How To Make Smart Decisions About Repairs To Your Boat

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Blister in gelcoat

In 1979, instead of going to law school, I made a fateful decision to build and repair boats for a living. For the past 30 years, I have owned and operated my own boatyard, and during that time, I have helped hundreds of boat owners make decisions about repairs to their boats. Early in my career, my focus was purely technical—find the problem and fix it in the best way possible. Over time, however, I learned that there are three components to every repair decision: the boat, the boat owners, and the manner in which the boat will serve the owners. A decision-making framework evolved, and this article explains my approach.

A few years ago, I cruised the Atlantic side of Nova Scotia with my wife, Gwen, on Bee Weems, a Zimmerman 36 owned by Peter and Cathie Trogdon. As a boatbuilder, I wanted to visit the yard in Lunenburg that had built the famous Bluenose Schooner. Late one afternoon, a ragged-looking sailboat motored into a nearby dock. The boat desperately needed a paint job, the deck hardware looked like it had been coated with a dull shade of a flat paint, and the dinghy looked like something that had drifted onto a beach and been rescued. Within five minutes of reaching the dock the boaters, a mother and father with two children, had tossed two beach chairs onto the float. Another five minutes passed, and Mom had a book, Dad had a beer, and the two children were scouring the shoreline for critters.

TO FIX OR NOT TO FIX?

As someone who repairs and builds boats for a living, my own sensibilities about how a cruising vessel should look were offended. But the scene hit me on a much deeper level: this family was cruising and they weren’t letting something like faded paint keep them from living their dream. I don’t know, but I suspect the sails were in reasonable shape and that the engine ran like a top. In other words, the parts that really mattered were given the attention they required. They were cruising and loving it—not talking about it, not fretting over details, but finding a way within their means to make it happen, and creating memories that would last a lifetime.

The goal, after all, is to go cruising, and all cruising involves some risk. In the 1800s, William Shedd wrote, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that is not what ships are for.” Repairs and modifications on cruising boats have a primary purpose: to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. A vessel survey or inspection will almost always result in a list of “findings”—parts of the boat or its systems that are less than stellar and in need of attention. Similarly, the boat owner might receive a telephone call from the boatyard to discuss some problems that they found. Perhaps you have been told that part of your boat does not comply with ABYC guidelines. In many cases, the cost to correct all of the problems exceeds the budget and might reduce the time or distance planned for a cruise.

Such information can be confusing and alarming to many boat owners. You might be left wondering, “Do we have to fix everything on the list?” Directing such a question to the surveyor or the boatyard stirs the “l” word—liability. Any answer other than “you should fix it” might be seen as taking on exposure to a lawsuit. In many respects, that is a question that only the boat owner can answer. In this article, we will look at a framework any boat owner can use to sort through such questions and arrive at sensible answers.

LEARNING FROM A MASTER

I have been building and repairing boats full time for the past 35 years. I am asked nearly every day to make judgment calls and recommendations about boat repairs, and have made thousands of them. But there is one boat and owner in particular that helped shape my approach to deciding what has to be fixed, and what can wait. Every year since 1979, I have overseen the annual maintenance of ROSA II, a lovely and well-known wooden sailboat built in Maine in 1960 and based in New York. For most of those years, Rosa was owned by Lester Rosenblatt (Lester passed away in 2003 and his son Bruce now carries on the tradition). Lester was not your ordinary boat owner; he and his father had designed Rosa. Lester was a naval architect; he owned one of the world’s largest naval architecture firms, M. Rosenblatt & Son, and served as president of SNAME, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. In short, Lester was uniquely qualified to make decisions about his beloved Rosa. He was also a notorious and demanding perfectionist.

Lester spared no expense caring for Rosa, and as she aged, it was not uncommon for him to spend her value or more on annual maintenance. Rosa’s annual winter work list was lengthy, and it included a dye penetrant inspection of all rigging terminals. Any cracks were marked and reported to Lester, specifically the length and location of the crack, and which part of the rigging it was on. Now you might think that any cracked part of her rigging would be replaced without question, but that was not the case. Lester knew that a small crack did not mean imminent failure, and he also knew which parts of the rig could fail, and not result in dismasting or any other danger. A hint of a crack in the headstay would result in an unequivocal instruction to replace it. But a much longer crack in a lower shroud would result in a decision to note the length and location, and mark the crack so that we could look for any changes the following season.

It is a testament to Rosa’s outstanding construction by Paul Luke and to Lester’s approach to her upkeep, that in 2010, Rosa returned to the builder’s yard to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her launching. Rosa is not dock jewelry—during those 50 years, Rosa has been sailed from New York to Maine and back 45 times, and has made the round-trip from New York to Virginia 25 times (I made 42 of those trips).

Lester’s approach taught me how to reason my way through decisions regarding problems found on boats. Instead of a knee-jerk response of “fix it,” Lester asked pointed questions, gathered information, and then made a reasoned response. While not many of us are naval architects who designed our own boat, we can all learn from and apply his approach.

