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Keeping Control of Boat Work

When you leave your boat at a yard for work or hire marine service people to come aboard, it may be difficult to keep control of the job.

A Skilled Worker from Lelands Marine Working on Mako

Skilled Worker from Lelands Marine on Tom Neale's Mako.

In the past two columns I've told you how to find a yard or marine service and then how to plan with them to get the boat work done. Now we're down to the crunch. What can you do to be sure the job goes well? Must you stand by helplessly hoping for the best?

Be There

The most effective way to assure that things go well is to keep an eye on the job, without unduly interfering with the yard or marine service work. This doesn't mean to hang around the job all day, but at least check in frequently, depending on the work, while staying out of the way of workers or yard procedures. Make notes of issues. Notes should include times, specifics, and, if possible, workers' names. These will be invaluable if it becomes necessary to discuss a problem with management or if there is a question about the bill. When you see meaningful problems, immediately bring them to the attention of management. If you do this objectively and courteously and in private, they should appreciate it. No matter how hard they try, it's impossible for supervisors to be at all places at all times.

Every Minute Counts

Try to keep track of hours spent on your job. A yard is not only paying each worker, it is also paying the huge expenses of its infrastructure, even when it is sitting idle. Most workers are expected to charge each segment of their time to a boat, except for yard recognized work breaks, for times when there is no work available, or for yard projects such as equipment maintenance. If, for example, the two guys working on your boat each sneak off and take two 15-minute cigarette breaks a day, they're probably not going to enter this on their time sheets. They may assign that time to your boat or some other. At $50.00 an hour, you're paying an extra $50.00 a day for nothing. Many good yards have scheduled breaks so that this is less likely to become an issue.

An infamous example of unfair time billing occurs with the shipyard shuffle. Within reason, the worker should bring the appropriate tools and parts with him when he comes to your boat. If he must do a slow-mo shuffle back to the tool shed to get another wrench, and then another wrench because the first didn't fit, there could be a problem if it's all billed to your boat. If you notice a repeat pattern of this, let management know. It will help both of you.

Check Counter Chat

Check out the yard parts department occasionally. If the person working on your boat has to stand there for 15 or 20 minutes several times a day waiting to pick up some paint brushes, or stainless bolts, and he's charging that time to your boat, your bill may be higher than necessary. To a limited extent this may be acceptable, but if the yard is properly managed, much of the material should be available when the man comes on the job, and there shouldn't be long social occasions among the workers at the parts counter — at least not on a bill.

Don't Make Yard Buddies

Most boat owners love to talk about our boats. We especially love to talk about our boats to "experts" who supposedly know all sorts of things about them. Avoid doing this with the workers on your job unless you're willing to pay for their time (it may be well worth it). Sometimes this is necessary, but sometimes it's a waste. The guy just hired off the street to scrape your bottom will be much happier standing there chatting with you and giving you his opinions while he's getting paid (by you), instead of scraping the bottom.

Leave Blind Faith At The Gates

Don't blindly assume that the workers always know what they're doing. Once I asked a yard to pull my propeller shaft for inspection. When I got to the scene, four workers were preparing to move my 165 HP diesel forward in my engine room. They insisted that they couldn't pull the shaft because it was blocked by the rudder. They were wrong on three counts. The shaft would have cleared, the rudder could have been dropped if needed, and that "damned owner showed up." On another occasion a worker was helping with a job that included disconnection of the exhaust hose. He sat on the hose, bending it down so that sea was flooding in onto my generator. "Oh, it won't hurt it," he said. Don't hesitate to tell management that a worker isn't performing properly and that you want him off the job. Do this in a courteous private conference. Never confront a manager in the presence of workers. Be specific as to your reasons, and check to see that the bad time doesn't end up on your bill. The yard should be happy to know this information.

Expect The Right Equipment

You shouldn't be penalized if the yard accepts a job for which it doesn't have the proper equipment. A cutlass bearing change provides a good example. These are tightly contained in the prop strut and/or at the shaft log. There are tools designed to quickly and easily remove old cutlass bearings and press in new ones. If the proper tool isn't available, the job could take two men many hours, with the possibility of damage thrown in for good measure.

Calling The Shots

It's normally counter-productive to get in the way of daily work on your boat. If you did your research well, (we addressed this in the first of this series) you're probably in a yard where this is unnecessary. But sometimes it's important to insist that a project be done a certain way. It's your boat. You're going to be the one at sea in the boat — not the worker. And it isn't unusual for yards to have workers who have never been to sea and who have little knowledge of the at-sea implications of what they're doing. On the flip side, it also isn't unusual for a yard to encounter an owner who thinks he knows everything but is clueless. But some issues are common sense. Once a yard worker had to cut a limber hole in a new support, about six feet aft of my anchor locker. He made a pretty little hole, but it was totally inadequate to allow the necessary amount of water to pass should the anchor locker take on large amounts at sea. An expensive electric motor would have been flooded. I had to be "pro-active." If you have concern about how something is being done, check into it. They may be following a particular course because of safety rules or important established procedures of which you may be unaware, or they may not have a clue.

