When most people think of yachting, they image the iconic images of Caribbean waters, medieval coastal towns and five-star private dinners.
A critical part of yachting that most of the world never sees is the shipyard, the annual maintenance and periodic refits that keeps the global fleet of yachts in service and safe.
This is the part captains know well and, some would argue, where they earn their reputations as managers of some of the most amazing assets on the planet.
Refits are a huge piece of yachting’s economic pie. As Professional Boatbuilder magazine organized its first Refit International Exhibition and Conference in late January, The Triton gathered a group of yacht captains to discuss their role in the refit of a yacht in front of a session audience.
The work of a refit begins months before a yacht even arrives at the yard, and it begins with the captain and crew running the vessel, according to one shipyard executive speaking at the conference. It’s the crew’s scope of work that shipyards rely on and that steers a refit. The success of a refit initially depends on how clear that scope of work is, and captains gathered at our roundtable discussion accept that responsibility.
“From day one when I join a boat, I write what I call a condition report, which ends up being my punch list,” one captain said. “This is how I found the boat, this is what’s wrong, this is what needs to be done. Then I get with the owner and say let’s make a plan to do it, whether that’s in a month or three years time. And that is an ongoing list forever.”
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one captain in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The eight attending captains are identified in a photographs.
“Planning for a refit starts months, or perhaps years, before you actually go,” another captain said. “You develop a list of things you know are wrong, or something that the owner wants doing, and then you figure it out as best you can before you approach the yard so you have a realistic understanding of what the scope of the work is going to be. And then, of course, you need to make sure you’ve got enough time and money set aside to do it.”
Shipyards don’t usually participate in creating the scope of work, these captains said.
“It’s definitely you, not the yard,” one captain said. “We all do this: We get on the boat and you start creating lists. I will look back on the most recent survey when the boat was sold to see what is on there that I’m still finding is an issue.”
At a previous conference session, a naval architect talked about the importance of technical drawings in planning a refit, and he bemoaned the fact that they often don’t exist.
“On smaller, production boats, the drawings you get are the drawings that they built for the production line, so what you could end up with is basic,” one captain said. “You start with that, and that’s usually what we do because if you’re looking for specific wires or a specific valve or pipe, you end up just tearing stuff apart.”
That’s the problem with creating a clear scope of work, though, isn’t it? You truly don’t know what’s behind the panels that need attention until you start pulling a boat apart.
“But it can’t be just your opinion of the owner’s tolerance for what that state of affairs could be,” a captain said. “You can’t approach the yard before you have total agreement from the owner. And that’s agreement about the time and the money.”
“Also, how old is the boat?” another captain said. “I did a refit on an older boat where I had just taken command recently and found out that a massive shell door in the hull had not been removed in well over two or three decades. Everything was completely rusted out and needed replacing. The cost of just that ended up being more than we thought we would spend in the whole shipyard period.
“Everyone’s angry, but as I said to the owner, I am responsible for this but basically the music stopped with all these owners, captains and chief engineers before me and I was the one left without a chair,” this captain continued. “You can beat me up if you want, but I’m trying to do the right thing after decades of neglect of something that’s extraordinarily important. The age of the boat needs to be considered.”
So how do you eliminate the whole can-of-worms thing?
“I think there’s a lot of experience involved,” one captain said. “Look at some of us who have been around a long time, getting grey here, we’ve seen stuff. So you know with boats of a certain age, there’s going to be more problems than you can see behind the walls. It comes down to a lot of experience. You know when you’ve got quotes for a certain job, that something else is going to come up. You’ve got to allow for that.”
“Part of that is the responsibility of the captain and project manager to have a fairly good open dialogue with the owner and the architect and the surveyor,” another captain said. “It’s not so bad with an older owner or an owner who’s had multiple boats because they know. It’s the new owner, a person who has this dream of owning a yacht …”
“… that costs nothing,” quipped a third.
“It’s our responsibility to tell them what could happen, so that they know that; they don’t like being blindsided,” the captain continued as others agreed.
It’s that unknown issue, that thing that blindsides, that creates the rub between a captain and a shipyard.
“Once that scope creep happens, we need time to have this further discussion with the owner,” a captain said. “It’s not necessarily on the timeframe of the yard; it has to be on the timeframe of the owner.”
We were curious how yacht captains put together the scope of work.
