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Refit Matters: New traditions evolve from refit challenges

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Refit Matters: by Jon Wilson

The great traditions of the maritime industry have flourished for good reason. Starting with the most fundamental one – the navigational rules of the road – we can be grateful for the elegant ways in which traditions have developed through hard-earned experience in real-world situations, obviously including maritime collisions of tragic dimension. They have given us protocols and procedures for navigating and maneuvering in all types of situations. And when everyone knows and abides by those rules, maritime navigation is relatively safe, relatively predictable, and largely uneventful. 

But principles of design and construction have become established in similar ways over decades – centuries, in fact – because designers and builders learned from their mistakes, or built upon their successes. Good ideas were shared – or adapted – by others striving for better solutions to age-old challenges, and the world of yachting has benefited tremendously from this ongoing evolution and exchange. It’s not only that necessity is the mother of invention. Imagination itself, and that almost-primal urge to improve upon existing solutions, drives innovation in ways that are exciting and inspiring.

The same can be said about every aspect of traditional shipboard practice, and it should also apply to the business of major yacht refits. And while there are many deeply experienced refit shipyards that achieve astonishing results for owners on time and within situational budget parameters, there are other projects that seem to turn into something else altogether. 

So why do certain refit projects go – whether mildly or wildly – so out of control in those ways that they do? What are the common-denominator factors engendering the chaos that can sometimes descend upon certain projects, turning them into shocking and sometimes outrageous stories? And notwithstanding how great it is that there are specialists who are fully competent to come in to a project in trouble and “turn it around,” it’s still an avoidable tragedy and outrage that there’s a need for these specialists in the first place. 

The damage done to the refit industry by what amounts to malpractice is working against the shipyards, technicians and trades that bring legitimate experience, excellence, integrity – and perhaps most important – innovation to their endeavors. How do we mix innovation with tradition?

An example worth sharing recently came to our attention. We’re all familiar with the application of “soft” panels on certain overhead and bulkhead surfaces, where traditional hard-panel construction can bring increased weight, high acoustic resonance, and issues of limited access to hidden systems.

Innovations in soft panels have offered attractive solutions, but access issues have continued to challenge crew faced with trying to detect and resolve hidden problems. Fort Lauderdale-based yacht craftsman Wil Fisher found a solution. As he writes for Repair & Refit Report this month, “Hayfu II is an 82-foot luxury catamaran motor yacht. She’s very well built, inside and out, but certain systems and structures have begun to age. Because a water leak had developed somewhere in the overhead and was staining the Whisper Walls fabric system installed to save weight, the crew called me in to create an access point in one of the walls.

“I began by trying to gain access through the overhead panels, but I found to my surprise that the crew was virtually “locked out” of their own overhead spaces. All the electrical runs, plumbing, piping, and all visual access to the structure itself – including hidden sources of leaks, for example – was out of their reach, except at tremendous inconvenience and work, not to mention risk of possible damage by crew members inexperienced with that system.

“I offered what I thought was a simpler and more sustainable solution. We could replace the Whisper Wall system with separate, individually wrapped panels, and use the Fastmount hardware and panel-mounting system instead. The owner and crew agreed to try it in the main salon and one guest cabin, but only one week into the project the crew, having seen the obvious benefits, asked me to fit out the entire yacht with the system.

“They could see that one person, even one with no experience in panel removal and replacement, could have complete access to every previously inaccessible space, nook and cranny throughout. And because every panel now has a hidden access point that doesn’t impinge on its beauty or aesthetic look, the panels can be easily removed. To the untrained eye it’s simply a ceiling. In addition, the new panels actually serve to dampen noise better than fabric alone.”

Innovation is happening all around us. We just have to pay attention, and encourage it whenever we can. It’s how traditions evolve.

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 on this column are welcome below.

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