8/4/07

Things To Think About Before Ordering A New Boat

A recent letter gave me pause. The guy asked, if he commissioned a new boat from a shipyard, how could he know if he was getting a well built boat? That's a very fair question, regardless if you're having a custom boat built OR if you're buying a new production boat.
Over the years I've heard many horror stories about boats built both by Overseas and North American builders, both custom and production craft. I've seen newspaper in the lay-up of the glass hulls. I've seen a planked hull that had knots in some places the full width of the planks. I've seen steering wheels pressed to the shaft without key-ways to hold them and engine mounts jump off the hull. I've seen deck houses cave in from the mast's downward pressure because the compression post was thin walled pipe, toilets installed with pinched lines blocking the flow, a holding tank actually blow up because of inadequate venting, exhaust systems not large enough diameter to work correctly resulting in overheating issues, wiring not color coded, propane lines installed behind cabinetry and leaking. I've seen steel that wasn't sand blasted and primed, and hatches and windows that could not be made to stop leaking. On and on.
Some of these things have been from big time well known builders and others have been from little guys. So while there is no monopoly on carelessness, incompetence, or in some cases, penny pinching to the point of being dishonest, you can, with a little foresight, protect yourself from the possibility of sloppy work or dishonesty when you have a new boat built. Here's a few thoughts!

Price: There was a very well thought of builder in Washington who unfortunately became well known for making bids that were well under the price he demanded once the boat was finished. People who knew him said he was such a good man that he tried to bring it in for what he said but things simply got out of control because he was so meticulous in his work. Personally, I thought he was a crook.
A friend of mine ordered a boat from this yard, paid the installments, and when told the final price was way over what he had agreed, said; "I'm a man of my word and I assumed you were too. If you don't give me this boat for what you said you would, I'm going to break your goddamned neck." He got the boat.....
A BID means that IS the price. An ESTIMATE means a GUESS at the price. It could be less, but it usually is more. Understand that. Now, in some cases it can actually be cheaper to work with an estimate because that way, the builder doesn't bid high to make sure he's covering his butt. This assumes an honest builder, which of course most are. If I was working from an estimate rather than a bid, I would have a clause in it saying "no more than X dollars." After all, if there's a chance of the boat coming in at twice what you expect, why start?
The builder will base his bid on the plans, and the more complete the plans the closer the bid will be. You must have the actual plans to expect a decent bid. I get several inquiries a week from guys asking what such and such boat costs to build. I always say I'm not a shipyard, don't ask me! They then want the study plans to send to a builder to get a bid. I always say that study plans won't do it. You need the actual building plans. There's two reasons. First, a realistic estimate and especially a bid is a laborious thing to put together. Few builders will want to take that time without some sense that you're semi serious about ordering the boat. The best sign they have that you are serious is if they see you've bought the plans. I'm not saying that because I'm in the boat plan bidness either. It's a fact.
Just as important, an accurate bid can't be made without the builder seeing the hull lines and some sort of materials list. Few designers will release the hull lines until the plans are purchased although in my case, I will email them to a few builders that I've worked with and know are straight, meaning I know I'm going to get paid before they build the boat. But again, if you haven't bought the plans you can't expect a builder to spend much time making a bid.
I've seen ads by some designers for "bid plans". I don't know what those are. If they're the hull lines and the materials list, then there would be no need for somebody to purchase the actual plans, so I doubt they show that detail and by not showing that detail they aren't showing enough to get a serious bid! And of course, the bid plans aren't the full price building plans so the builder is seeing you aren't serious enough to purchase the plans, which as I said signals him that you probably aren't going to build the boat.