“It varies, depending on the boat and the owner,” a captain said. “If your vessel is compliant with flag, that drives a big part of the list. I’m on a recreational boat, not commercial, so I get to kind of do whatever I want. The nice part is I have an owner that’s very experienced who trusts me.
“My primary focus is for the boat to be safe and enjoyable for owner,” this captain said. “The more he and his family can use the boat, the more we can kind of secure our jobs as a crew. My main thing is let’s keep this boat in service, so no unforeseen downtime. … There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of the season and having something go down that you have to go to the shipyard for and they can’t use the boat. That can only happen so many times before they start wondering, Geez, we’re paying all this money for this thing we don’t use, let’s get rid of it.”
This captain generates a list of items for the planned 10-week maintenance period, which the owner reviews, long before the period begins. And having that list even a year ahead of time is pretty standard, these captains said.
“In your first couple of years on a boat when the owner is still getting to know you, he may stick his nose in that business a bit more often,” a captain said. “As he builds trust in you, when it comes time, you’ll just almost say in passing, here’s what we’re going to do in the yard next, is there anything you want to add to it? It’s almost that casual, because you’re keeping track of the boat, you know what it needs. And he trusts you.”
The key challenge these captains said they face when it comes to providing a detailed work list for a refit is information.
“I’ve stepped on boats that didn’t even have a logbook,” said on captain who does relief and interim work. “There’s no history on the boat, there’s no way to know what’s happened. I had one boat where the captain was on for seven years and there was 10 pages in a notebook.”
“That’s true,” another said.
“You have to figure out where to start, and safety and class are always the best place,” the first captain said.
One of the key details to work out before a yard period begins, these captains said, is to identify who is in charge. Most captains in a recent survey said they prefer to be in charge and that they are the single-most important person in the success of the refit. Our roundtable captains agreed.
“The main thing is to have somebody designated, a clear place for the shipyard to go and for the owner to go for answers,” one captain said. “Most of the time, it would be the captain, but we need vacations, too. In some cases, the engineer is the more important one to be in charge.”
“The person that should be in charge of a refit is the highest level person on scene,” another said. “If you’ve got a fantastic first officer and you haven’t had a vacation in two and a half years and you put that first officer in charge of the refit, then that’s who’s in charge. I do not agree with absentee management long term. It may work short term, but it will always fail long term.”
“Don’t expect the yard to be the responsible one,” said a third.
“We’re entrusting them to do all the work, and giving them a big sum of money, so maybe they should share responsibility,” another captain said. No other captains agreed.
“A project manager at the yard has multiple projects,” a captain said. “There has to be one person in charge who is looking after the owner’s interests.”
There also has to be one key person representing the shipyard, usually a yard project manager who can manage the departments and subs involved.
“The project manager at the yard can’t do their job efficiently and effectively unless everybody knows that that person is in charge,” a captain said. “You can’t go to the cabinet shop or another department without letting him know.”
Once the key people are identified, the next crucial factor is determining what level of communication is required. The assembled captains had a lot of thoughts about this.
“The most successful refit I did had a weekly meeting,” one captain began. “There was only one project manager for the yard, but at that weekly meeting, whatever the scope of work was for the week, that department attended, so there was somebody who was more responsible for the actual work that was going to be accomplished that week also in on that meeting.
“That made a huge difference in clarity in making sure that everybody knew what was expected and what was going to happen that week,” this captain said.
“Regardless how you handle this, it’s how it’s all set up up front,” a captain said. “The most important thing is coming in prepared, establishing how the project is going to be managed. For me, if I go to a full-service shipyard, I expect there to be somebody there who is going to be ultimately responsible for the project, the project manager. And if something goes wrong, or if something is not going properly, or I’m waiting on someone to come to the boat and they’re not there, I want to be able to pick up the phone and call that project manager and have them address it and fix it immediately, or explain why that’s not happening.”
“And I think full-service yards are used to that,” another said.
“It’s all very well to have project managers, it’s all very well to make people responsible, but at the end of the day, in the owner’s eyes, the captain is responsible,” said a third. “It doesn’t matter what the captain’s done, if it’s not right, the captain is to blame at the end of the day.”
There was some discussion about who should interact with subs, and these captains conceded that the yard should handle their people.
“If they’re organizing the billing, they’re organizing the hiring, they’re dictating who the subcontractor list is going to be, you have to make them responsible for their selections,” one captain said.
And when the topic of minimizing change orders came up, the captains said the best way to handle them is through communication.
