By Dave Ferrell
There’s no getting around it…boats cost a lot of money to operate and maintain. Keeping a large sportfisher, or even a small charter boat, up and running through an entire season is akin to walking a tight rope; where any little slip can cost thousands of dollars in repairs and lost fishing time spent in the yard. Some of these nagging problems can’t be avoided. All boats eventually experience issues of one kind or another and the more sophisticated and advanced the systems onboard, the more likely you are going to run into trouble if you aren’t staying on top of things. But let’s face it, even the best captains can’t keep a boat from breaking down.
No matter how much maintenance you do, or how many checklists you keep current, a boat can humble even the most organized and buttoned-down skipper.
With all that said, sometimes an owner or captain will try to stretch their repair or maintenance budgets to the max, hoping to save a few extra dollars. As much as an unforeseen breakdown costs, a breakdown that occurs because of a problem that you chose to try and fix yourself, or just put off for another day, hurts twice as much…and can cost more than triple the original repair cost. On land, frugality is a noble trait. At sea, being cheap can cost a lot more than just money.
Money Well Spent
Nobody knows the pain of boat maintenance and breakdown issues more than the owner/operator of a charter boat. Every dollar that goes out is money out of his pocket. Every day his boat sits at the dock is another day with no pay. Capt. Ray Rosher owns the very successful Miss Britt charter boat fleet down in Miami and his three boats fish a lot more days than most. Rosher grew up around boats and had been fishing full-time since 1979, so he knows a thing or two about keeping a boat up and running.
Even with all his experience, he’s not above Murphy’s law and has felt the sting of making the wrong decision to save a few bucks. “I hate to say it,” says Rosher, “but just recently I made a call that ended up costing me a lot of money. I needed to have an engine rebuilt and instead of having the manufacturer come in and oversee the rebuild, I hired a less-expensive technician. After a couple of weeks of running, the engine blew up.”
Consequently, Rosher was out the cost of the original rebuild, the days lost on that build, the cost of a new rebuild and the lost days on that repair.
“Here’s what I tell my guys. If you do something wrong, you end up spending at least three times the money to fix it. You do it, un-do it and then do it again the right way. Also, when you rush a job, or don’t take the time to do the necessary planning and prep, you are going to triple your work and your cost. That’s the rule…and it applies to paint jobs, electrical, mechanical issues, everything,” Rosher describes.
Captains tend to be an independent bunch and many like to try to do things themselves to save a few dollars. But not all skill sets come easy to everyone and knowing your own limitations—and those of your crew – can save you money in the long run. “I usually do most of the painting on my boats,” says Rosher. “But this year I’m taking the boat down to the original builder to have him paint it. He has the proper facilities and he can do it much better and much faster. I could do it, but I’d be fighting the elements since I don’t have an enclosed paint booth.
The best way to make it rain is to open a can of paint. I just can’t afford to be off the water waiting for the skies to clear.” “You have to be able to say this project might be a little beyond my skill set. If you were going to ask me to rebuild your MAN engines, that’s not me. I can do a Caterpillar, but not a MAN.”
When I asked Capt. John Bayliss, the longtime Carolina captain and owner of Bayliss Boatworks in Wanchese, North Carolina, about owners who pinch pennies in yard only to lose out in the long run, all he could do was laugh. “Oh man, it happens every day around here.”
A big game boat is an incredibly complicated piece of equipment and there are literally hundreds of items that require maintenance and repairs. However, even something as seemingly inconsequential as a rub rail or sheer guard can be an expensive pain the butt if not maintained or repaired correctly.
“Some of the older wooden boats have wooden sheer guards made of fir. Fir guards can rot when water tracks down the screws. We like to replace the rotted guards with a teak guard that won’t rot or one made from fiberglass. When I give people the estimate for tearing out the rotten guards and replacing them, most of the time I’ll hear that that’s too much and just go ahead and replace it with the original fir. Six months later, the same thing happens again. Now, with the cost of two repairs, he has enough money in it, that he could have done it once the right way and avoided all of the down time as well.”
“There’s just instance after instance of that sort of thing,” says Bayliss. “Another prime example is paint jobs. We will haul out a boat and find that the hull needs to be faired off – it’s got ten years of paint on it or something. The customer, in order to save a few thousand, will insist that we paint over the bad bottom paint. That’s not a good idea.