A custom boat's price is the result of the materials in the boat, the complexity of the construction which means TIME in building, the degree of finish, for example painted or varnished interior or gloss or semi-gloss exterior (again, meaning TIME), and the outfitting. Production boats are similar with the added expense of national advertising, delivery, and broker commission. That's why a custom built boat can often be less expensive than a production boat. Unfortunately, custom boats require cash payments up front which is why production boats are so much more common. You can get a second home mortgage on an existing boat just like you can for a big motorhome or beach house. A custom boat requires either cash, or jumping through various hoops until the thing is complete and then you can get the second home mortgage.
So if you can't get a real bid without the plans and the plans cost several thousand dollars which you don't want to spend until you know you can afford the boat, what do you do?
You can actually do a pretty decent rough bid on the materials for a wood or metal boat yourself. Glass is a whole separate issue requiring in most cases a mold, and is pretty expensive for a "one -off," as a custom boat is called. As a result, glass is not practical for a custom boat unless you purchase an existing glass hull, and convert it into a finished boat.
The Old Time boatyard way of bidding was to figure the hull as a rectangle based on the length on deck, the depth from the deck to the deepest part of the hull rabbet, and the maximum beam. This accounts for waste in the assembly. The square footage of that shape is the hull plate. Figure a frame every three feet so add those lengths in. Figure longitudinals at perhaps 16" centers. Add them in. Rough measure the deckhouse and add that square footage. Your plans, or at least your study plans, should tell you what materials sizes are used where so you can use that info to figure how much material you need buy. For instance, for a 45' steel boat hull plate is frequently 1/4", decks the same, frames maybe 5/16" x 5", hull longs 1/4" x 2", house sides and roof 3/16". Using the above system you can get a good guesstimate of how much steel is in her. Any steel supplier can tell you how much it would cost. Keep in mind that the hull materials is the cheap part……
Go the supply catalogs and start itemizing all the stuff in the boat. Engine, prop, galley, steering system, anchoring system, and so on. If you're purchasing enough to build a boat you can get a pretty decent discount. The amount of stuff required to outfit a new boat is enough to qualify you for wholesale prices, so now you'll know materials costs, and outfitting costs. Many builders will charge you the same as the discounted price you can get it for, making their money on the installation. It's a good idea to go this way. It makes the builder look good to his supplier because of the volume of the sale, and doesn't cost you extra. If the builder you talk to doesn't want to go for this kind of deal I'd stay away from him because the odds are he's overcharging you. Getting the prices for these things ahead of time will help you stay aware of what the costs should be and shows the builder you're pretty serious because you've invested a lot of your time in this project.
These two steps, and they're laborious steps, give a good idea of the actual materials in the boat and gives you a real basis to talk to a builder. For instance, for a 45' boat that displaces about 60,000 pounds you could say something like: "I figure roughly 35,000 pounds of steel with waste and $75,000 net prices outfitting and propulsion system. She's a fairly simple hull form. Here's the Lines plan. So what do you think your labor in building with "X" type of finish (gloss or flat exterior, painted or varnished interior, etc.) it would be?" This is a bit simplistic but actually isn't that far off the mark and guarantees you don't come across as some chump. You've done serious research and the builder will see right off you're serious, and more important, knowledgeable.
Labor is the big single expense and varies tremendously based on the complexity of the hull shape and the degree of finish. It also varies depending on the market segment the builder is in. A local builder who had got fat off ridiculous government contracts gave a $400,000 bid just for the steel work in a 57' design of mine. I asked him if I could PLEASE get into his bidding circle. He never wrote back!
A single chine hull is quicker to build and wastes less materials than a multi-chine, and both are quicker and less wasteful than a full "S" sectioned round bottom hull. That beautiful glossy paint job on many new boats is the result of hours and hours of fairing and buffing and multiple coats, and the first time you bang a dock or hit the anchor to the side gets a nasty ding. Personally, I don't like it because a flat or semi-gloss finish can be done in much less time (read MONEY) and is easily repaired if scratched. A natural wood interior, aside from being oppressive feeling in my opinion, requires far slower (read TIME which means MONEY) and more careful joinery than a painted one with a little putty in the less than perfect fits and a bit of varnished trim accent. These sort of things make a difference of thousands and thousands of dollars. If you want a cruising boat, you want to emphasize function, but of course it all depends on what you want and how much time and money you want to spend down the road maintaining things.

OK, a builder has given you a price you can handle and you've decided to go ahead with the project. How do you know you're getting what you are paying for?
First off you need a payment schedule. You pay X and they do such and such. You pay Y and they do more such and such. The payment procedure needs to be clearly written in the contract and just like dealing with a shoreside contractor, be firm. Do not make any advance payments until the work that was supposed to be finished is finished, and finished to your satisfaction, regardless of the sob story. Sometimes it won't be. You see this sort of thing all the time with houses; my neighbor is going through it now! Remember, "no tickee no laundee" or before you know it, you have spent a lot of money and have nothing to show for it.
This is nowhere the issue with boatyards that it is with house building contractors. In fact, Seahorse Marine, who is building several of my DUCK designs, offers full refund of your payments right up to the time of the final delivery payment.

