For a price, a mechanic will winterize your engine for you or change fluids. Working on boats is messy. There are toxic chemicals for every application. The working conditions in most engine rooms are akin to torture, and no project ever goes as smoothly as you would like. The learning curve on most boat projects is so steep that by the time you figure it out, you have likely spent as much on materials and specialty tools as hiring someone to do the job for you.
And still, I am here to sing the praises of hauling your boat to a do-it-yourself yard where you can scrape, sand, paint, and wrench on your boat yourself. Even if it doesn’t end up saving you money, working in a boatyard for a few days can teach you a lot about your boat, give you more confidence while on the water, and give you the increasingly rare opportunity to work with and hang around craftsmen and like-minded boaters.
I had the rare opportunity to refit a boat on my own. We bought a derelict 1979 Cape Dory 27 for next to nothing and over the course of three years I stripped out every wire, pipe, tank, and fixture. I pulled the old single cylinder Yanmar and sold it for a few bucks. I then designed and reinstalled new electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems. We dropped a new engine in. I repainted the faded decks and topsides. Old through hull fittings were removed and replaced. I sealed and repainted the bottom. It was a process full of mistakes (like ordering the wrong length of exhaust hose despite measuring four times) and revelations (the new engine, for example, didn’t fit through the companionway).
After three years, Peponi was splashed, and for the few years we sailed her, it was with total confidence. I knew every inch of that boat. I knew where every wire was, and I was confident I could fix, repair, or replace anything that needed fixing. If you truly want to understand boat wiring, there is no better classroom than your own boat, a good book, and some wire.
Even if all you are doing is new bottom paint, there is much to be learned by doing the job yourself. The seemingly easy task of buying paint becomes a learning experience of its own. Which paints are compatible with what is already on your boat? Which paint will give you the best performance in your marina or cruising ground? When the boat goes back into the water, you will know exactly how well the paint is applied, what condition your anodes are in, whether anything needs to be repaired, and, importantly, what type of paint is on the bottom. Now the next time you haul out you will know exactly what paint to buy.
But aside from the personal knowledge of your boat’s systems and the satisfaction and security of having done the job yourself, the very best part of working on your own boat is dipping your toes into the world of the professionals, the craftsmen, and the old salts who populate the boatyard.
Going back even further from my three-year refit of Peponi, my girlfriend and I pulled into the fuel dock in Port Townsend on my old O’Day sloop. As we came alongside the dock, I shifted into reverse only to hear the cable break. The boat was stuck in reverse, and we were stuck in Port Townsend. I went in search of a mechanic. All the shops were booked for weeks out. As I walked out of the last repair shop, the woman behind the counter told me there might be a guy. “He doesn’t have a shop, but he works out of his van. You can usually find him over by the marina office.”
And that is where I found him. Looking something like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, he became forever known to us as the White-Haired Mechanical Genius. He also turned out to be the kind of generous, helpful person you meet in boatyards.
He came onboard, confirmed my diagnosis, and started pulling things apart in the cockpit. He enlisted my help and in an hour or so we had the old broken cable removed. It was the first real mechanical work I had done on that boat, and the relatively simple task of removing a broken shift cable taught me a lot about how the boat was set up. We scoured the local shops for a replacement cable. No dice. It was Saturday. Our trip to the San Juans was off. The White-Haired Mechanical Genius said we’d have to wait until Monday to order a new part.
Frustrated, we left the boat at the fuel dock and walked into town for lunch. When we returned, there was a new Morse cable, still in the box, just sitting in the cockpit. Our white-haired friend was nowhere to be seen.
Later that evening, his yellow panel van rattled up to the head of the dock. He walked down, saw the cable still in the box, and furrowed his brow. “I figured you’d be anxious to get going. Thought you’d have this repaired by now.”
