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Refit Matters: Yacht paint reflects tradition beneath the surface

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Refit Matters: by Jon Wilson

Everyone knows yachts require exterior painting at regular intervals. But considering the immense resources required to direct each vessel through the work of renewing coatings above and below the waterline, it’s astonishing how subjective the standards for yacht refinishing remain. 

Coatings applications and applicators vary widely. The old adage “If it looks good, it is good” no longer applies, because these days, it all depends on how closely you’re looking, and what you’re looking with. The highly experienced naked eye is an instrument of truly extraordinary power, but we don’t all “see” in the same way. If ever there were a place in the refit industry where subjective interpretations will clash with expectations, it is in coatings. 

As industry veteran James Brewer of Derecktor Shipyards has recounted many times, it comes down to definitions. His recurring rhetorical question – “How shiny is shiny? How smooth is smooth?” – reminds us of the need for clarity in standards.

Obviously, if standards are to have any meaning at all, they have to be objectively measurable. And yet objective yacht coatings standards, which definitively exist, along with precise application specifications, are not applied consistently. Or is it that they’re not understood enough to be clearly delineated in the bid process? 

In South Florida alone, there are probably dozens of coatings contractors who will assure anyone willing to be persuaded that they can “do the job.” And yet, while there is no single recurring maintenance cost so critical to a vessel’s proper care that is more costly than this, that coatings standards still elude uniform implementation. 

Contracts worth sometimes millions of dollars are executed without clear definitions of the standards by which the delivered result will be measured. And contracts without clear definitions of standards leave owners with clear definitions of dissatisfaction.

The sight and sound of painting contractors inside the cocoons of tented yachts doing their messy and beautiful work is as common as can be. But what is it, exactly, that they’re doing in there, and by what standards are they measuring their results? The professionals skilled at the interminable blasting, sanding, fairing, re-fairing, sanding some more, and finishing are trained to get the job done on time and at the agreed-upon price, in an environment that is often as harsh as can be. Anyone would be forgiven for “leaving those details to the experts” who do this every day. But since applications and applicators can vary so greatly, the need for coatings consultants, aka “paint surveyors”, has been quietly growing for some time.

There are plenty of refit industry professionals, management companies and crew who haven’t heard much about paint surveyors. Or maybe, who haven’t heard enough “good” about what properly trained ones do. But it’s important to know that among the things they do is provide rigorously reliable specifications, and reliably objective measurements of coatings “coverage,” “gloss,” and what the professionals call “definition of image.” In other words, truly objective answers to “how shiny is shiny?” and “how smooth is smooth?”.

And that’s just for starters. Coatings consultants/paint surveyors can “see” things most of us cannot – at least not with consistency. And since coatings encompass realms far more critical to a yacht’s life than cosmetic appearance – think saltwater and rust – we should understand how what they do can directly affect the quality and durability of the huge investment in refinishing. 

But, as in any field, there are those who know what they’re doing and those who say they do, so Repair & Refit Report is initiating a larger conversation – starting with coatings consultant David Revay, whose work is known and respected by a number of refit project managers. It’s intended to help us better understand what science can bring to the artisans in our industry.

Obviously, we have to trust that refinishing contractors understand exactly how to achieve the specified objective results. This is where art meets science, and it’s where quality, reliability, and predictability converge for the full benefit of the yacht, her owner, and her crew. The investment is far too great to be left to subjectivity, and every reputable painting contractor should be willing and able to have its work exposed to the scrutiny of trained, independent experts. Perhaps understandably, not all painting contractors appreciate coatings consultants, and they’re seen by some as controversial. But if what matters is the quality and durability of the job for the yacht herself, isn’t that what we want?

Jon Wilson is editor of Repair & Refit Report (www.refitreport.com), a new online journal aimed at the repair and refit industry and other allied professionals. Comments are welcome below.

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