Anyone who thinks about investing in a boat bigger than a kayak should get out a calculator, take a deep breath, and tally up honest estimates of the recurring costs of registration, dockage, hauling and launching, winter storage, insurance, and maintenance. But that last item—maintenance—is a tricky one to figure, because it’s not a fixed amount determined by someone else; it will vary season to season and year to year, and it will depend very much on how willing and able you’ll be to work on your new investment.
Maintenance, of course, means not only cleaning things, lubricating things, and replacing parts on things that aren’t broken, but fixing things that are. And any boat owner who’s been in the game for more than a few months will tell you there’s a lot of it. There’s a strong argument (and I say it’s strong because I made it) that the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in boat ownership is enhanced by a willingness to Embrace the Hacksaw.
But there’s a counter argument that says, “I’m buying this boat to relax on, and I have no intention of spending every weekend busting my transom to keep it the way I want it. I’m planning to pay the pros to do that for me.”
Well, good on ya! But let’s just make sure you know what you’re getting into, more or less, no matter where you stand along the do-it-yourself spectrum.
Boatyard Labor Rates
Marine labor rates vary widely around the country and the world, as does the quality of work involved, and it shouldn’t be surprising that you don’t always get what you pay for. You might pay a skilled marine tradesman in the lower Chesapeake or the western Gulf Coast half of what a tradesman or his yard would charge for the same job on Nantucket, Eastern Long Island or San Diego, and you might get a better result to boot. But no matter where you are, you won’t find marine labor cheap. Expect a range of $70 to $140 per hour for skilled work (engine work, topsides painting and varnishing, electrical, refrigeration, etc.), and $40 to $80 or so for unskilled projects (pressure-washing, waxing, scraping, etc.). So where you plan to keep your boat will make a big difference in total dollars spent on maintenance, assuming you’re planning to pay someone else do so a portion of it.
While boatyard job estimates tend to be low, any good yard manager will make an honest attempt at quoting you a ballpark figure for a job based on Time + Materials (with a shop markup for materials) or, sometimes, with a fixed price per job, depending on the project and the experience of the yard in handling that job. See the project list on a 2015-2016 winter storage contract from a boatyard in Glen Cove, NY and the labor rates at a yard at the other end of Long Island for examples of chores and expenses.
A yard foreman who’s been in the business for 20 years will (or should) have a good idea of how much you’ll pay to have your topsides cleaned, compounded and waxed. That said, boats are complex objects, and even the pros are not immune to occasional task/time-warps that can turn a two-minute project into an afternoon of high-volume cussing. And that time will have to be paid for. For more on this phenomenon, see Lenny Rudow’s Project: Reality.
It’s obvious that the size of a boat has a bearing on maintenance: The bigger it is, the more expensive. But type matters, too, and so do layers of complexity in terms of systems and surface areas. A 30-foot wooden sailboat with a full keel and auxiliary diesel engine is going to cost more in the long run to maintain than a 30-foot center-console with twin or even triple outboards (although it will probably cost far less initially). The sailboat owner will have spars, rigging, and sails to contend with; an auxiliary engine and running gear; topsides, deck, and bottom that will need regular painting (a full-keel boat takes a lot of bottom paint); plus freshwater, electrical, and sanitation systems to maintain. The expensive center-console, on the other hand, will need to be cleaned and waxed. If it lives in a slip at a dock it will need bottom paint (but less than the sailboat); if it lives on a trailer or on a lift and just splashes around for a few hours at a time, it may not need any bottom paint at all. The outboards will need flushing and periodic maintenance, including oil changes if they’re four-strokes. While routine maintenance on modern outboards can be tackled by a moderately handy boatowner, many owners just trailer their boats to their local dealers or service pros, or pay the pros to make house calls for end-of-season servicing. If the boat has a plumbed-through head and holding tank instead of a porta-potty, and a plumbed freshwater supply, those things will take it back up the complexity scale.
So, no matter what type of boat you’re shopping for—power or sail; bowrider, express cruiser or center-console; outboard- or inboard-powered; trailer-borne or TraveLift-launched—bear in mind that differences in configuration will make differences in your maintenance budget.
A Note on Budgeting for Materials
There are some maintenance supplies sold at boating stores that can’t be found elsewhere, like bottom paint, good-quality marine epoxy, marine-grade electrical connectors, and engine zincs. On the other hand, boat stores make a ton of money with stratospheric markups on items that can be found in regular hardware or home-goods stores—things like mops and hose, paint brushes, high-quality masking tapes, sandpaper, buckets, spray cleaners, and so on. If you’re a hands-on person just getting into boats, you’ll save yourself thousands of dollars in the long run by knowing what needs to be bought at a boat store and what can be bought elsewhere.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It
Now we’re down to the last element: you, and where you and other members of your family fit on the DIY scale. Probably the easiest way to get down to the nitty gritty is to present a sample list of maintenance chores that might be offered by a full-service boatyard to their clients. Consider the type of boat you’re interested in, research the labor rates at the boatyards in the area where you’ll keep the boat, picture yourself doing these jobs, then picture trained professionals doing them while you peel fifties off your bankroll.
- Fall: Install winter frame and covering. Spring: Remove winter frame and covering.
- Fall: Remove and/or winterize/maintain batteries. Spring: Re-commission batteries.
- Fall: Winterize freshwater system. Spring: Flush and fill freshwater system.
- Fall: Change engine oil, clean heat exchangers.
- Fall: Winterize engine(s) Spring: Flush and commission engine(s).
- Spring: Wash decks; clean windows and hatches.
- Spring: Polish and protect stainless, chrome, bronze, brass, and other metal fittings on deck.
- Spring: Clean, compound, wax topsides.
- Spring: Prepare and paint bottom.
- Spring: Install zincs; prepare props and running gear.
- Spring: Test, troubleshoot, electrical system; anti-corrosion measures
- Fall: Remove and store sails, running rigging. Spring: Install sails and running rigging.
- Fall: Remove and store canvas, dodgers, bimini tops; Spring: Install canvas.
- Winter: Check bilges, ventilation, boat covers and tie-downs periodically.
Of course, those are strictly recurring maintenance chores; they don’t include fix-it jobs, gear replacements, new-equipment installations, or occasional make-overs like topsides painting. (For more on what’s involved in all common DIY paint projects—topsides, deck, and bottom—read How to Paint a Boat).
At the point where the idea of peeling off the next fifty is just too painful, take a good look at the boat you're lusting after and brace for a decision: You're either going to have to get up off your transom and tackle more maintenance chores that you originally wanted to, or find a boat that will be cheaper to maintain.
Happy budgeting, and happy boating.