KNOW THYSELF—CRITICAL QUESTIONS

Self-assessment: “know thyself”

The budget for repairs will be driven as much by what is between the ears than by what is found in your bilges. As we will see shortly, two people with identical boats and identical repair lists will spend radically different amounts of money, and both will be correct. The variables are the personalities and intentions of the boat owners. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. How will I use my boat (really)?

Are you going to cruise offshore, making ocean passages out of sight of land, or will you stay close to the shoreline (within radio or cell phone distance)? You can go from the Florida Keys to Glacier Bay, Alaska, and never be out of sight of land (assuming you ship your boat cross-country).

  1. What is my tolerance for imperfection?

Will it drive you crazy if you know it’s not “right,” even if it has no impact on your cruising plans? Do you derive pleasure/satisfaction from the process of trying to get things perfect? If things do not go according to plan, does it stress you out and ruin the experience? Or are you unfazed by details and the drive for perfection? Do you handle unexpected events or changes in plans with grace? There is no judgment in these questions—the only “right” answer is an honest one. As we start to apply a framework for reaching decisions, your answers to this group of questions will have a major impact.

  1. What are my abilities for dealing with a problem?

Some people have the knowledge, knack, and willingness to work their way through mechanical problems. Others just don’t have the skill or desire. For example, how are you with seasickness? All the skill in the world can be undone if you have to work in the engine room in rough weather and seasickness gets to you.

  1. How much time do I have to cruise?

If you have six months, losing a week to repairs is not a big deal. But if you have four weeks, losing a week can be crushing.

As you work your way through a self-assessment, remember to describe yourself as you are, not as you think you should be. This process is not about self-criticism; there are no wrong answers. At this stage, you are gathering the facts about the problems found on your boat, assessing the risks, and having an honest talk with yourself about your personality tendencies and your plans. If you are not sure of the correct answer about yourself, and if you really want to know, ask your spouse.

There are infinite gradations of personality tendencies and cruising plans. Generally speaking, however, we can divide cruisers into two groups: those who go offshore and those who cruise near the coast. Similarly, with regard to this exercise, we can think in terms of two personality tendencies: those who like things close to perfect and who have a lower tolerance for unexpected events, and those who have a more flexible approach. We can therefore broadly group the possibilities into four categories:

Group A: Coastal cruisers with a high tolerance for imperfection

Group B: Coastal cruisers with a low tolerance for imperfection

Group C: Offshore cruisers with a high tolerance for imperfection

Group D: Offshore cruisers with a low tolerance for imperfection

As with any personality tool, the categories are oversimplified. But they are useful and if you want to make smart decisions, you have to start with some self-awareness.

HOW GOOD ARE YOU AT RISK ASSESSMENT?

Ultimately, the decision to repair or not comes down to risk assessment. In order to make smart decisions about boat maintenance, we have to be skilled at risk assessment. Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that people are not very good at it. We have a tendency to respond to the dramatic, and to overlook the more mundane. Chicago economist and author of Freakonomics, Stephen Levitt, gives some examples of this tendency.

When asked if we feel safer with strangers or people we know, most of us would agree to avoid the strangers. “In the U.S., the proportion of murder victims who knew their assailants to victims killed by strangers is about 3-to-1.” (Source: U.S. Department of Justice.)

Likewise, a gun in the home would seem to pose greater danger to a child than a swimming pool. We fret about the danger of guns in the home, yet according to Levitt, “yearly in the U.S. there is one child killed by a gun for every one million-plus guns, compared to one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential swimming pools.”

From this data, Levitt concludes that “most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events. A given person might fear a terrorist attack and mad cow disease more than anything in the world, whereas, in fact, she’d be better off fearing a heart attack (and therefore taking care of herself) or salmonella (and therefore washing her cutting board thoroughly).”

With regard to risk assessment on our boats, we can temper our tendency to overreact and imagine the dramatic by asking ourselves specific questions:

  1. If it fails, can it kill or injure us? The answer might include fire, electrocution, carbon monoxide poisoning, or sinking. This one gives you the chance to imagine the dramatic. But you should also take the position that anything that can stop the boat is potentially life-threatening. Even along the coast, bad weather or bad inlets can become a life or death situation if the boat stops. While less dramatic than a fire, a quiet engine can be a serious problem.
  1. If it fails, can we continue cruising? You might be surprised—nothing stops a cruise faster than the head. Don’t underestimate air conditioning. If you are cruising the Chesapeake in the summer, it can be a deal killer.
  1. What is the likelihood of failure? Here’s where a good surveyor or an honest repair yard can help you. Don’t expect a black and white answer, but ask the question and interpret the response. No one can answer this question definitely, but the response might be helpful.
  1. Will it fail all at once or gradually in a way that we can monitor? For example, the answer might be that the temperature will gradually increase until the part overheats and fails, but it will happen incrementally and you can keep an eye on it.
  1. What can be done to reduce the risk to an acceptable level? If your chart plotter works fine but is getting older, a chart book and handheld GPS can serve as a stand-alone backup (you should have that anyway, but you get the point).