Materials: Wood is the only material you can actually simply look at to learn its quality or suitability for the job. Steel requires some degree of faith although an experienced yard will have suppliers they trust. Back in the 1970s/80s it was said that some of the Asian steel imported into the US had voids in it. I don't know if that was true or not but I doubt it happens today. Surely there is a certification process for steel and that is a question to ask the yard: where do they get the steel? No reputable supplier would stock steel they even suspect could be flawed.
I lean towards "wheel abraded pre-primed" steel because that way I know every inch has been properly cleaned and primed. True, welding messes that up, requiring spot grinding and priming, but that's part of the deal and is simpler than blasting the entire boat. However, the use of prepped steel is totally up to the shipyard and on site blasting and priming of untreated plate is very common and perfectly good. Some say it's better because you can see it being done.
Interior construction can run the range from simple plywood, painted or faced with Formica and a bit of varnished trim, to exotic tropic hardwoods. The price between the two can be enormous.
Exterior paint can be workboat finish or gloss yacht finish. The materials difference is huge and the extra labor and long term maintenance even more huge.

A major consideration is the systems installations. You need to have some sort of standard you can expect the parts of the systems will meet because if things are poorly installed you will be continually subjected to problems. Ideally you will have an outside surveyor to regularly examine progress and report to you. This is impossible with a production boat but here in the States you're more or less protected by our legal system. Like substandard RVs, if the warrantees won't fix it you can go after the dealer and the importer in court. Some states have "lemon laws" that you'd think would apply to a production boat.
A custom boat has the advantage over a production boat here because you've ordered a specific boat to be built for you and having an outside surveyor examine and report on the progress on a regular schedule is considered normal, and almost always avoids problems that can see a production boat buyer ending up in court to resolve.
Tell the surveyor you want the following to be tracked. This isn't foolproof but goes a long way towards protecting you from problems down the road. It's simple, too.

1) Are all systems accessible? This means things like the shaft coupling can be reached, all tank connections are accessible to check hose connections, any propane connection joints are in the open so if they leak you can get to them, and nothing else that might need attention is hopelessly buried behind cabinetry or something. While this seems obvious I have seen horrible examples of it not happening. For instance, a production sailboat that required the cockpit sawed open to be able to reach the shaft coupling. Or the million plus dollar power yacht that required a chainsaw to the main cabin sole to be able to replace one engine's alternator. This sort of thing is inexcusable. And common….
For that matter, what if you have to replace an engine? Can it be removed from the boat without serious dismantling of the hull or house? There needs to be access hatches at least framed in case the engine has to be replaced.
What if your steering system fails? Can you hook up an emergency tiller? This is a commonly overlooked issue but potentially very serious. All boats used for cruising any distance from a repair yard need a way to steer the thing if the system crashes, as unlikely as it seems. It's funny that the old time cable/rope to a drum around the wheel is foolproof because it is so easily fixable. Today's common hydraulic and/or "push-pull" stuff ain't.

2) Are confusing things like wiring, piping, and fuel lines clearly labeled? Wiring needs to be color coordinated with a separate color for the "hot" wire to each item or group of items such as cabin lights. It doesn't hurt to have written labels along the run either. Fuel lines should be labeled with arrows showing the fuel flow direction, off and on position of valves, and anything else to make it idiot proof to deal with. Same with engine and sanitation water lines. Easily accessible shut offs and clearly labeled hoses. This isn't common yacht stuff but is good practice and there's no reason a custom boat can't have it done this way. I learned about it during a brief period doing inspections of small military ships. I was surprised to see that everything was labeled and anybody, even I, could quickly figure out what went where. The US Navy is on top of basic maintenance!

3) Finally, quality of the parts. You look at a prop shaft or a prop or a steering system and it looks fine. But is it? The only way to tell is to see where it is from. Stainless steel is not necessarily any good. It depends on the grade. Carry a small magnet because marine grade stainless (300 series) is NOT magnetic. There are prop shafts from the orient that are so soft they will not "hold true" when spinning. There is no way to stop them vibrating. You don't want one. The prop shaft must meet international standards for the intended use. Any reputable US provider will offer just that, and many of them export their products overseas.
Same with props. It must be balanced so it doesn't put undo strain on the shaft and coupling when it rotates. Like the transmission, it must be sized correctly for the specific boat the intended use. A reduction gear and prop for a log towing use will be much different than for ocean cruising, and while some people disagree withy me here, I believe BOTH will be different than an all around general use goal.

If you follow this article's advice you'll be going a long ways in protecting yourself both from shoddy work, and crooks. Neither are the norm but oh man, after 40 years now as an observer of the scene let me tell ya; they ARE out there, and operating under the radar of some pretty big names in the business.

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