Used Boat Buying: Working with Boatyards

Most boat owners will have to work with a yard at some point in their boating careers, so here are some pointers to make the process more enjoyable for all.

4th November 2010.
By Paul Grimes

When we bought the boat in June, it was still high and dry in Marion at the storage yard for Barden’s Boatyard. We lucked out. I left there a couple of weeks later wishing that we lived closer to Marion so that we could stick with Barden’s. It helped that our project was after the crazy spring rush, but Barden’s has a fantastic staff that was really helpful.

Having access to a dock makes commissioning much easier.

In past years, I’ve been on the other side of that boatyard/customer relationship. Before we get into our specific experience, here are a few things that are key to working with boatyards.

1. Understand that It Ain’t Easy, and It Ain’t Cheap
Boatyards deal with a seasonal business, high turnover, high worker’s comp insurance costs, and a workload that is full of curveballs. When I had my own shop, it was rare to get projects in the door that didn’t have some unexpected element to them – and those were mostly fiberglass and refinishing projects. Add engines, electrical systems, plush interiors and masts with more antennas than a cell phone tower, and you’ve got constant headaches.

2. Leave the High Horse at Home
You, as the owner of a boat, are a very fortunate creature. Most of the guys/gals in the boatyard crew do not have the means to own what they work on. However, one of the first lessons from my shop was that education and intelligence are two different things. Boatbuilders and boatyards seem to attract some awfully smart people. Get to know the boatyard crew on a first name basis, and don’t let them call you by anything other than your first name. You’ll find that they’re an interesting group that thrives on customer interaction, recognition, and making a difference. If they know you, like you, and feel free to make suggestions, your boat will become their boat, and they’ll take pride in it like you do.

3. Do some work yourself
This is a great way to stay in touch, bond with your boat in the off season, meet the yard crew on even terms, and monitor progress. But try to be self-sufficient – this backfires if you are bugging people for tools every 20 minutes.

We had a perfect spot to rig our mast – no sand or grass to swallow fallen parts, and our cars with tools parked nearby.

4. Be Very Clear
Avoid misunderstandings by being clear up front. Give the yard a written list of things you would like done. Talking directly to the manager is not enough. There may be a gap of months before the work you discussed is started, and you want the yard working from your exact list. Make sure they know they can call you with questions any time.
5. Get Written Estimates
Just as you should give the yard a written list, they should give you a written estimate. They will not know exactly how much certain parts of a project will cost, but get their best guess at least – as a base from which to work. This avoids misunderstandings later on.

6. Set Intermediate Deadlines and Payments
For bigger projects, ask for a schedule outlining when various parts of the project will be completed, and offer to make progress payments. The yard will like the idea of more even cash flow, and you will have a constant gauge of how the project is progressing – and whether costs are in line with expectations.

7. Beer and Donuts
Quitting time on Fridays is known as “Beer:30” in many yards, and any time is good for donuts. A wise boat owner helps replenish the supply.

Our first view of the boat in the water.

How It Went for Us
The Barden’s crew normally doesn’t allow customers to work on their own masts, which is understandable, but since the spring rush was over (and I had worked for Hall Spars), they very nicely pulled our mast out on a Friday afternoon. We had a great spot in the sun to rig the mast and redo some wiring that Saturday.

By the following Friday, after late evenings working on the keel, bottom, graphics, waterline, etc. it was launch day. I arrived with a 12 pack of Bud Light for the gang, but I was late getting to the yard, and the boat had already been moved from the storage yard to the water, launched, and rigged. I had hoped that it could be sitting at a float overnight before we delivered it to Rhode Island the next day, but it had been taken to a mooring. Wayne, the yard manager was not pleased when he learned that the boat was on a mooring.

After using the launch to take a load of sails, tools, etc. out to the boat, I was down below trying to move the mast butt forward (without the sledgehammer I had left in the car), and heard “thump, thump, thump,” on the side of the boat.

“US Customs!”

I came up through the hatch to see two grinning guys from the yard alongside in a workboat. We were headed back in to the dock for the night. This was huge, because, of course, I ended up making several trips back and forth to the car that evening for tools, etc.

Was it the beer? Who knows, but I hope they enjoyed it.

Editor’s Note: This article is the final in an ongoing series about buying a used sailboat.

Read part 1, To Buy a Boat or Not to Buy a Boat

Read part 2, Used Boat Ads

Read part 3, How to Talk with the Broker

Read part 4, Looking at the Boat

Read part 5, Reaching an Agreement

Read part 6, Choosing a Name

Read part 7, Keel Repair and Fairing

Paul Grimes is an engineer and marine surveyor living in Portsmouth, RI. Read his detailed reviews of the J/35 and Hobie 33.


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