As you work your way through risk assessment, keep in mind that black and white answers are rare—don’t let that deter you. Now that we have gathered all of the information, we need a framework for reasoning our way through to decisions.

USING A DECISION TREE

For a given list of recommended repairs, we are trying to answer a simple question: Should I go ahead with the repair, or can I leave it alone? By answering a series of “yes” or “no” questions based on the information gathered above, you can arrive at an answer. We call this tool a decision tree. If you were sitting down with an honest, objective, knowledgeable consultant, these are the questions he might ask you. For any given question, start at the top and follow the branches down based on your response to each question. Unless a problem found on your boat is life-threatening, there is no inherently correct or incorrect answer. Here’s what our tree looks like:

INTERPRETING THE DATA

Now, let’s apply these tools to specific examples. Your boatyard calls with some bad news. They noticed that instead of proper seacocks, your boat has inline ball valves without proper flanges, and with evidence of corrosion. They recommend replacement of all inline valves with proper seacocks mounted on backing blocks, at a total cost of $5,000.

Now is the time to ask questions so that you can responsibly understand the risks. Here are some questions you could ask:

    • Can the seacock fail suddenly and without warning?
    • Can it sink the boat?
    • What’s wrong with inline ball valves?
    • Why is the absence of flanges important?
    • How much corrosion is there and does it significantly compromise the strength of the seacock?

    Discussion:

    In all likelihood, this issue is resolved with the first decision tree question: Can it kill or injure you? Failure of a seacock can flood and sink the boat. Even if the math says your bilge pumps can keep up with it, it’s not worth the risk.

    Let’s look at another example. Your yard calls and uses the “b word”—blisters. They hauled your boat and noticed dozens of bottom blisters, ranging in size from dimes to nickels. The recommended repair calls for peeling the bottom and re-laminating, at an estimated cost of $14,000.

    Risk assessment questions:

      • Do the blisters weaken my hull?
      • Will they get worse over time, and how quickly?
      • If I don’t fix them now, will it cost more later?
      • How can I keep track of them to find out if they are getting worse?

      Discussion:

      1. A. Blisters provoke a knee-jerk reaction more than almost any other finding. Blisters are rarely a structural problem. In the vast majority of cases, the blisters are at the surface of the laminate, and do not significantly weaken the hull. However, it’s impossible to know this simply by looking at them or by their size or quantity without some degree of destructive testing. So if someone says “they’re probably just in the gelcoat, don’t worry about them,” ask how they know that’s true. In some cases, the blisters are deeper into the laminate, and large and numerous enough to be a concern, but not often. Let’s assume the blisters are at the surface (between the gelcoat and the laminate). In other words, they are not a structural issue.
      2. B. While blisters are rarely a structural problem, they are always a resale problem. Blisters reduce the value of a boat, regardless of whether or not they weaken it.
      3. C. If you want to know if they are increasing, paint one area, say 10 square feet, with a different color of antifoulant. Count the blisters and then count again at your next haulout. This simple test will give you a feel for how much they are spreading, if at all.

      PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

      Now you are ready to make your decisions. Here are our four categories again:

      Group A: Coastal cruisers with a high tolerance for imperfection

      Group B: Coastal cruisers with a low tolerance for imperfection

      Group C: Offshore cruisers with a high tolerance for imperfection

      Group D: Offshore cruisers with a low tolerance for imperfection

      Choose the group that most closely describes you, start the first survey finding, and begin at the top of the decision tree.

      Participants in workshops on this topic have been divided into the four groups and presented with a list of survey findings. The results are consistent and instructive. When comparing two groups with comparable tolerance for imperfection, the offshore cruisers (C) spend almost double the amount of money spent by the coastal cruisers (A)—a difference that should not be surprising to anyone. More surprisingly, within the two groups of coastal cruisers (A & B), the amount spent on repairs more than doubles based on personality preference alone. Despite the substantial variation in dollars spent, using the tools provided above, no one made an incorrect choice. Instead, they made appropriate choices for their particular situations.

      CONCLUSIONS

      Cruising inherently involves taking some risks. By identifying and eliminating flaws on your boat, you can reduce the risks, but not eradicate them. But there is another risk at play here—the risk that by feeling the need to correct every problem found, you will spend your way out of cruising, or limit your cruising time. We have seen that you do not have to be an expert to make smart decisions, but you do have to be good at asking the right questions. Facts are friendly. Welcome them, gather them, and use them. If you follow the process outlined above, you can reason your way through almost any list of findings or recommendations. It has been said that “life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away.” As that family cruising in Nova Scotia reminded me, you don’t need a perfect boat to experience some of those perfect moments.

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