Planning Your Work With The Boatyard

By Tom Neale

Last month we talked about choosing a boatyard or marine service. Following are a few of the things you can do to help you have a good experience with that yard or service once you have chosen them. As in the last column, "yard" includes "marine service" where applicable.

Photo of a skilled work on author's boat at Camachee Yacht Yard in St. Augustine, FLSkilled work on author's boat at Camachee Yacht Yard in St. Augustine, FL.

Written Estimate Or Quote?

Usually, an estimate is an educated guess, without a guaranteed ceiling. If you elect to get an estimate, get it in writing and check to see that it specifies what it includes. Insist that you be informed immediately if it appears during the job that the estimate may be too low, and why. Most good yards will want you to know anyway. A firm quote should have a ceiling for the work specified and is normally very detailed as to what is to be done. The yard will need to be sure that it won't get caught with some unexpected problem which will destroy their profit margin. And you will want to know that there are to be no expensive surprises. Quotes for complex jobs may require a lot of time to prepare, for which you may be billed, regardless of whether you authorize the job after seeing the quote. If you think the estimate or quote is out of line, ask other owners who had the same job done, and consider consulting an independent surveyor if it's a big job.

If possible, get your quote or estimate prior to being hauled so that management will know that he's bidding against other yards. If you must get hauled for the estimate, tell them that you're prepared to walk away if they come in too high on their bid, despite the haulout fee. (Establish this fee before the haulout.)

Boat work is hard to predict. Many things can go wrong. The yard should have trained people and proper equipment to give them a reasonable idea about what's involved, but they're probably going to need some wiggle room subject to your approval. Keep in mind that if the yard isn't making a fair profit, everyone, including the customer, loses in one way or another.

Understand Pricing

The issue of what the yard charges for and how it charges leads to frequent problems. For example, long time increments for labor charges can be unfair. Usually, shorter increments are likely to result in more accurate billing, although it's seldom that you'll find increments shorter than 15 or 20 minutes. Look for hidden charges. Do they charge you for "planning time" as when a couple of supervisors come out in the morning and stand around your boat figuring out scheduling? Find out what's included in flat rate services. For example, haulout fees usually include the power wash, blocking in the yard, and re-launching. Often there will be something called an environmental surcharge to help recoup the yard's costs of complying with all the environmental regulations. If they charge you this, perhaps they shouldn't also charge you for things like the tarp they spread under your boat, or "cleanup." Know what you're paying for, and why.

Ask About Variable Rates

Some yards will bill at one rate for a job quoted, but when you add on another project they bill at a higher rate stating that, since it's an extra item, it disrupts work scheduling. However, workers are expected to look for and recommend other needed projects. Of course, you will want to be told if something turns up. But in some yards, workers who bring in extra projects get bonuses. This can, in theory, result in a conflict of interest and exaggerations, although good yards monitor this carefully. Ask your yard's policies, and, if you sign on for more work, be sure you know the price structure.

Make Sure the "Skilled Labor" Is Just That

The definition of "skilled labor" includes a higher degree of training and experience in the type of work. The worker should normally be able to make significant progress for the time spent, he should show up on the job with the correct tools, he probably shouldn't need to spend a lot of "figuring time," and he should be familiar with the concepts and techniques of the job. I once employed "skilled labor" to sort out some electrical problems. I discovered that the person was back behind the electrical panel reading from a book about the issues. While it's conceivable that this may be something for which you should pay (every job is different), normally you shouldn't have to pay for the skilled worker's on-the-job education.

Find out how the yard defines "skilled labor." Sometimes the line between "skilled" and "unskilled" is vague. For example, you don't need skilled labor to sand and paint the bottom, but you may need it to paint the topsides. Determine whether they consider your job to require skilled labor and why. Some yards have several levels of labor of which you should be aware.

Ask About Doing Work Yourself If You Want To Do This

Can you choose what parts of the job you wish to do? Will they let you? Will you have electricity and water on-site or will you be treated as an outcast during your work period? Remember though, that it's getting increasingly more difficult for yards to allow owner work. This is because of the increasingly burdensome number of government regulations that cover yards. If you don't comply with a regulation or law the yard may be responsible, and the yard owner probably won't know you or your abilities.

Read The Paperwork

Frequently, while you are "checking in" for the job, someone in a front office will push a contract across the desk, saying something like, "just sign here and here and here. Everybody signs it. It just means that we can do the work for you." Despite the apparent good intentions, this isn't really the type of legal advice you want to rely upon. It may be true that in most cases people do sign the agreements, and that no problems ensue. But these agreements are often very one sided. If something goes wrong, you may be up the creek without the paddle that they were supposed to have fixed.

These contracts sometimes contain clauses that waive your rights to sue the yard if there's a problem. Also, they may require you to hold them harmless for any losses they might incur if a third party successfully pursues a claim against them that relates in any way to your boat. Some of these clauses may even void your insurance coverage. Not all yards have contracts like this and often the overall relationship will be good, regardless. There are plenty of really good people in the business and a good yard cultivates good relationships with its customers. But normally you are both in a "business" relationship and need to keep that in mind.

Review Your Insurance Coverage

Some boat insurance policies contain terms that allow the insurer to deny your coverage if you do anything that adversely affects the ability of the insurance company to recover against third parties, or to defend claims against you. A "hold harmless" clause or a "waiver of rights" clause in the yard contract may do this. Some boat insurance policies specifically make certain limited exceptions for marina and yard contracts. Your insurance underwriter should be a good source of information as to your coverage and you shouldn't hesitate to call with questions. I cannot give and am not giving legal advice. It may be a good idea to ask your lawyer about contract language or issues which you don't understand. Check also for coverage as to less obvious risks such as while being transported across the yard, and in storage, and for coverage for claims of people working on your boat. Ask the yard about their coverage. It should also have insurance to cover relevant risks. But your interests and those of the yard may differ and both of you should have adequate coverage. If there is a question, usually a friendly chat with yard management will resolve it. Nobody wants to see inadequate insurance.

What Should You Do Once the Job Begins?

In a future column we'll discuss how you can keep the job under control once it begins and you're "at the mercy" of the process. This will contain very helpful information and tips about getting what you pay for, working amicably with the yard without interfering in their job, and having a good overall experience. 

Tom Neale is Technical Editor of BoatUS Magazine, with a lifetime of liveaboard and cruising experience. Read more of Tom Neale's articles here.

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— Published: March 2015

Tom's Tips About About Attitude

  • Typically it is a stressful time when a boat owner is preparing to put his beloved boat into a yard or turn it over to a marine service independent contractor. We're afraid of huge bills, surprise issues and simply of having somebody else "messing" with our boat.
  • The yard perhaps won't suffer the same stress because it does this every day ... but there will be concern on the part of a good yard to secure the job, for it to go well and to have a happy customer who will return and also spread the good word.
  • The yard also has typically seen too many boaters who truly aren't familiar with the job issues and who therefore don't understand and think they're being ripped off when they aren't. This is bad for everybody.
  • If you can sit down and talk with yard management about any concerns before you contract, you'll probably get a feeling (probably a good feeling) about how the experience will be, as will the manager. This is usually very helpful because you want to trust each other in what is a stressful time for you.
  • Remember that yard managers (and personnel) are doing other jobs too and must account for their time, so don't expect a manager to drop everything without notice to sit down and talk.
  • If you read my previous column in this series you'll know that while some yards are huge factory-like businesses where owner's money isn't a concern, most are not. Indeed, many have workers and managers who are also boaters. Try to see it their way as you are trying to get them to see it your way. And read the next column in this series, to come soon. It will help.



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