The Accidental Refit

Ahead of a busy cruising schedule, an ’80s vintage Grand Banks 36 gets a new lease on life.
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Story & photos by George Sass Jr.

Sitting in the slings in upstate New York

Sitting in the slings in upstate New York

In 2020, nearly 1.3 million boats were sold in the United States. My wife, Lindsay, and I bought one of these boats. Oddly enough, we never planned on buying a Grand Banks 36. And, without question, we never planned on completing a comprehensive refit. Between June 2020 and April 2021, we did both.

Early in our boat search, Lindsay was kind enough to pretend that she believed my rationalization: Buying a boat would benefit all of mankind by making our young kids better humans from simply being on the water. We looked at a beautiful 44-foot custom Hunt, an Eastbay 49, and several Grand Banks 42s and 46s.

Then, on a brutally cold February afternoon, where the St. Lawrence River begins at the outflow of Lake Ontario, Lindsay recognized the practicality of a 34-year-old Grand Banks 36 standing before us.

This particular GB 36 was far too good of a treasure to pass up. The previous owner treated her like a collectible car in a private museum. Except for a builder sea trial in Singapore, Tala never touched a drop of salt water. Nobody ever slept aboard. The Princess propane range still had the manual tied inside the oven. The 135-hp Ford Lehman diesels showed less than 500 hours. Some cushions were still wrapped in plastic from the factory. The showers were never used. The teak decks looked like they were just installed. And best of all, the boat was stored on a lift, under a custom boathouse, since new.

Due to the Covid-related work stoppage on the New York State Canal System in 2020, it would be another six months until we were able to get Tala to her home port of Portland, Maine. During the 10-day trip, there were a few minor mechanical issues resulting from being stored for 24 months. Yet we enjoyed another two months of hassle-free cruising in Maine before putting Tala away for the winter.

Tala docked in Catskill, New York, off the Hudson prior to her winter refit.

Tala docked in Catskill, New York, off the Hudson prior to her winter refit.

When we brought her to Yankee Marina & Boatyard in Yarmouth, Maine, in October, we had a basic service punch list. Items like “check these hoses” or “give us an estimate for varnish,” and some electronics installations.

That’s not how things worked out. When we launch in May, there won’t be a single system on board that the yard didn’t service.

This is not a story of a runaway project or crazy change orders that broke the bank. This project served as a reminder about what peace of mind is worth, and all the elements of a boat that need attention, not just the ones we identified on our initial work order.

The work completed at Yankee essentially resets the maintenance baseline, and we’ll work with the yard to develop an annual preventive-maintenance plan. We also have cruised long distances, whether it’s way Down East Maine or Nova Scotia or the Virgin Islands. After a lot of bluewater miles, we are aware of the beating a boat can take on long passages.

There are many parts of a refit that you only learn by diving into the process, and then reflecting on your decisions afterward. Good news: Our experience can save you the time. 


The Work List

“Repaint exterior window frames”

This was one of those jobs I considered delaying until next season. The main issue was that the canvas screens that snap onto the outside of the frames trap a lot of moisture, causing the paint to lift. I could have been OK with waiting, but by October they would have been much worse. Also, the yard was unable to save any of the existing paint because of adhesion issues. Once you’re into it, you’re into it. After starting this project, I weighed the costs of replacing the wooden salon windows. Vetus makes an aluminum window that would work well on our Grand Banks. Check it out at passagemaker.com/window-replacement

Window restoration in progress

Window restoration in progress

“Remove mast and powder coat”

The boom was in perfect shape and stored inside a barn since arriving in the Thousand Islands. The mast, though, had taken the brunt of two harsh winters in Upstate New York after Tala was moved from the boathouse. This was a project where the domino effect started. After painting the mast, we needed to get a new mounting bracket for the Garmin radar dome. Once that area was opened, some older wiring issues popped up. Then, we might as well address the poorly mounted spreader lights. The broken forward shroud should also be replaced. I feel good about all of these repairs, and I admit that I stop and just stare at the mast in the yard’s workshop. There are also future projects to complete on the mast, such as better tender retrieval systems and cleats for the boom sheets.