“When you see issues come up, you’ve got to communicate it and be realistic about everything that you’re doing, right from when you’re creating the punch list and prioritizing it,” a captain said. “You have to be realistic about your timeline, you have to communicate that realistic aspect to the shipyard when you get there and go through it with them, what your expectations are, what your crew can do, what you’re expecting the yard to do. The communication has to be constant, as well as communication with the owner.”
“I try to take lots of pictures and send a report once a month, or once every couple of weeks depending on the length of the refit,” another captain said. “Generally speaking, we’re their managers and they’ve entrusted us to hire crew, manage crew, and look after their toy.”
Other captains said their owners expected an update more frequently, some even daily.
“I make a point of never calling the owner,” one captain said to laughs. “The owner has called four times in the past week because he wants to go fishing, not because of the refit. My previous owner, I’d be lucky to speak to him once a month. The way I saw it, he employed me to run his boat. If I had to call him to ask how to run his boat, I wasn’t doing my job.”
But regular communication among the professionals charged with completing the yard period is vital.
“The most important communication is between whoever is in charge on the owner’s end and whoever is in charge from the shipyard,” one captain said. “But it’s not just the good communication, the conversation at the beginning of the day. It’s also the difficult conversation that you have. Look, we’re going to spend millions on this. I’m assuming you are an expert in your field as a project manager of this shipyard. You can assume I am an expert in being a captain of a yacht. But during this process, we’ve never worked together before. We’re going to have difficulties and we need to be able to communicate those difficulties. And you have to accept criticism as well. Do not throw your defensive wall up because the happiness of the owner and the success of the shipyard are the two things we need to get out of this. You and I have to be mature and handle the criticism communication that’s going to occur.”
The best way to handle that communication — even the sticky kind — is to have regular meetings. The assembled captains prefered daily meetings with the yard project manager, at a minimum.
“I was on a project and found out the shipyard allocated to the project manager of our boat one hour per week,” one captain said as another whistled his disbelief. “That’s all he was allowed to spend communicating with me. That was an utter failure. I would suggest you ask them in the contract how many hours a week are you allowed to spend with me.”
“I want the project manager on the boat daily with me,” another captain said. “I don’t want to go to an office and meet them; I want them to meet me on the boat and walk around.”
Even communication isn’t enough. The assembled captains pointed out that managing expectations — and having realistic expectations to begin with — were even more important.
“We get these lists generated, and we come up with an idea of what we’re going to do,” one captain began. “But then, probably three months before we attempt to do it, I’m already talking to the yards and sharing my lists with them and saying ‘this is what I’m thinking, this is how much time I’m planning, this is how much money I think it’s going to cost. Do you agree?’ I try and involve the facilities so that by the time we arrive, they’ve already got some things organized, they already understand the scope.”
“It’s about being realistic in your expectation, being realistic with the time schedule and making sure there’s cash flow,” another captain said about the success of a refit.
There are parts of a refit that captains manage well, and aspects that shipyards manage well, and the captains were happy to give each side its credit.
“We manage the asset,” one captain said. “We’re asset managers as opposed to captains, especially during a refit period. What is a captain? It’s a title used for so many things when a captain really drives a boat, but that’s such a small percentage of our job.”
“And we’re good at understanding the owner,” said another. “That’s something the yard can’t hope to do.”
When something goes wrong and the yard tries to minimize it by saying “it’s just…”, this captain said that won’t fly with most owners.
Again, it’s part of the rub,” this captain said. “It’s not <<ITAL>>just<<ITAL>> anything to us. When things get out of scope, we understand the reaction the owner may have, and the information the owner may need to understand that.”
“We know the owner better than the yard does,” another captain said. “It’s really important for me to communicate to the yard what the owner wants. My boss now wants high quality. He doesn’t mind paying for it; He wants a fair price, but he wants quality work. Previous owners I’ve worked for wanted it fast and cheap so they could get back on the boat.
“Yards have to adapt to different customers, and different customers want different things,” this captain said. “I think that’s the hard part about being a full-service shipyard. It’s our responsibility to very carefully explain what we want ultimately out of the yard.”
Shipyards are best at managing their own people, and the captains are happy to let them do that.
“I expect the shipyard project manager to be an extremely effective communicator with their end of all the people,” a captain said. “I’ll handle all my end and where we see problems, we’ve got to bring them up. If they don’t know how to communicate, send the e-mails, the texts, have the meetings, then it’s all going to fall apart.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.