Are today’s environmental laws turning DIY boat owners into an endangered species?

Is DIY Dead?

Environmental laws are turning the DIY boat owner into an endangered species. But there’s still a handful of facilities that welcome the intrepid.

Waxing your own topsides? Yup, you can still do it at Sadler Point Marina in Jacksonville, Florida.

Waxing your own topsides? Yup, you can still do it at Sadler Point Marina in Jacksonville, Florida.

The older I get, the less interested I am in crawling under a boat to roll on bottom paint. Scraping and sanding? Forget about it—I’ll hire someone, and work a little longer at the keyboard to pay the bill.

Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe your spine is still supple, your knees don’t creak and you’d like to save a few bucks by doing it yourself. Is this still an option, now that boatyards face a zillion environmental laws, with stiff fines and penalties for those who break them? You’d think not, since if a DIY-er pollutes, the boatyard pays the penalty—they pay twice, really, since doing it yourself also costs the yard some profit. But I found several boatyards, on both coasts, who are okay with weekend warriors doing their own work—some even welcome them.

Doing it yourself has always been a privilege, not an entitlement, at most boatyards, or at least it has been that way since I started hanging around them more than 50 years ago. Yeah, legend says that in the “good old days,” at the vernal equinox, weekend-warrior boat owners would attack the family yacht with scrapers, sandpaper and fat paint brushes dripping with highly toxic antifouling. (The April issue of marine magazines from the 1950s usually had some kind of fitting-out scene on the cover.) But I remember that, back in the day, even the low-key boatyards around Three Mile Harbor, New York, my home port, reserved all work from the rail down for themselves—it was right there on the winter-storage contract. If you knew the guy who ran the place, usually he’d let you paint your own bottom, but it was a favor to help local folks save a couple of bucks. I’m sure my subsequent health is founded to some degree on yearly applications of copper bottom paint to my skin and scalp, mixed with inhaled toxic sanding dust.

Nobody worried much about the environment during the fab 50s, which is why we have to worry about it today. Environmental laws now make running a boatyard more complex than ever, with more chance of violating federal, state and local pollution laws. EPA rules address water pollution from runoff, contaminants, oil and gas, detergents, sanding dust, etc. (Even boat cleaning can deposit pollutants into the water, unless you use phosphate-free cleaners.) Waste oil and gasoline, antifreeze, solvents and other nasty liquids must be collected and recycled if possible or at least disposed of safely.

Hinckley’s comprehensive YachtCare package includes full service, indoor winter storage and pick up/drop off anywhere on the East Coast.

Hinckley’s comprehensive YachtCare package includes full service, indoor winter storage and pick up/drop off anywhere on the East Coast.

Boatyard staff these days take great pains to ensure nothing bad gets into the environment, but DIY-ers aren’t always so conscientious. And there’s still the profit question. Yards gotta make money, or they become waterfront condos, and nobody who owns a boat wants that. So the bottom line is, more yards are now saying no to doing it yourself—which really means, to painting your own bottom, and maybe to waxing your own topsides. Can you blame them?

DIY Welcome Here

Cobb’s Marina on Little Creek in Norfolk, Virginia, is a family-run, full-service yard that’s been around since 1958. They’ve earned Virginia Clean Marina status thanks to their environmentally friendly operating practices—but they still welcome do-it-yourselfers. “People appreciate being able to do their own work,” said Linda Pixley, who manages the office. “We let them know the rules, and then keep an eye on them. Most people are pretty good.”

Most of Cobb’s DIY customers want to do their own bottoms. “It’s always bottoms,” said Pixley, “and maybe change the zincs.” The yard allows only vacuum sanding to collect the toxic antifouling dust, which can then be disposed of properly. And no wet sanding, said Pixley: “The liquid runs into the bay.” Some people want to bring in a subcontractor to blast their bottoms for recoating, she said, and that’s okay, but the contractor has to meet all the yard’s requirements, both business and environmental. Usually they want to save a few dollars compared to using Cobb’s blaster, she said, but when the contractor finds out what he needs to do to meet the standards, that savings usually goes away. “We have our own really good blaster,” she added.