Mast - after

Mast - after

“Exterior varnish”

When I first saw the five-figure varnish estimate, my eyes bled. Especially since I consider myself a decent varnisher. We just didn’t have the time for the DIY route. However, once I saw the finished product by Yankee Marina, I realized two things. First, I am not really that good of a varnisher. Second, a good varnishing job is a phenomenal value. 

Varnish - after

Varnish - after

As much hardware was removed as possible, including the stanchions and swim platform.

As much hardware was removed as possible, including the stanchions and swim platform.

Not only is the application like what you see on a Steinway piano, but the yard took as much of the hardware off as they could and varnished and/or epoxied all sides. In the future, we’ll be able to implement a spring and fall varnish schedule for short money.

“Complete electronics installation”

We purchased new Garmin electronics last summer. They were shipped to Bonnie Castle Marina in Alexandria Bay, New York. Because of the rush departure resulting from the locks finally opening, we triaged units to install for the trip home. Our cable steering requires a lot of work for the pilot drive unit to be joined to the steering quadrant. My experiences on a similar boat came rushing back to me. After hanging upside down in the cockpit locker during a gale between Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, trying to fix a similar system that had become detached, I knew I wanted a robust solution. The yard used a composite panel for the shelf to keep plywood out of the moisture-prone lazarette, and then a series of aluminum L-brackets and backing plates on both sides of the shelf. They could have stopped there, but they thought the installation through so the teak grates could still be installed over the unit for protection and storage. And for all the electronics, we were using existing wiring that was undersized for our new package. We needed new wiring as well.

New VHF

New VHF

“Add elbow to starboard engine exhaust”

Brian Smith at American Diesel sells the exhaust elbows and a nice kit for Ford Lehman owners. The exhaust hose bend on the starboard side was so severe that without the elbow, you could see extra wear. In fact, we replaced the hose during our trip after identifying a pinhole leak.

Exhaust elbow

Exhaust elbow

“Starboard engine seawater intake thru-hull is leaking”

This involved a fair amount of labor and some expensive parts. When the job was complete, it was in the $4,000 neighborhood. Could I have taken off the original thru-hulls and rebuilt them myself over the winter? Absolutely. However, the bowls were cracked, which meant sourcing those. And, the rubber gaskets around the ball valves were shot, which meant replacing them.

web_New Through Hulls

“Reconnect hot water heater to properly work off engine heat exchanger; Starboard engine heat exchanger leaks”

This was an item from our delivery punch list. There were a fair amount of nuisance fluid leaks on the engines, mainly from dry-rotted gaskets and hoses. I might have obsessed at chasing each one. The goal, however, was to create that baseline to monitor going forward.

“Cap thru-hull for generator inlet”

A generator was never installed, however, the boat was prepped for installation at the factory back in 1986. Before we splashed for the trip to Maine, we checked all the thru-hulls. And this one fell right off in my friend’s hand. We replaced it on the fly. Although it’s in an area where it could be kicked open and allow a lot of water in, it’s now properly capped. 

“Check driveline, steering, cutlass bearings and props”

We had a tree rise under Tala in a lock on the Erie Canal while exiting. It became trapped between the prop and rudder, and I wanted to see if there was any residual damage. (We inspected thoroughly above water after the incident.) Because of the boat’s age and usage, I was also concerned about the cutlass bearing condition. Again, my own experience on a similar boat reminded me: I’ve completed that fix on scorching blacktop in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I prefer not to do that again. No issues were found except for a forward engine mount on the port engine that was loose. We had no vibration, and honestly, I’m not sure how long it was that way. In order to move and tighten it, the entire port engine needed to be lifted. Tip another domino. 

“Exhaust hoses cracked from exhaust manifold to transom”

The dry rot of our hoses was a result of the boat sitting idle. The more we looked, the more we found. This is also one of those jobs that appears straightforward on paper. 

