Can This Yacht Marriage Be Saved?

In 1953, Ladies’ Home Journal magazine started a monthly column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Back then, this was apparently a bona fide question for women all over Eisenhower’s America, women who, during the postwar euphoria, had hitched up to a loser and wanted to know what to do about it, short of employing rat poison. The column lasted until the magazine stopped monthly publication in 2014, well into the era when ending a marriage was as easy, and as commonplace, as trading in your car for a new one.

Here’s a nice little refit. Check out the sprayrails at the bow, just above the bootstripe. Vinyl rails often crack with age. You can either refurbish or replace.

Here’s a nice little refit. Check out the sprayrails at the bow, just above the bootstripe. Vinyl rails often crack with age. You can either refurbish or replace.

So, what does this have to do with boats? Many marriages break up when one or both parties change in some way—somebody wants more of this, less of that, different amounts of the other thing, until spouses who were once the love of each other’s lives become each other’s proverbial neck-hanging albatrosses. Many boats end up on the market for basically the same reason. The owner changes, the boat cannot change (at least not on her own), and before long the broker is called in, not to save the marriage, but to dissolve it. It’s a costly proposition, and there’s no guarantee the new yacht will tick all the right boxes, either.

But there’s a better way, one you’ve probably guessed by now, after reading the preceding articles in this issue. Rather than replace your yacht, refit her: A thorough refit will make your yacht better than new, and add all the bells and whistles you’ve been missing (at least within budget restraints). According to industry experts, refits—major refits, not just cosmetic touch-ups—are on the rise. Some people are buying brokerage boats that are close to what they want, and immediately sending them to the refit yard to make them just right. For many yacht owners, refit is the right fit.

It’s fun, being on hand for the transformation of old teaky interior components via sandpaper, elbow grease, and  a little polyurethane varnish.

It’s fun, being on hand for the transformation of old teaky interior components via sandpaper, elbow grease, and a little polyurethane varnish.

Transformation of old teaky interior components

Refit’s the New Custom

“In a marketplace crowded with brokerage boats, the opportunity now exists for an owner to have a like-new customized boat in much less time than a new build,” explains Jim Miller, director of the two-year-old Refit International Exhibition & Conference. Miller says he and his associates created the Refit Show after seeing evidence of “aggressive growth in the refit sector.” (Miller is also publisher of Professional Boatbuilder.) He adds that manufacturers are capitalizing on the profitable refit industry by creating new products and methods, which in turn help yards “accomplish even greater refits.”

Along with exhibits promoting products, services, and technology, the Refit Show offers seminars on both technical and business aspects of refits; one of 2017’s seminars was entitled “At-Anchor Wind-Induced Yaw Instability of a Monohull Motoryacht.” Another discussed “Effectively Dealing with and Diffusing Your Most Challenging Clients.” More interesting for civilians are the Refit Excellence awards. The show recognizes exceptional refits in four categories, with the winners listed on its website accompanied by a brief summary of each project. For example, the 2017 award for Best Accomplishment for a Yacht Refit was given to Bluewater Yacht Yards for adapting a Viking 52 Convertible so her owner, suffering from muscular dystrophy, can continue to operate the boat, fish offshore, and access the interior spaces using his motorized chair. Next year’s Refit Show is in Ft. Lauderdale on January 10 and 11 and although it’s primarily an industry show, yacht owners are encouraged to attend.

Refit: Safety and Service

The 2016 winner of the Refit Show’s Best Accomplishment award was Saunders Yachtworks of Orange Beach, Alabama, for its metamorphosis of a Viking 62 Convertible, originally set up for the Gulf of Mexico, into a Pacific Ocean sportfisherman. Saunders craftspeople designed custom rod stowage overhead for the deckhouse, added a live-bait tank in the cockpit, as well as a custom pulpit and bow rails, and installed a watermaker and a gyrostabilizer. Thirty-one Saunders employees and six subcontractors dedicated 95 work-orders to the three-month project.

John Fitzgerald, president of Saunders Yachtworks, says there are two things to consider when planning any refit: safety and service. “Always safety first,” he emphasizes. The fundamental operation of the boat must come before the creature comforts. Don’t just install new upholstery over bad bones, but think about the systems: plumbing, engines, and so forth. “Do the dirty stuff first, then do cosmetics.” And remember maintenance when adding new equipment; it doesn’t make sense to install equipment with poor access. “You can’t pack everything in so tight just because you want more stuff,” he notes. “You have to be able to reach it.” 

