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Triton Survey: Captains prefer control, offer tips for successful refits

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As the inaugural Refit International Exhibition & Conference prepares to kick off in late January, we thought yacht captains might have something to say about the process, so we asked. There are lots of facets to the refit of a megayacht, most depending on the scope of the project.

For the purposes of this survey, we asked captains to consider their annual yard period, a mid-level refit that included a haul-out and work that touched several departments.

About 80 yacht captains responded to this survey and provided a solid foundation for a captains roundtable discussion at the Refit show.

Read refit comments here.

Daily communication with the yard is vital during all parts of a yacht refit. PHOTO MARK O'CONNELL/markoconnell.photodeck.com

Daily communication with the yard is vital during all parts of a yacht refit. PHOTO MARK O’CONNELL/markoconnell.photodeck.com

We started our survey at the beginning: How do you go about compiling a work list?

More than half of our respondents use multiple sources to create the work list for a refit, which includes the owner’s desires, the crew’s punch list, and anyone else with a stake in the vessel.

“Everyone contributes, including the owner,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “It helps us to have them include things. They feel better about spending if they get some new things, too.”

“I call it her ‘master plan’, and it is always a team effort to not forget anything,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“Also, through years of experience and creating good relationships with venders,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“Projects are divided into three groups: those necessary for compliance, safety and continued operation; the captain’s wish list, not imperative but recommended for maintaining the status quo or slight improvements; and the owner’s wish list,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“Stakeholders make their wish lists, then a conference agrees on the projects to be submitted to management and to the yard for quotation,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“As with all projects, proper planning prevents poor performance,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Nobody (owner, crew, yard) likes surprises.”

Slightly more than a quarter of captains said primarily focus on the owner’s desires, then add the items they know need service or upgrade.

“Always pay attention to the owner’s wishes, but include the obvious needs for the boat itself,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 more than 30 years.

The rest, about 18 percent, start with the running list that the crew and captain compile while operating the yacht.

“Every day, there is a punch list that grows,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“Try to go in with a plan, a schedule and a budget,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Do your best to stay with it. Supervise the work being done, be ready to make changes, keep owner informed so there are no surprises at the end of the refit. Maintain a good relationship with the yard and staff.”

No one began by hiring a surveyor or following flag or class rules alone.

“It is seldom that a surveyor is required, except when the annual involves flag state- or classification society-mandated or -regulated works,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

Another key decision that should be made ahead of time is who will take control of the refit, so we asked captains Who do you prefer to have manage the refit?

A solid majority of yacht captains — 56 percent of our respondents — said they prefer to be in charge.

“Refits will always have a hiccup somewhere, either time delay or financial issue,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Being able to handle the curve balls and the constraining time to complete the projects in time for the next charter or owner’s trip is why successful captains should be hired.”

Most of the rest opted to share responsibility with members of their own crew.

None of these captains preferred to hand management of a refit off to the shipyard or even management company, although 4 percent said they preferred to team up with a project manager or the lead contractor.

So it was no surprise, then, to discover the answer to this next question: If you had to pick one person, who is most responsible for a successful refit?

We thought maybe the owner was the key person since he held the purse strings and ultimately made purchasing decisions, but nearly three-quarters of yacht captains said it was the captain who is most responsible for a successful refit.

“The biggest thing is to be well organized,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “A good timeline flow chart is critical as to what gets done when and what jobs will affect others. Try not to overlap contractors in the same area. Involve your heads of department.”

Most of the rest said it was impossible to pick just one person from the respective sides with interest, including the owner, shipyard and contractors as well as the captain.

About 5 percent said it was the owner who is most responsible.

We were curious to learn How do you choose your contractors? Is it just who they know, or do they request recommendations from the yard, their colleagues or even consult the log book?

About 75 percent of captains overwhelming preferred to work first with contractors they have worked with before.

After that, their methods varied almost evenly among contractors who had worked on the boat before, those recommended by fellow captains, and those recommended by other industry pros.

The third most common way was taking a recommendation from fellow captains or from the yard.

While many owners use a yard period to schedule crew time off, most captains resist that since they see themselves as critical to the success of the refit. So we asked, Have you ever handed off a refit, or taken over a refit as relief?

Half of our respondents answered this question in the affirmative, but it appeared that most were the ones taking over, not handing off.

“Where I have taken over, it went smoothly,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “I have never handed over mid-refit.”

“Never handed off,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “I have been interim or relief on several vessels.”