Cracked exhaust hose

Cracked exhaust hose

New exhaust hose

New exhaust hose

Once you start cutting old hose and removing items for access, it takes some hours. The yard also added chafe protection (above right) on every new hose where it was needed.

“Replace sight tubes on both fuel tanks” 

I really prefer sight gauges to electronic gauges. Recently on some long deliveries, I’ve had more stress than necessary with faulty electronic fuel gauges. The sight tubes on Tala had discolored over the years, so even with a flashlight, we were unable to see the fuel level. I also contemplated adding a quick-release valve at the bottom versus the gate valve. This is where I appreciate a good yard. They could do it and recognized why I wanted to do it. Yet they felt it would start to become a more complicated and expensive project fairly quickly by opening up portions of the lower tank. We might come back to this task down the road.

“Upgrade 12-volt system”

Again, this is where being on the same page with your yard helps. We wanted to keep the boat “sailboat simple” and spend more time on the hook or mooring than at the dock. There’s no icemaker, no microwave, no televisions or washer and dryer. The 800-watt inverter will power 110-volt outlets for device charging and small items. That’s it. Also, after our first night during the delivery to Maine, we were unable to start the boat in Oswego, New York. We ended up replacing the engine-start batteries at Winter Harbor Marina in Brewerton, New York. (A highly recommended stop for Great Loopers.) The reconfigured 12-volt system allows us to top off the bank quickly and not worry about running down the engine batteries.

To conform the new inverter/charger system to ABYC recommended standards, a Blue Sea Systems Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter was installed.

To conform the new inverter/charger system to ABYC recommended standards, a Blue Sea Systems Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter was installed.

“Genset Racor bowl is cracked and leaking fuel onto stuffing box” 

Again, another domino tipped over. We don’t have a generator, as mentioned. The prep package in 1986 included plumbing to the fuel system. When the yard was fixing the leaking Racor, I suggested we just take it completely offline. There’s some decent labor involved beyond just removing the hoses.

“Fix pressure switch on freshwater pump”

We have a very good, original Jabsco freshwater pump. Because of the labor involved to access and identify the issue, you can make the argument that it might have made sense to just buy a new pump. We also might get another 34 years from the fixed pump.

“Conduct oil analysis on both engines and transmissions”

The previous owner owned a home heating oil company and was fastidious about samples and analysis. I have some of those records, but we’ll need to do this on an annual basis and create our baseline to identify developing issues.

“Fix leak at forward head intake”

This was another annoying leak. Small leaks can easily become big leaks. On this vintage Grand Banks, there is no forward bilge pump. There also are no limber holes for water to flow aft to the amidships sump. Down goes another domino. After discussing the situation with Service Manager Adam White, we decided to install an electric bilge pump in this forward bilge. Besides safety reasons, it’s an area where we’ll clean because of the chain locker forward. Without the pump, it’s a lot of hand bailing.

“Lift pumps”

Both engines showed signs of oil seeping around the lift pumps, and fasteners had to be replaced. The starboard engine lift pump leaked diesel; the problem appeared to be the fitting of the lift pump itself. We removed the lift pumps from both engines, cleaned the surfaces, replaced the gasket fittings on both lift pumps, and cleaned up oil and fuel residue. Access to the pumps and fasteners was minimal on both engines, more so on the starboard side because of the water heater, so the operation took longer than expected.

Tala resting in Portland, Maine

Tala resting in Portland, Maine

Other items addressed...

Check and lube seacocks

Take coolant samples on both engines

Take fuel samples on both engines

Replace raw-water impeller on both engines: We replaced the ones we used with additional spares.

Starboard engine, aft end cap for engine oil cooler looks to be J-B Weld epoxied: Noticed green corrosion around end cap like it has a leak. Should be soldered or replaced. Prepped and painted new oil cooler. Removed starboard engine oil cooler. Swapped over fittings from old oil cooler to the new one. Installed oil cooler and hoses, taking time to ensure proper hose orientation. Mounted and clamped all hoses. Fixed.

Port engine gear cooler outboard water hose has a couple small splits around hose clamp: Removed outboard raw-water hose that had a few small tears. Cut and installed gear cooler hose.

