you don’t understand, immediately bring them to the attention of management. If you do this objectively, courteously and in private, they should appreciate it. No matter how hard they try, it’s impossible for supervisors to be at all places at all times.

Every minute counts — Keep tabs of the allocation of worker hours to your job. A yard is normally paying each worker for every hour he or she is there. It is also paying the large expenses of its infrastructure, even when idle. Most workers are expected to charge each segment of their time to a boat, except for yard-recognized work breaks, for times when there is no work to be done, or for such yard projects as equipment maintenance. If, for example, the two guys working on your boat each sneak off and take two 15-minute cigarette breaks a day, they’re probably not going to enter this on their time sheets. They may assign that time to your boat or some other. At $50 an hour, you’re paying an extra $50 a day for nothing. Many yards have scheduled break times so that this is less likely to become an issue.

Watch for the “shipyard shuffle” — An infamous example of questionable time billing occurs with the “shipyard shuffle.” Within reason, the worker should bring the appropriate tools and parts needed for the job. If he or she must shuffle back to the tool shed to get another wrench and then another because the first didn’t fit, there’s a problem. If you notice a repeat pattern of this, let management know. It will help both you and the yard.

Watch for counter chat — Check out the yard parts department during the day. If the person working on your boat has to stand there for 15 or 20 minutes several times a day waiting to pick up paintbrushes or stainless bolts and the time is being charged to your boat, that’s a good indication that your bill might be higher than necessary. This may be unavoidable to a limited extent, but if the yard is properly managed most materials should be ordered and available when the worker comes on the job. Also, there shouldn’t be long social occasions among workers at the parts counter — at least not on your bill.

Don’t have yard buddies — Most boat owners have one thing in common: We love to talk about our boats. We especially love to talk about our boats to “experts” who supposedly know all sorts of things about them. Avoid doing this with the workers on your job unless you’re willing to pay for their time, which indeed may very well be worth it. Sometimes this is necessary, but sometimes it’s a waste of your assets and those of the yard. Remember that the person scraping your bottom will be happy to stand there chatting and offering opinions while getting paid — by you — rather than work on your boat.

Leave blind faith at the gate — Don’t assume workers always know what they’re doing. I once asked a yard to pull my propeller shaft for inspection, and when I arrived at my boat, four workers were preparing to move my 165-hp diesel forward in the engine room. They insisted that they couldn’t pull the shaft because it was blocked by the rudder. They were wrong on three counts: The shaft would have cleared, the rudder could have been dropped if needed, and that darn owner showed up.

On another occasion a worker was helping with a job that included disconnecting the exhaust hose. He sat on the hose, bending it down so that sea water was flooding in and onto my generator. “It won’t hurt it,” he said.

Don’t hesitate to tell management if you feel work isn’t being performed properly and that you want someone off the job. Do this in a courteous, private conference, never in the presence of workers. Be specific as to your reasons, and check to see that the bad time doesn’t end up on your bill. The yard should be happy to know this information.

Expect the right equipment — You shouldn’t be penalized if the yard accepts a job for which it doesn’t have the proper equipment. A cutless bearing change is a good example. These are tightly contained in the prop strut and/or at the shaft log. There are tools designed to quickly and easily remove old cutless bearings and press in new ones. If the proper tool isn’t available, the job can take two men many hours, with the possibility of damage thrown in for good measure.

Calling the shots — It’s normally counterproductive to get in the way of daily work on your boat. If you did your research well, you are probably in a yard where this is unnecessary. But sometimes it’s important to insist that a project be done a certain way. It’s your boat, and you’re the one who will go to sea with her. It isn’t unusual for yards to have workers who have never been to sea and who have little knowledge of the at-sea implications of what they’re doing.

A yard worker once had to cut a limber hole in a new support about 6 feet abaft my anchor locker. He made a pretty little hole, but it was inadequate to allow the necessary amount of water to pass through should the anchor locker take on large amounts at sea. An expensive electric motor would have been flooded. I had to be proactive. If you have concern about how something is being done, check into it. The yard may be following a particular course because of safety rules or important established procedures of which you may be unaware — or they may not have a clue.

Another potential problem is that the workers may want to install something in a way that blocks access to another component. I knew of a boat in which a yard installed a refrigeration compressor that blocked access to the engine’s raw water pump. To change the impeller, you had to open the refrigerant line and unbolt the compressor. If you see something like this, speak to the yard management. It might take skill on your part to butt in without causing a poor relationship or interfering with the orderly progress of the job. But it might be important.

Conflicts of interest and shifting responsibility — If the yard encounters an issue with your boat, it should tell you and recommend a good solution. But there is an inherent and perhaps unavoidable conflict of interest here. The yard may accurately believe that if it advises anything but the theoretical “best” cure, and that if an associated failure later occurs, it may have liability and your safety may be jeopardized. The “best” also might be expensive.

Some less-reputable yards might use scare tactics in these situations, conjuring up worst-case scenarios and saying it washes its hands of any responsibility if you don’t do exactly as recommended. However, sometimes the scare tactics are quite justified. You will need to distinguish between poor and good-faith advice. You’re paying the yard for its expertise and to look out for your best interests. This should include your financial interests, at least to the extent that you’re not paying the yard to cover its backside.

Insist that the yard give full details of the facts supporting its advice. It may be helpful, especially for large jobs, to reduce this to writing and even to consult a surveyor who is independent of the yard. As with most of these examples, if you’ve done your homework well and are in a good facility, this likely won’t be an issue.

The moment of truth

Any billing questions, including possible overcharges, should be addressed, and the yard should anticipate dialogue. If necessary, confer with upper management to go over the bill and, if necessary, individual worker time sheets and material invoices in a professional and courteous manner. Nit-picking is counterproductive, and you can’t expect a bill for an elaborate job to be perfect in all respects. It’s a boat.

Also, the yard manager typically will have seen it all and dealt with many unreasonable owners who knew much less than they thought. Your criticism or questions, therefore, may elicit a degree of skepticism. But if you’ve taken notes to document specific problems, and if you’ve notified him of problems earlier in the job, you should be able to work out differences.

Reality check — Review the time billed for each job to see if it’s reasonable for what was actually accomplished. I once had a bill for three hours to connect four battery cables to terminals less than 2 feet apart, with no obstructions. The yard manager saw it and adjusted it on his own without issue. Unexpected problems are inherent in boat jobs, but occasionally you may need to look the manager in the eye and say, “No way,” when he or she is trying to justify a bill that’s clearly inappropriate for the work done.

Test run immediately — A sea trial can be very important. If you sea trial before paying the bill (preferable), you’ll have to make arrangements with the yard. Some yards proclaim a “no cash, no splash” policy. Don’t agree to this if your job clearly will need a sea trial. A yard has ample remedy should you run off without paying. It may want to put someone aboard, but it should be at their expense if they’re doing it for their protection or benefit.

There are the times when it all works — Obviously, I’ve made generalizations here. The person working on your boat usually will be skilled, knowledgeable and caring about the quality of his or her work, your satisfaction and your safety. If so, tell management how much you appreciate the job done. Many yards do their utmost, often in very difficult circumstances, to do a good job and treat the customer fairly. They’re good people, and they know the value of word of mouth. When you find these yards, spread the word. It helps all of us.