Working on a Boat Engine

Marine Pro Owner and Worker on the Chez Nous.

Another frequently occurring problem is that the workers may want to install something in a way that blocks access to another component. I knew of a boat in which a yard installed a refrigeration compressor that blocked access to the engine's raw water pump. To change the impeller, you had to open the refrigerant line and unbolt the compressor. If you see problems, you should speak to the yard management, courteously and away from the workers. It may take skill on your part to "butt in" when needed, without causing a poor relationship or interfering with the orderly progress of the job. But it may be important.

Conflicts Of Interest And Shifting Responsibility

When the yard encounters a problem or issue with your boat, it should tell you and recommend a good solution. But there is a possible conflict of interest here. The yard may believe that if it advises anything but the theoretical "best" cure, and that if an associated failure later occurs, it may have liability and your safety may be jeopardized. The "best" may also be immensely expensive. And, obviously, it wants to make as much money as it can. Some yards use scare tactics in these situations, conjuring up the worst case failure scenarios and saying that they wash their hands of any responsibility if you don't do exactly as they recommend. The scare tactics may or may not be justified. Also sometimes workers get bonuses for finding new problems with your boat and thereby justifying a greater yard bill. You will need to distinguish between bad and good faith advice. You're paying the yard for its expertise and to look out for your best interests. This should include your financial interests. Insist that the yard give full details of the facts supporting their advice. It may be helpful, especially for large jobs, to reduce this to writing and even to consult a good independent surveyor. As with most of these examples, if you've done your homework well and are in a good yard, this probably won't be an issue.

Billing Questions

Apparent overcharges should be addressed, and the yard should anticipate dialogue. If needed, insist on a conference with upper management, in the office, when the two of you can go over the bill and, if necessary, individual worker time sheets and material invoices, in a professional and courteous manner. Nit picking is often counter-productive, and you can't expect a bill for an elaborate job to be perfect in all respects. It's a BOAT! Also, typically the yard manager will have dealt with many unreasonable owners who knew much less than they thought. He may therefore be initially skeptical of your criticism or questions. But if you've taken notes to document specific problems, and if you've alerted him to issues earlier in the job, you should be able to work out differences.

Reality Check

Review the time billed for each job to see if it's reasonable for what was actually accomplished. I once had a bill for 3 hours to connect 4 battery cables to terminals less than two feet apart — with no obstructions. The yard manager saw it and adjusted it on his own. We know that unexpected problems are inherent in boat jobs, but occasionally you may need to look the manager in the eye and hold your ground when he's trying to justify a bill that's clearly inappropriate for what was accomplished.

Test Run Immediately

A sea trial may be very important, depending on the job. If you sea trial before paying the bill (preferable) you'll have to make arrangements with the yard. Many yards have a "no cash no splash" policy. Don't agree to this if your job will clearly need a sea trial. They will probably want to put someone aboard to observe and this may be of benefit to you as well as the yard. But the expense for this should be worked out in advance.

...and Then, There Are the Times When It All Works

Obviously, I've had to make generalizations. The person working on your boat will often be skilled, knowledgeable and caring about the quality of his work, your satisfaction and your safety. If so, tell management how much you appreciate his work. Many yards do their utmost, in very difficult circumstances, to do a good job and treat the customer fairly. They're good people and they know the value of word of mouth. When you find these yards, spread the word. It helps all of us.

Tom's Tips About Helping the Professional with Your Boat Work

  • Poor access to components often presents a major problem for boat workers. If possible remove drawers and cabinet doors, or take other steps that you can do to provide good access.
  • Also remove items stored that may interfere with access.
  • If you are sure a unique part is going to be needed, tell the yard and authorize them to order it. They normally won't until they see it's needed.
  • If there will be issues of location of a relevant component, such as a wire run or a thru-hull fitting, leave a conspicuous typed note giving the information.
  • If you're aware of any idiosyncrasies in your boat that may affect the job, let them know. Examples would include a certain way to jiggle a starting key or extra pre-heat time needed for a generator.
  • Clean parts to be worked on and areas around those parts of dirt and grease.

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Tom Neale

Technical Editor, BoatUS Magazine

One of the top technical experts in the marine industry, Tom Neale, BoatUS Magazine Technical Editor, has won nine first-place awards from Boating Writers International, and is author of the magazine’s popular "Ask The Experts" column. His depth of technical knowledge comes from living aboard various boats with his family for more than 30 years, cruising far and wide, and essentially learning how to install, fix, and rebuild every system onboard himself. A lawyer by training, for most of his career Tom has been an editor and columnist at national magazines such as Cruising World, PassageMaker, and Soundings. He wrote the acclaimed memoir All In The Same Boat (McGraw Hill), as well as Chesapeake Bay Cruising Guide, Vol. 1. These days, Tom and his wife Mel enjoy cruising their 2006 Camano 41 Chez Nous with their grandchildren.