Starboard engine water hose from main heat exchanger to engine oil cooler (aft hose) split around hose clamp: Need to replace hose. Removed engine oil cooler hose and replaced.

Crankcase breather hose split at air-filter housing on both engines: Replace old air-filter elements with new, clean up oil residue. Removed crankcase breather hoses and air filter housings from both engines. Cleaned filter housings, replaced filters. Installed filter housings and new hoses. Cleaned up oil residue on engines.

Investigate nonfunctional windshield wiper: Wiper was non-functional and blew the breaker instantly. Wiper motor is seized. Bench tested new motor and made changes to wiring for motor to function along with all the others. Installed wiper arm and blade.

New fuel filters

New fuel filters

Starboard aft secondary fuel filter fixed: Housing currently has an NPT plug instead of a strainer thread bleeder screw. Remove filter, chase threads on housing, replace with correct bleeder screw, reinstall filter.

Wax cabin and hull

Bottom paint

The Dollars and Sense

Taking out winter storage and the winterization of the engines, we are all-in for about $80,000, including the new Garmin package for both stations. I’m actually a bit of a sociopath when it comes to boatyard bills. I don’t get emotional because there is really no reason any of us should have a boat—well, except for creating better humans and saving mankind. I truly can say that the boat is better than new. The value is evident. There are also yards that might be cheaper, but the pride of workmanship and attention to detail that I saw at Yankee is worth it to me.

I also know how to work on diesels and probably could have saved about $15,000 if I did some of the engine work myself. However, with kids, work and life, I would rather spend time cruising than hunched over in the engine room. Plus, the level of detail from the pros will give me huge peace of mind when we’re 200 miles offshore.

The author enjoys a morning watch off Maine during the initial shakedown delivery from the Great Lakes.

The author enjoys a morning watch off Maine during the initial shakedown delivery from the Great Lakes.

Going forward, we’ll be able to transition to more of a maintenance program ourselves with trips back to the yard for a few checkups and additional projects.

Several boating friends have asked me if it’s worth putting so much into an older boat where I’ll never get the money out of it. I do believe that investing in a quality boat makes sense. That reasoning enters into a whole subjective conversation, but at the end of the day, Lindsay and I have no desire to sell this boat. We only have a desire to take our family on as many adventures as we can, safely and happily. And that’s worth a whole heck of a lot.


How to Choose a Boatyard 

I’m not afraid of commitment. I look for a yard that could maintain my boat throughout my ownership, even if it’s for some items and I do the rest. The more familiar they become with a boat, the better for the boat during its lifetime. You can start to plan projects 12 months out and budget accordingly. 

On the hard at a New York boatyard

On the hard at a New York boatyard

The obvious selection priority is familiarization with your type of boat. For instance, some yards really know Nordhavns, some have a long history with Kadey-Krogens, and so forth. Yankee Marina & Boatyard was an authorized Grand Banks service center, and the staff had institutional knowledge that was invaluable. 

Other considerations are more subjective. I like being in a yard that makes me feel welcome, one that is not flipping out if I get on some tools and do a little work. Yankee was OK with me bringing in Garmin electronics that I bought elsewhere, even though it’s a Garmin dealer. 

A yard should also have a culture and buzz. You can tell if folks enjoy doing their work and take pride in working on your boat. If you see old equipment and junk piled high in the corner, think twice. I was once walking through Marlow Marine with David Marlow, and he saw a bottle top lying in the grass. He walked over and picked it up. “If they see me do it, they’ll do it too,” he said. He’s right.


Refit Takeaway Tips

  • Beware of the dockside expert. By all means, solicit advice from your peers, but don’t be surprised by the amount of really bad advice people will give you.
  • Never ask a yard open-ended questions. Be as detailed as possible.
  • Focus on the fundamentals first. Sure, it’s tempting to get those new cushions installed or add those new countertops, but prioritize mechanicals and safety above all else.
  • Keep a spreadsheet of all the yard bills, estimates and work orders. I had so many bills for our project that I forgot a few things.

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