You need to blow it all off and start over with a new, more efficient ablative paint. If we don’t, then next year that paint is going to start coming off in chunks. It gets to the point where we will refuse to paint a boat unless we can fair the hull as needed.”
One way to make sure that you don’t end up paying two or three times to finish one job is to make a list of items that need to be done and then prioritize to your budget. “If you come to me with a limited budget and a ten-item list, I’ll try to take care of two or three of the items the right way, instead of doing all ten with eight of the ten done halfassed.
If you try to do things just a bit cheaper it will always come back to bite you. If you go with a cheap bronze tiller arm or trim tabs that just barely good enough instead of being overbuilt and engineered to the size of boat you have and for what you are doing with it, then you are going to have problems in the future. Another prime example of letting things go is cracked shafts. Sometimes we’ll fi nd a tiny crack and the owner will decide to go ahead and put the wheel back on and try to get another year out of it. If the crack gets so bad that you lose a prop, you now have to pay for another shaft, a prop and the downtime.”
Bayliss says even the type of shafts you choose when you build your boat – splined or tapered – can keep you fishing longer over time. “Splined shafts may cost a few extra thousand dollars,” he says, “but they make taking the wheels on and off much easier and you virtually eliminate a lot of your shaft problems.” One incident with your tapered shafts and all the savings are gone.
The concept and cost of “downtime” should never be ignored, especially if you are running a charter operation. Time in the yard means less time on the fishing grounds and instead of being paid to fish you are paying someone else to do repairs that could have been avoided. By the same token, doing things, like replacing wood with fiberglass, go a long way in avoiding downtime due to maintenance. “Installing a good oil change system can save my crew two or three hours on an oil change. I’d much rather have the crew taking care of the guests and making sure our fishing program is running smoothly with those hours,” says Bayliss.
Another lesson that Bayliss learned long ago as a charter captain was to not scrimp on his electronics. “When I was fishing, NorthStar was the standard. I thought I could make it with the cheaper [at that time] Sitex units. Unfortunately, I’d find myself replacing those less expensive units every two years or so. When I finally won a tournament, and got a little money, I changed over to the higher grade NorthStar units and I ended up using them for the next 15 years. It always seems to pay off to get the good stuff up front.”
Plan for the Worst
Having a plan and executing a proper maintenance schedule goes a long way in mitigating some of the headaches involved with running a sportfisher. Capt. Tim Richardson runs a two-boat charter program that has him spending half the year in the Dominican Republic on one boat, and half the year on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. To say that Richardson faces some logistical challenges in running these operations is a huge understatement.
“I’m a two-boat charter operator so I know all about spending money,” says Richardson. “I think a lot of people tend to cut corners when maintaining their boats, and it’s a lot easier to do when it’s your own money you are trying to save. But I learned a long time ago to buy the best I can buy the first time. That rule goes for everything from power tools to my rods and reels.”
Richardson is quick to point out, however, that sometimes you have to do what you have to do to finish out a season. “After a while you get a good idea of when it’s time to fix something or just get a new one. Let’s say I have a freezer that’s starting to act up. Most of these things last about 10 years tops.
Do I spend the money and downtime to get someone in to fix the freezer or just jerk it out and put a new one in for 1,600 bucks? I’m jerking it out. A cooler of bait costs more than $1,600. And now I don’t have to worry about checking the thing every hour or so from the tower! Hey, is that freezer still working!”
Another trick that Richardson uses to avoid costly repairs and long downtimes is to stockpile hard-to-get engine parts. “I stockpile an entire pallet full of engine parts at my mechanic’s shop…even pistons. This way I pay $500 a piece for them wholesale instead of $5,000 a piece in an emergency. And I never worry about having to wait for the parts…I know they are there all the time. This can cut your repair time from four months to four days! If I lose three months in Australia waiting for parts the whole season is shot. Stockpiling can save an entire season’s worth of already spent deposits!”
And Finally—and Most Importantly
I’m saving the most important point for last, in the hope that it will stick with you just a little bit more than the rest. Never scrimp on the installation, repair and maintenance of your safety items. Life rafts, EPIRBS, life jackets and fire extinguishers should be checked, repaired and replaced regularly. Fishing is supposed to be fun, keeping it safe makes it even more so!