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4 Easy Projects to Improve Your Boat

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The Time Is Now

Use the off-season (or a few off weekends) to improve your boat.
Here are four projects you can start right away.

First, Get a Physical

Before you start any major projects, check your engine by analyzing its oil. Do this every year, before layup, so you can nip any issues in the bud. Oil analysis is analogous to your annual physical. After prodding, poking, and testing, usually the doctor simply sends you away with instructions to lose weight, exercise more, and stop eating so many cheeseburgers. But once in a while, something turns up that needs attention. Same with your engine—most of the time everything is fine, until it’s not.

You can have your mechanic handle the analysis, or do it yourself. An Internet search will turn up several labs where you can mail oil samples. And it’s cheap, too—about the price of a couple of those cheeseburgers: Blackstone Laboratories (, for example, charges just $28 for a standard oil analysis, and will even send you a bottle for the oil sample and a mailer to return it to them (complete instructions are on their Web site). You’ll need a method for drawing the oil: A pump to pull it out through the dipstick tube is ideal (Blackstone sells them for $35), or you can drain oil from the filter. The report will include an interpretation of the test results, and suggested actions to take.

Life is short, and, at least for those of us up north, the boating season is even shorter, so why waste any of it? (Southern folks: Read the following as if winter is really cold in your neck of the woods; I think you’ll benefit from the advice, too.) I predict that 2017 will have great boating weather for all concerned, north and south, so spend the autumn planning ways to improve your boat, and start, or maybe even finish, the work over the winter. Then, when the balmy summer breezes call your name, you’ll be out on the water, not waiting for work to be done. Your boat will be better for it, and your crew will be happier, too. 

I’ve picked a handful of off-season projects that I think are worth more than their cost. All of these jobs require prep time by craftspeople—it takes time to make cushions, for example, or build a custom hardtop—even though most can be completed in one day aboard your boat. But do you want to spend half the summer under a worn-out Bimini top, or sitting on clapped-out furniture? Neither do I, so I suggest getting the work underway as soon as possible. And the folks doing the job will be happy to have something to do over the winter (and get your deposit!), so you might lock in a better price than during the springtime rush.

Sitting Pretty

We all love that new-car smell, but by now your boat’s interior might reek like Noah’s Ark, and look as ragged as a frat house after homecoming weekend. Years of having fun on board can take a toll on the furniture, in both the cabin and on deck. And the more fun you have, the faster the stuff wears out. Don’t live like this—you’re not in college anymore: Spruce up your living spaces by replacing worn-out upholstery with high-quality, tasteful fabrics. It’ll be better than new. Boatbuilders have to stick to a price point, so sometimes they choose materials that are not the best, but simply adequate. You don’t have this restriction: You can buy top-quality stuff; when you factor in the labor, a couple of bucks more per yard for fabric won’t make a big difference in the overall cost, but you’ll have a much better result. (If you’ve been really, really hard on the furniture, you might have to replace some foam innards, too.)

Like with most things in the 21st century, and all projects in this column, step one is a trip to the Internet to educate yourself, get a basic idea of what kinds of fabrics are available, the benefits of each, and so forth. Then, find a local custom shop, one with boating experience, and make use of their expertise. You’ll be able to see, and feel, fabric samples, squeeze different types of foams, decide what kinds of details you want—piping, buttons, etc. Make the deal now, and the shop can scope out the job before the boat’s covered, and order the materials. When (and if) you lay up, remove as much as you can for them to re-cover or replace over the winter. In the spring, they’ll finish any built-in cushions—settee backs and the like—and you’ll be good to go. When the job’s done, your upholstery will not only look cleaner and smell fresher, but will be more comfortable, too, and probably last a good, long time.

Clear curtain windows and a taut fit make all the difference and finish the look on a nice boat.

Clear curtain windows and a taut fit make all the difference and finish the look on a nice boat.

Enclose Me

Stop looking at the world through hazy vinyl. A new enclosure with clear-as-glass panels will make your bridge as bright as day again, and you won’t feel like you’re piloting through a Maine pea-souper all the time. Even though modern “canvas” (usually acrylic) lasts a long time, careless handling of the clear panels leaves them scratched and cloudy, as you’ve probably discovered. Now’s the time to call in a canvas pro to discuss refurbishing or replacing your bridge enclosure, and maybe adding some features and improvements—scratch-resistant clear panels, for example. He can build the new enclosure at his leisure over the winter and install it in the spring.