“Best not to,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “There will always be areas you could have done differently or ‘better’, but that’s very subjective.”

Among those captains who had either refit a yacht not their own or left their refit to someone else, we wanted to know Did the refit go smoothly?

More than 80 percent said it did.

“When I take over, yes,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “When others take over, not necessarily so.”

“Be well organized and have a realistic timeline clearly laid out, what gets done when and by whom,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

Still, with a shift in captains, issues arise.

“I already had one vessel in the same yard and a friend’s vessel came in, so I did both at once,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I don’t recommend that to anyone. It got ‘a bit difficult’, as [one yard executive] said.”

“Unless I am involved in every day of the refit, the yard will inevitably make a mistake and carry on as if they did no wrong,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

When working with a shipyard, we asked captains <<BOLD>>Do you prefer several yard contacts, perhaps one for each part of the refit, or just one yard point person?

Almost half wanted just one liaison with the yard, while just over a third said that several yard contacts worked well.

Eighteen percent said it doesn’t matter.

How much communication is required with the yard contact person, as a minimum?

About 82 percent said it was at least daily (53 percent) or even several times a day (29 percent).

Communication between the owner and yard is most important,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “There are always changes, but to avoid problems, you must make sure everyone is aware of the reason, and the cost, both financially and timewise.”

Most of the rest said several times a week.

In addition, “Yards should be able to produce a weekly progress report for the captain and owners to better visualize project budgets and completion goals,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“A weekly, thorough report that outlines what happened that week, and what is scheduled to happen the following week,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “The report should directly budget the finances toward the following week and keep everyone informed on expenses and delays. The more thorough a report with expenses and what has happened can then be submitted to the insurance company or a surveyor to be incorporated into the value of the vessel.”

How about payment? Regardless of what the yard requires, do you prefer to pay as you go or to pay at the end?

Nearly three-quarters prefer to pay as a refit progresses, but not necessarily at the completion of phases or upon reaching benchmarks. Just one captain opted for that method.

We have fielded a lot of feedback over the years from captains who take issue with shipyard billing practices, so we asked How often is the bill higher than budgeted?

It is more likely to be higher than not, with 45 percent saying usually, a third more saying at least sometimes, and 14 percent saying every time. Add those together, and 92 percent of our responding captains say they expect the bill to be higher than accepted at the outset.

But that’s not necessarily a problem.

“There are always items that show up on refits that you do not see coming,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

If a bill is higher, what percentage is acceptable?

Two-thirds of our respondents said something less than 20 percent is acceptable.

“It is always acceptable, to some degree, unless there is evidence the yard was deliberate in the excess,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “I never had a budget. My task is get it done and ready by [a set date].”

“I allow for ‘discovery’, for instance, on a class survey refit, and clear it with the owner as we go,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “An experienced owner knows it will run over budget.”

“I require a 10 percent clause in the contract,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

Most of the rest said it depends.

“Depends on the refit and the extent of each project,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Some projects may open a can of worms and may just not be able to predict.”

“All depends on the work and the unknowns,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Depends on the reason,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Did we add? Did the job require more time and/or parts?”

“The percentage varies greatly due to geography,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “For example, in the U.S yards, pricing reliability is a thing of fantasy. In Northern Europe, they seem more adept to producing an accurate appraisal.”

“Depends on how much additional work is uncovered, so a set percent of invoice increase isn’t really relative,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“If we are talking about just things that were on the original list, then 10 percent,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “If you include things that were found and corrected that were not in the schedule, I have had 50-60 percent higher than what we planned. In the end, the job has to be done, and done right the first time.”

Many captains include an expected overage in their communications with the owner, making them aware that it’s coming.

“In my estimates, I build in a graph for the owner to see stating that overages go up proportionate to the age of the vessel,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “So a vessel less than 5 years old can expect up to a 10 percent overage as acceptable. A vessel over 25 years old can expect a 50 percent overage as things are taken apart and discoveries are made.”

One captain holds fast to the budget.

“If the bill is higher than budgeted (expected), no percentage is acceptable,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “It then comes down to negotiation, which is not necessarily a skill that the project manager has.”

Because things pop up when one begins to tear apart a yacht, we wondered Do you include less critical projects in your work list that can be eliminated so you can stay under budget and time?

Two-thirds of our respondents do not use this technique. The work list is an expected list of items to be completed.

“I always start with the most-potential-for-having-issues projects first,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Many times, several are under way at the same time. Priorities sometimes change daily.”