Fitzgerald says a typical refit customer is a new owner with an overall budget to purchase and refit a yacht. Maybe he wants specific features, but can’t find a yacht that has all of them, so he buys one that’s close and uses the rest of his budget to add what’s not there, or at least what he can afford. (The most popular refit item today is a gyrostabilizer, says Fitzgerald; Saunders installs lots of Seakeepers.) 

Customers who already own boats usually compare the cost of a refit with the cost of purchasing another boat; those with smaller boats tend to upgrade rather than refit. “The bigger the boat, the more a refit is part of the cycle of ownership,” according to Fitzgerald. But some people just want to keep their boats, whatever the size; it’s a sentimental attachment, so they invest in a refit. They often start with one functional modification—maybe upgrading their air-conditioning to a chiller system—and that launches the project. “It’s like when you start out to redo your kitchen, but end up doing the whole house,” he says. The limiting factor is usually the budget.

New engines often lie at the heart of a solid refit.

New engines often lie at the heart of a solid refit.

Refit, or New build?

Belfast, Maine was once a thriving seaport and shipbuilding town, with the shoreside activities all that implies, including a sardine-processing factory. Today, the factory is history, and in its place is Front Street Shipyard, a go-to refit destination for yachts up to 200 feet. Shipyard President JB Turner and his partners built the yard from scratch; Front Street now has indoor shop space that can handle vessels up to 160 feet in length (handy in the rugged Maine climate), and 485-, 165- and 60-ton hoists. In 2016 the yard won the Refit Excellence award for Best Sailing Yacht Refit, for extensive modifications and upgrades to the 123-foot aluminum yacht Axia.

According to Turner, “Here in Maine we’ve been seeing year-over-year increases in the number of yachts undergoing refits. Front Street Shipyard’s significant growth over the past six years is due in large part to the simultaneous growth of the refit industry.” Owners request major overhauls and significant customization, he says, with projects extending well beyond regular maintenance. While few new builds materialize—would-be clients talk, but don’t act—when considering a refit, owners and captains act decisively. “They make imminent plans to deliver their boats to our yard, and they begin creating extensive work lists,” notes Turner.

One of those yachts was 122-foot Berilda, a 1978 Feadship needing structural repairs, systems upgrades, and interior renovation. In 2015, a family bought the yacht, and wanted to refit her for long-range cruising along the East Coast and through the Caribbean. They designed the new, radically changed interior arrangement themselves, and participated in most other aspects of the refit project. The refit took a full year, but today Berilda is virtually a new yacht.

The moral of the story? It’s a simple one, really: A happy marriage between man and boat can be hard to maintain. When the passion dies, rather than file for divorce in the brokerage office, think about investing in a refit.

Boatyard bar

Refit or Resurrection?

The refits described in the accompanying article were achieved with hard work and liberal applications of hard cash, but not all boat owners are so fortunate with respect to their financials. And for those folks (this writer included), there’s a strong temptation to acquire, at minimal cost, an experienced boat in need of serious attention. Sometimes these vessels reside, abandoned with bills unpaid, in the far corners of boatyards, and can be purchased for silly money if the purchaser agrees to “get that wreck the hell out of here!”

“Beware of the ‘free’ boat, ” warns John Fitzgerald of Saunders Yachtworks. Few things can be costlier. If the boat’s, say, 30 years old, every hose, every wire, every piece of equipment is also 30 years old. “If you have a good hull,” he says, “you can resurrect it as long as you’re prepared to go all the way, but you have to strip the boat right down to her bones and install new everything.” And that’s not free—it’s not even cheap. 

But that’s okay, thinks the would-be skipper. He’ll tell himself, “I’m handy, and can do most of the work myself.” In some cases, however, being handy is the kiss of death: You think you can do the job, but you can’t do it all by yourself and finish anytime during this century, unless you don’t have a job, and then you can’t pay for what you need. The only way to refit a basket case is with a well-stuffed checking account, and the willingness to use it. And while watching your bank balance dwindle, don’t take comfort in the thought that you’re involved in “an investment.” Boats are not investments; investments have at least a chance of paying off. Boats are hobbies, and for most people a hobby doesn’t give much ROI. 

If you love that old boat, however, and you have enough disposable income, go for it. She’ll be great when she’s finished. But take my advice—I’ve been there, and I’ll probably go there again—don’t try a resurrection on your own.