Finding Parts for a Boat Refit

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Jon Carlson

The go-to-guru: Jon Carlson of Lamb’s Yacht Center

Go-To-Guru

So your refit’s stalled due to a parts problem? Buck up, there’s still hope. 

Several years ago, while plugging away at what I’ll loosely term a “total restoration” of my Grand Banks 32 Betty Jane, a much dreaded but altogether unavoidable question arose: Where the heck was I going to find replacements for the blown-out wiper blades for Betty’s three teak-framed windshield panels? You need windshield wipers on a boat when it rains, at least most times, and mine were working about as sweetly as a burning bucket of dirty diesel fuel.

Specificity was the issue, of course. As with lots of worn-out equipment onboard old, classic yachts, the new blades had to mechanically sync with a screw-type connector that was decidedly old-fashioned and outdated, undoubtedly harking back at least three dusty decades. Moreover, the blades had to fit a certain vintage stylistically. Such conditions, I figured, would most likely go way beyond what I could find at any of the mainstream marine supply houses, either in my homeport of Jacksonville, Florida, or on the other end of a telephone call.

Nevertheless, I hit up the mainstreamers for starters—West Marine, Jamestown Distributors, and Defender—and came away with exactly what I’d expected: nada. Then I began calling some of the more regional powerhouses that have served me well over the years, places like Seattle’s Fisheries Supply and Hamilton Marine up in Maine, all with equally unsatisfactory results.

Okay, says I to myself at this gloomy juncture, it’s time to put the ol’ schnoz to the grindstone! But embarking upon a gumshoe voyage that led me to windshield-wiper manufacturers, automotive chain stores, nautical antique shops, the exceptionally knowledgeable membership (and database) of the Grand Banks Owner’s Association, and a whole slew of other people and places too numerous to mention here got me nowhere as well. Again, the result was a dispiriting zip.

“You ever think of trying Lamb’s?” suggested a friend of mine one day. He was inspired, I guess, by the fact that we were driving past Lamb’s Yacht Center on Jacksonville’s Lake Shore Boulevard at the time. “They say Jon Carlson, the parts guy there, is pretty good.”

Later that very day, I strolled into Lamb’s with one of my decrepit old wiper blades in hand. After a stately moment, my request to speak to Jon Carlson precipitated the slow rise of a white-haired, bespectacled gent from a massive oak chair behind a long countertop bulwarking phalanxes of aisles, bins, and shelves bulging with marine paraphernalia. He headed my way at a confident, if trawlerish pace, and smiled upon arrival. 

Nautical Department Store

While an august, old marine business like Lamb’s Yacht Center in Jacksonville, Florida, may stock (or be able to obtain) parts and equipment that others can’t, some of the more mainstream establishments—West Marine, for one—can come in pretty handy on a day-to-day, stop-in-because-you’re-driving-right-by basis. And, as with Lamb’s and other revered and longstanding firms around the country, there are often employees on the premises who are both exceptionally knowledgeable and super-committed to customer service. Assistant manager David Freeman (seen here) of the West Marine Store on Roosevelt Boulevard in Jacksonville, for example, knows precisely what he’s got on hand and, if he doesn’t have a particular catalog item in stock, he’ll get it from “the warehouse” or some neighboring West Marine store in a jiffy. Moreover, Freeman knows the area and its people, including folks like Jon Carlson at Lamb’s, and he’s not afraid to suggest a source of supply for an esoteric part or piece of equipment that he may not stock.

David Freeman

“Humph,” he said appraisingly, once I’d handed the blade over. “No marks or anything else to identify it. But lemme see.”

Laying aside the blade, he then began hauling out catalogs (some obviously older than the hills) and cracking them open on the countertop. They were giant, 6-inch-thick 10-pound tomes mostly, with biblically thin pages and pictures, print, and drawings so exquisitely small it was a wonder he could see what he was doing. He flipped through a pile of pages, flipped through a pile more, hummed a tune I did not recognize, and then started to nod his head in what, oh miracle of miracles, seemed to be a faintly affirmative way. Could it be?

“There’s an outfit called Diesel Equipment has ’em—truck-supply place,” he said, tapping a black-and-white photo on a page and then looking at me over the tops of his glasses in a scholarly way. He shoved the catalog across the countertop so I could see. “Gonna cost you $12.30 apiece. Probably take about three days to get here.”

“Dang,” I exclaimed, scratching my head in wonderment, “I can’t believe it, John. I’ve been looking for these things for months now, all over the country! And you find ’em in ten minutes!”

I topped off on enthusiasm once the order came in. My six new blades (three for immediate use and three for spares) were absolutely identical to Betty’s old ones and, when installed on their respective wiper arms, fit perfectly, both from the mechanical and the stylistic standpoints.

Go-To Resources

Defender: www.defender.com
Fisheries Supply: www.fisheriessupply.com
Hamilton Marine: www.hamiltonmarine.com
Jamestown Distributors: www.jamestowndistributors.com
Lamb’s Yacht Center: www.lambsyachtcenter.com
West Marine:www.westmarine.com

Was there (and is there) a lesson to be learned from all of this? Yup, I think so. While mainstream and regional marine supply houses are gonna see you through a fair portion of any refit or restoration (see “Nautical Department Store,” opposite), you’re occasionally going to encounter issues where something deeper, something closer to the bone, is called for. And when such a thing happens, you’d best go looking for a specialized type of marine mercantile operation, one that’s likely going to be old (Lamb’s was started in 1928), encyclopedic (Lamb’s sells everything from Apollo ball valves to Z-Spar varnish), and staffed by at least one deliberative, super-knowledgeable old guy (Carlson’s in his sixties) who’s spent his entire life working with boats, boat parts, and boat people.

Such places exist in most of the coastal towns and cities of America, by the way. Not just in Jacksonville. And you typically find them through friends and acquaintances, word-of-mouth. In a very real sense, they are temples of maritime tradition. And guys like Jon Carlson are the resident go-to gurus.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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