Still, about a third said doing so is a vital component to any work list.

That leads us to ask: Which is more important, the time schedule or the work schedule?

Fifty-eight percent said the work is more important, most likely as the cruising schedule is flexible.

“The work is more important,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Just like a cruising schedule, you should go with the weather as this is usually what dictates progress all around.”

“When you haul out, you want to get as much work done as possible so there is no haul out again until it’s time or you have to say ‘we should have fixed that when the yacht was hauled’,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“The owner’s schedule is, for sure, an important factor,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Not completing the tasks and leaving and having issues is not acceptable.”

“The caveat here is that the longer a yacht is in a yard, the more it costs, period,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “A well-organized refit is one that has a minimum amount of exposure to the yard, no matter what the work list includes.”

“We push to have deadlines met with a penalty rider,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 in yachting more than 15 years.

“You want to make sure you don’t have to go back into a yard soon after you have left because you put a schedule ahead,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “Tough call for a charter vessel, but not that critical on a privately owned vessel. If the schedule is that important, then get more contractors. A tight schedule equates to more headaches and more money.”

About 42 percent of captains placed a priority on the schedule for just that reason, to minimize yard expenses and keep with the cruising schedule.

“Time is money, and it’s very important to keep the owner’s asset available to them, so long as it’s seaworthy,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“With a busy charter yacht, it’s important to keep to a tight yard schedule,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

“The current boat is schedule-critical for the owner,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “The work still has to be done right, but more people may be needed to achieve desired results in the time frame.”

“We only go to the yard every two years, due to our schedule, so staying on schedule is a top priority,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I always schedule extra days in every phase when we block out yard time.”

“We organize the work well ahead of time and leave room for unforeseen problems,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “The owners don’t want their boats in the shipyard. They want to have them available for use.”

Of course, sometimes it depends.

“If the work is required, then it takes as long as it takes,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “If it’s fluff, the schedule is more important.”

“Your choices are too simplistic,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “If it comes down to a time crunch and there are major repairs that have not been completed, well, then, they have to be completed, despite the yacht’s schedule. If you have prioritized the important tasks and they got completed but minor ones can’t be because you’re out of time, well, then, you put the boat back in the water and meet the schedule.”

And finally, we asked What do you wish you had more control over in the refit process?

Almost every one of our 79 respondents offered their thoughts on this open-ended question, and it comes as no surprise that they want to have control over things like time and the weather. But they overwhelmingly wanted control over workers, both of the yard and of vendors, both their work ethic and their schedules.

“Workers hours on the yacht. I see lots of walking back and forth, forgotten tools, parts, etc.”

“Something none of us can control to any degree that helps: how others conduct themselves. If a subcontractor or the yard says they will be there in the morning or whenever, and they do not show up, I had better get a call beforehand letting me know. Schedules get changed all the time. Just let us know so we can make the best of it.”

“Dealing with workers directly.”

“Shipyard scheduling of its labor.”

“Better oversight of workers (yard and others), more control of time, less time off the boat for whatever reason.”

“Knowing hours worked by contractors on your repairs done off the yacht or off premises.”

“Bad contractors, which usually means those that start a job and then leave it to do other jobs, knowing they have you over a barrel with your stuff torn apart.”

“Holding vendors responsible for the contracts they agree to and their expected finish time.”

“I wish I could tighten subcontractors’ schedules.”

“Control over the yard crew. We all think we have the most important project going on, but to us it is. Communication is key.”

“How fast others work. Nobody ever cares as much as the guy in charge.”

“Subs that say they will be onboard and don’t show because they are still trying to finish the boat next to you.”

A few captains got creative.

“X-ray glasses to see what surprise is lurking behind that bulkhead or hiding in the overhead.”

“That I had a clone that could take my time off. You never can be away from a refit. Eat lunch at the yard and sleep aboard if you can.”

And one captain got a little crazy. What did he want to control? The boss.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com. We conduct monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t received an e-mail to take our surveys, e-mail lucy@the-triton.com to be included.

Photo by Mark O’Connell.

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One thought on “Triton Survey: Captains prefer control, offer tips for successful refits

  1. Nick Boksa, Boksa Marine Design

    This is a fantastic article. As a design and engineering firm working on various refit projects, we appreciate the insight from captains and crew…lots of good info here. We attended and exhibited at the Refit Show at the end of January…it was great to talk to captains there too. Their understanding of their yachts and what needs to be addressed during a refit is invaluable. Triton – thanks for putting this piece together.

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