How to Plan Boat Repairs on a Limited Budget

An easy to understand guide for prioritizing your boat's repairs, maintenance, and upgrades with limited funds.

An easy to understand guide for prioritizing your boat's repairs, maintenance, and upgrades with limited funds.

Over 30 years, I have owned boats of all sizes. For the first decade or so of boat ownership, my cold weather plan consisted of winterizing the engine and putting a tarp over the boat. On a warm day in late March, I’d remove the cover and figure out what needed to be fixed or improved. At that point, when marine services were at their busiest, I ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, looking fruitlessly for someone to do whatever I needed done.

Make A Boat Repair Plan

By the time I moved up to a 19-foot Mako, I had figured out a smoother process. I spent the last few weeks of the waning fall season to assess the state of the boat and create a punch list of fixes and improvements. I then worked with a marine service in November to get the work estimated and scheduled so my boat would be ready in late March.

As I moved to larger boats in the last twenty years, both the punch list and the estimated cost grew larger, and the timing issue became compounded. Completing a punch list early meant the work was done in January and February when business was slow in a boatyard, while a list delayed until late winter meant the work hit the April labor crunch and I was lucky to launch by May.

Your punch list can be a simple list like this or a detailed Excel spreadsheet.
Your punch list can be a simple list like this or a detailed Excel spreadsheet.

Whether you are a do-it-yourself boat owner or use a mobile marine service or boatyard, you need a process to assess the state of your boat and prioritize what work needs to be done. I started this year’s list in mid-September while I was still boating and fishing almost every day. Experience has taught me that if I write something down while I am using the boat, I have a far better chance of remembering it than if I wait until the boat is out of the water.

Prioritize Boat Repairs Based On Your Budget

I start by jotting down a series of bulleted items, then, as the list grows, I prioritize items by importance and cost. For example, I want brand-new electronics, but with the old ones still fully functional, that’s a lower priority than addressing a slow leak in my power steering. Also, when I look at the cost of replacing a full suite of electronics, I have to ask if it’s the best use of my money this winter.

I admit to almost 40 years in technology and a lot of experience with budgets and spreadsheets. As my boats got more complex and winter work lists got more detailed and expensive, I started to move from a simple bullet list to a table that included cost and time for each item. The table was better than a list, but after a couple of years of that approach, I moved to my current spreadsheet model. (A “discussion” column with details of each line item is not included here for space reasons; its purpose is for my thoughts and understanding of how the work needs to be done.)

As I type my list into a spreadsheet, I add a priority for each item and sort the spreadsheet based on that. Priority 1 items absolutely must get done, since engine maintenance and major repairs like stabilizing my keel are not optional. Priority 2 items are work I want to get done within the constraints of my winter budget, such as addressing a leaking mast and light. Priority 3 items are desires, the things I want to address but are by no means critical. These items can be cut from the list or turned into do-it-myself projects.

Zinc replacements are a must every year.
Zinc replacements are a must every year.

Every boat owner quickly becomes aware of the fact that properly maintaining a boat is an expensive proposition and that not maintaining a boat properly is an even more expensive proposition. My personal estimate, which has stood the test of time, is that the total annual cost of boat ownership, including slip and dockage, fuel, winter storage, and “normal” maintenance, is roughly 10% the cost of a new boat. Maintenance alone is roughly 5% of the coast of a new boat, and this doesn’t include big-ticket items like major engine work or new electronics.

In my case, my 36-foot, well-equipped Downeast would probably cost $400,000 to $500,000 to build and equip today. With that in mind, my winter budget is $25,000. There are years I have gone well over and years I have been well under, but I use this guideline to help me prioritize and plan the work.

I used to ask for winter estimates for all work and eventually got back a series of numbers at the last minute, just as the work was starting. Rarely did a bill come in at or below the estimate and, in more than a few cases, actual repairs were double the estimate. I have learned through many bad experiences to be my own estimator by researching the cost of components, applying my own experiences to estimate the amount of labor, and adding the “Murphy was an optimist” multiplier.

Check and double-check wires for rust, wear, and tear.
Check and double-check wires for rust, wear, and tear.

The cost of parts is fixed, but labor costs are variable. At $100 per hour, labor costs can quickly overrun a winter budget. While it might only take one hour to replace a macerator pump in a perfect environment, if that pump is deep in a bilge area tucked away behind a fish box, it might take a half-day of labor. I had a generator issue this summer that turned out to be a $33 armature brush needing replacement. The total bill was over $500! The technician said it was a 15-minute fix on a bench, but in my engine room, removing the shield at the front of the generator just to access the faulty brush took two brutal hours of effort.