Hemingway’s Boatyard in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, calls itself “The best do-it-yourself boatyard in South Florida.” Manager John Kushay said the yard has welcomed DIY-ers for the past 15 years, and it has lots of repeat customers. Folks can do their own bottoms, repairs, rehabs and so forth—although, said Kushay, Hemingway’s is set up more for in-and-out jobs rather than long-term renovations. The yard charges a flat fee for haulouts based on length; the price includes haul and launch, pressure wash and blocking. Storage, in the yard or in a slip, is billed on a per-day basis. Rates include power, compressed air and water; customers can bring their own materials or buy them at the yard, and there’s no extra fee for subcontractors—although they must meet the yard’s requirements. “They have to be legitimate,” said Kushay.

Doing your own work today means sticking to environmental rules.

Doing your own work today means sticking to environmental rules.

Rules for DIY-ers at Hemingway’s are similar to Cobb’s. Customers must use vacuum sanders, there’s no wet-sanding or blasting of bottoms and the area around the boat must be kept clean. There’s a drainage system that captures water and contaminants so nothing finds its way overboard. And if folks decide DIY isn’t their thing, the yard will paint the bottom for a flat fee that includes materials and basic bottom prep. Does it cost more? Sure, but it also saves two or three days of toil under the boat and $50 worth of Ibuprofen. Given that a good bottom job with modern paint lasts two or three years, I’ll take that deal any time.

Way Out West

An outfit called KKMI operates boatyards in Point Richmond and Sausalito, California. Both have sophisticated water-filtration systems to ensure process water (from power-washing bottoms) and rain or floodwater runoff are all scrubbed sufficiently clean of contaminants to meet EPA regulations before being discharged back into San Francisco Bay. Each system, including associated plumbing, tanks, etc., costs upward of $250,000. The technology is costly, but necessary in ultra-green California, which has strict state and local, as well as federal, pollution laws. And there are self-appointed environmental groups on the lookout for violations as well, which can cost the yard up to $25,000 per day. (The federal Clean Water Act allows “citizen lawsuits” against polluters who violate the Act if the federal or state government has not already filed suit.)

With so much at stake financially, who would blame KKMI for banning do-it-yourselfers? Nevertheless, the company allows customers to work on their own boats at the Point Richmond yard, with some qualifications: No sanding of antifouling, no wet-sanding, spray painting, welding or other “hot work,” no discharging of waste water into drains, and all dry sanding must be done with vacuum sanders. And, of course, you have to clean up at the end of each day and supply your own tools, extension cords, ladders and other equipment. But for the total ban on sanding antifouling, these are basically the same rules as at any DIY-friendly yard.

Boat owners and contractors working at KKMI must comply with applicable laws and regulations, handle chemicals and hazardous materials lawfully, wear appropriate protective clothing and dispose of waste in a manner approved by KKMI. Finally, all materials that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like paint, must be purchased through the yard. California law requires that the consumption of such materials be logged by the yard. (Let’s face it, though: Any DIY-er who wants to keep a good relationship with his/her boatyard will buy the materials from the yard anyway.)

So, the DIY story is not as gloomy as I initially thought. Based on the results of a fairly extensive investigation, there are still boatyards around that let you do your own work. It just might take a few phone calls to find one in your area. And my guess is yards that disallow DIY act more from financial than environmental motives. After all, running a boatyard isn’t the path to riches; profit margins are often small, and, especially in seasonal areas like New England, the cash earned from painting the bottoms of boats stored for the winter is a nice kick in the bank account when springtime comes around.

2018 Boatyard rule

The Anti-DIY Solution

Maybe your idea of DIY is writing your own check to the boatyard rather than having your secretary do it. If so, and if you have the wherewithal to own a Hinckley (I wish I did), the company has just the deal for you. According to Hinckley Chief Marketing Officer Pete Saladino, “We have a new program established this year for Hinckley owners called YachtCare. We will pick the boat up anywhere on the East Coast, take it to one of our facilities, perform a full set of service checks and then store the boat in climate-controlled indoor storage. We’ll return it right to your dock the next season.” Sounds like my kind of deal—DIY is way overrated in my book. Hinckley has 10 company-owned, full-service YachtCare Centers up and down the East Coast; even if you don’t own a Hinckley, they’ll take very good care of your boat. But, added Saladino, “YachtCare is a great reason to buy a Hinckley.” If you don’t want your boatyard to turn into waterfront living space, consider leaving DIY to youngsters and letting the yard have the work. Your body will thank you.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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