Start by consulting the Find a Member feature on the Marine Fabricators Association website ( for a list of MFA members in your area. When you find one, ask for references and photos of their work; a good shop should have plenty to show you. For an armchair education in canvas, surf to the Hood Marine Canvas Web site ( Mark Hood has been working with canvas for more than 30 years, and has written plenty about it along the way; many of his articles are on the Web site. For more details on fabric, also see “Choosing the Right Cover for Your Boat”.

A bright, new enclosure with crystal-clear panels will take years off your boat’s appearance, and make piloting easier and safer, too. It’s a good investment for 2017.

A hardtop can be a solid addition to many designs, and make a good open boat better.

A hardtop can be a solid addition to many designs, and make a good open boat better.

Top It

Maybe you’re tired of hanging your enclosure from a Bimini or folding top, and want something solid overhead? You need a hardtop, and now is the time to start shopping for one. (Some builders call them “half towers” or “half tower tops.”) Not only does a hardtop provide better weather protection than a Bimini, last a heck of a lot longer, and provide a solid base for an enclosure, but there’s no better place to mount antennas, radar scanners, and even a solar panel or two, if you’re feeling green. About the only thing wrong with a hardtop is the cost of paying to have one custom-built.

If you live in a boating hot spot, maybe there’s an experienced local shop building custom hardtops, T-tops, and towers. Pipewelders ( is the big dog in this kennel: They’ve been building lofty towers, half-towers, marlin towers, and so forth for more than 60 years. If you’re near Ft. Lauderdale, they’d be worth a call—or maybe you’ve just found an excuse to take your boat south this winter! But you’ll find plenty of other less exalted, but equally skilled, shops up and down the coast, especially in areas with lots of sportfishermen. A hardtop is a one-time investment, so take your time and do the research to get just what you want.

And by the way, nothing beats having the crew that’ll build your top come to your boat to take the measurements in the fall, then return to install it in the spring. (So then, any errors are their problem.) But maybe you’re not so lucky. In that case, you’ll find hardtop builders on the Web that will build your hardtop, then ship it to you for assembly and installation. Atlantic Towers ( is one such builder. After nearly 30 years in business, they have a library of designs that includes almost every production powerboat, from center consoles on up. You can install the hardtop yourself if you’re handy, but I’d pay the yard to do it; most fabricators can refer you to a qualified installer in your area. (Check out “Put a Lid on It” to see detailed pictures of an Atlantic Tower hardtop installation.)

Slap a Coat of Paint On It

A classic off-season project is a paint job, another one-time investment unless you plan to keep your boat for a long time: Linear polyurethane paint—Awlgrip is the name we think of, but there are other brands—lasts for a decade when professionally applied and properly maintained. The job is time-consuming, demands skilled yacht painters and climate-controlled paint sheds, and is, therefore, expensive: Figure $700 per foot of length for the hull, exponentially more if you want the deck painted, too. But your boat will look brand new after it’s painted. (Search our web site for “Awlgrip,” and you’ll find out plenty about LP painting.)

If this is your year for painting, sign the work order before haul-out, so the yard crew doesn’t block up your boat behind a dozen others. It’ll need to be moved inside to do the prep work, and if they have to shift a lot of boats, you might get the bill. Even better, pay for inside storage and save the cost of shrinkwrap. Once you’ve committed to painting, don’t think about the cost; think about how great your boat will look in 2017.

Save time on varnish work—it could mean a job for someone else and good karma for you.

Save time on varnish work—it could mean a job for someone else and good karma for you.

Brightwork? Send a Kid to College Instead

What about having the boatyard refinish the brightwork? Nope—I’d leave it for during the season, and save money vs. the boatyard by hiring an independent contractor. Refinishing doesn’t have to be done all in one shot, so in most circumstances it won’t cost you any on-the-water time. Chances are, if you can afford a boat, you have a job of some sort, and won’t be using your boat every day. Sanding and varnishing can take place during the week, while you’re driving your desk. Many contractors give summer jobs to college kids, or are college kids themselves, so you’ll be helping the cause of higher education, too. 

That’s my list— you can probably come up with your own, since there’s never a shortage of boating projects. The main thing is, get as much of the work done while you’re snowed in (or are being thankful that you’re not!) and you’ll have more time to enjoy your boat next year.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.