I still ask for quotes on major work, but I start my winter work process with my own estimates. These help me order and prioritize the work and keep me close to my winter budget. As part of gathering the estimates, I’ll spend 30 minutes on a windy fall afternoon going through my punch list on the boat with the boatyard staff so we are in full understanding of both my expectations for work and their plan on how to accomplish it. Years back, I made the mistake of telling another yard to “remove the fish box overflow drain.” To my great frustration, I checked on the boat one winter afternoon to find they had instead removed the fish box gutter drain, leaving me to discover a 100-gallon ice cube in that fish box!

Another benefit of reviewing the work plan is that two pairs of eyes see more than one. When talking through a deck hatch repair planned for the winter, the mechanic noticed rusted hose clamps on one of the pieces of my exhaust. The result was another work item to replace every 10-year old hose clamp in my exhaust system proactively before I have a problem on the water. I am always happy to spend money on needed winter repairs before they turn into exponentially more expensive summer emergency repairs.

Winter is a great time to clean and inspect every system on your boat.
Winter is a great time to clean and inspect every system on your boat.

Some marinas and boatyards are full-service shops and insist on all work being done by their employees. Others will subcontract out specific parts of a list to experts and manage the repair for you. Finally, some boatyards allow you to do some of your own work as well as manage your own subcontractor. It’s very important to understand your yard’s rules and communicate with them (and any potential subcontractor) before any work starts. As part of my spreadsheet, I track those dependencies. My yard manages the subcontractors but keeps me in the loop in terms of the scope of the work.

I also do some work myself within my yard’s storage and maintenance contract. Every winter, I spend a couple of days replacing and simplifying wiring, with full approval from the boatyard. I also add or replace simple things while the boat is on blocks. Bilge pump and float-switch replacement, turning my deck hose into a crash pump with a 3-way valve, and adding a second battery charger are all work I can do myself. I don’t touch my engine or other mechanicals and I don’t do structural work, but I save thousands of dollars in labor each winter by doing peripheral work myself.

Set Your Launch Date Early

In addition to being my own estimator, I have learned to be my own project manager. For instance, last winter when I had my hull sodablasted, the 50-to-60 hours of labor to blast it, patch blisters, and paint the bottom probably took close to two months of calendar time because many of the steps along the way needed an hour of work and a day of drying or curing time. My marina did a great job of making a production line in their shed, processing five boats over the winter, with mine as the second in line. They were aware of my Apr. 1 launch date and started my bottom work in early February to meet it. The success of the project and an on-time launch was due to great work at the marina and to me having a plan and communicating it back in November. Had I waited until January to discuss the work, I would have been lucky to launch in May.

When the boat is dry-docked, it is a perfect time to have your hull patched and repainted.
When the boat is dry-docked, it is a perfect time to have your hull patched and repainted.

I also try to get as much work done as possible in the early part of the winter while the weather is warmer. For example, I cleaned, wire-brushed, sanded, and repainted my bilge in early December during a stretch of warm 50-degree days. I was then able to fabricate and epoxy-in starboard mounts for my bilge pumps while it was warm enough for the epoxy to kick. Had I waited until March to start that project, I would have been hard-pressed to find three days in a row warm enough to get the work done.

Three years ago, I had all four of my engine coolers removed from the boat and sent to a Cummins expert in California for cleaning. Pulling the coolers off the engine and packaging them for shipment is two days of work; likewise, putting them back on is a few days of work. However, due to the corrosion within my heat exchanger and aftercooler, cleaning and reassembling those components was a 1-month process. Thankfully, I had the coolers off and shipped before Christmas and they arrived back clean and perfectly rebuilt in mid-February, with ample time to spare before my Apr. 1 launch. In comparison, when I had the same type of work done on a previous boat 15 years ago, I didn’t launch much earlier than Memorial Day because I didn’t start the process until March. Planning makes a difference, especially when work involves multiple vendors.

Adapt to Your Boat’s Needs

Any great plan and budget may run into surprises with cost and time overruns. I’ve learned to be aware of “critical” versus “desired” work and to quickly jettison desired work when critical work has overruns. I really want to upgrade my 10-year-old electronics network this winter, but will tackle it in stages only when all my priority 1 and priority 2 work has been completed. Whether you like it or not, winter work is a key part of boat ownership. Embrace the process, make a plan, own the timeline and budget, and you will be a happier boater next spring.

This story was originally published in the New Jersey Edition of the January 2019 Angler’s Almanac Issue.

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