I had no idea how to repair it and was not anxious to try, and then fail, to fix it. He just sighed, climbed onboard, and as far as I was concerned, replaced the cable with a little help from me. In retrospect, it is clear that I replaced the cable with his coaching. When we needed a bolt, he sent me to the store. When we needed a wrench that I didn’t have onboard, he sent me to the store. By the end of the day, we were up and running. By conservative estimate, the White-Haired Mechanical Genius spent eight hours working with me or on my behalf. He found the part we needed and taught me to install it. He helped me fix a couple other things we found as we worked.
As we prepared to leave, we tried to settle up with him. After some back and forth and some insistence from my girlfriend, he finally relented and accepted $100 for his time even though he was reluctant to take even that. He was content to work on a boat and to help somebody learn about his boat. The only thing that makes this story better is that when I went back a year later to visit him, he had vanished. His ramshackle shop was gone and there was no evidence of his yellow panel van. It’s like he was never real in the first place.
These are the kinds of people you meet and discover when you are at a true boatyard. Port Townsend is among the best in the Northwest, in part because it is populated with old salts and true craftsmen who have been doing this work forever. There are also dozens of boat owners who are refitting and repairing their boats. These men and women are quick to loan a tool or an extra set of hands. If you are struggling with a problem with your hydraulics, it is a sure bet that someone else around you has dealt with the same thing. Instead of looking up your boat’s symptoms online (which is seldom helpful), if you ask around the boatyard you are sure to find someone who has an answer for you. Boatyards are truly one of my favorite communities to hang around.
This summer was the first haul-out for our new boat. It was supposed to be a simple one-day project: haul, wash, install a new transducer, paint, and splash.
The haul and wash went well. The transducer install was not as straightforward as we had hoped. To get to the hull from the inside of the engine room, I had to remove two 4D batteries and three floor panels. To bolt the transducer in place required a wrench we didn’t have, and when we did borrow one, it took an hour of quarter turns and help from a boat owner nearby to get everything snug. The upside is that I now had experience removing and replacing the house batteries, and I knew what it took to get to the hull in the engine room. I now know where the transducer cable is run. On the next project, I’ll learn a little more.
While we waited for sealant to cure and started in on the bottom paint, a young man working on a boat near us walked up to me, cigarette wedged into the corner of his mouth. Our boat had the common yellow staining on the bow and along the water line in a few places. The prospect of buffing it out and polishing the hull was daunting, and we didn’t really have time anyway.
“Hey,” he said. “You see these yellow stains? Watch this.”
He took a spray bottle out of a bucket, sprayed a little on the hull, and wiped it off with a rag. Gone. He found another spot of yellow. Spray, wipe. Gone. I had been online the night before reading about how to get these stains off the old hull, and all I got was different versions of the same advice: running compound and hard labor.
This young man was proud of his work and his knowledge, as he should be. He, like most everyone I’ve ever met in a boatyard, was eager and willing to share his expertise and loan his tools and equipment. He talked with us as he just kept spraying and wiping. Before long, most of the bow was pure white again.
“What is that stuff?” I asked.
He laughed as he walked away. “It’s a secret.”
Ten minutes later he came back with his business card. On the back, he had written the name of the product. Before we splashed the boat, I walked over to the store and bought a six- pack for him and his workmates. Boatyard currency.
Unfortunately, the days of working on your own boat might be coming to an end before long. Because most products we use on boats are so toxic, marinas and boatyards are becoming more and more the realm of the professional contractor. Liability is high, and environmental impact is a real concern. Many yards, such as Marine Service Center and CSR Marine, stopped letting owners work on their own hulls years ago. A few, such as Port Townsend, Everett, and Edmonds still allow do-it-yourself owners to paint, but there might come a time when the environmental liability is simply too high. You can help by making sure to follow the rules.
Even yards that let owners work on their own boats necessarily implement such strict environmental impact rules that it can become cost-prohibitive to do a one-off job on your own boat. I still argue that it is worth it. Finding a self-service yard or hauling your boat to your own property to do a refit or a paint job is immensely satisfying.
There are very few jobs onboard that an average boat owner can’t do. A little research, some trial and error, and a bit of mechanical aptitude, and you can fix or install most anything yourself. You will learn more about your boat in one weekend of work than in years of cruising.