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Long distance boat maintenance

Mar 23, 2009

To the editor: Some years ago I sailed my Crealock 37 yawl, Santa Maria, to the British Virgin Islands. I planned to visit as often as I could from my home in central Florida. With my boat in the British Virgin Islands, I would have easy access to the entire Caribbean. Little did I know that the greatest adventures would come not from the sailing, but from my efforts to keep the boat on top of the water and functioning from more than 1,000 miles away.

It was not long after I sailed into Road Town, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands that my lessons in long distance maintenance began.

When my daughter, Samantha, was only seven, she was my bow guide for our entry into a slip at Boat Harbour Marina in the Abaco Islands. I guess she didn’t realize that she was supposed to tell me before the boat hit the piling. Once in Road Town, nestled in among larger, more expensive boats, I found myself embarrassed at the small bend near the tip of the bow roller and asked the machine shop there to straighten it while I was gone. They did a great job and finished it before I came back. I was a little stunned when I got the bill of almost $400 for fixing a part that, new, is only $275!

“Well, Mon,” the shop owner told me, “We had to grind de bolts off de ting from underneath to remove it. It took a long time. Den we had to polish it.”

“You removed it!” I stammered. “Why?”

“We bring it back to de shop to work on it.”

“But why didn’t you just bend it back straight like we talked about?”

“Den it wouldn’t look dat good.”

“But I could have replaced it for less than that!”

“You did not say you want to replace it. We can do dat for you.”

Throughout the Caribbean there are laws resembling mechanic’s lien laws in the United States. That is, it is illegal to leave the island until all of the boat bills have been paid. I paid.

Last year, in Jolly Harbour, Antigua, I finally decided to replace the seat covers of the cabin cushions. By this time, I had learned at least enough to ask for recommendations. After asking around, I chose a sail loft in English Harbour. I rented a car to travel the corkscrew of a mountain road from Jolly Harbour to Nelson’s Dockyard — a distance of only nine miles as the crow flies, that takes 40 minutes by car.

I left the next day, telling the shop I would be back in two months and they promised that the work would be done. I was delayed and did not get back until four months had passed. All the while I tried to stay in touch with the loft by e-mail and telephone. The fabric had to be ordered, of course, but the shop had ordered it promptly and it arrived in only a few weeks. Then the shop fell maddeningly incommunicado. In my last e-mail, only a few days before we were to arrive in Antigua and take Santa Maria to Grenada for hurricane season, I begged them to finish the cushions immediately if they had not already. After five years of island time, I was not surprised to find the project had not been started when we got there. Nor, unfortunately, could it be done in the next few days. Bigger boats with bigger projects awaited. Would I like to buy the fabric, they asked? No, said I, you just keep it. Vengeance was mine, sort of.

Screaming at the islanders may, on rare occasion, help a little in getting your project pushed to the head of the line, but in general the situation is not within your control. And the first time you scream will be the last time you see them. Learn to roll with it.

In Antigua, I had scheduled four different projects with four different contractors. None of the jobs were completed when I arrived, but one of the workmen did manage to steal my new laptop.

Then there is the question as to whether you should leave your boat on a mooring or rent a slip. By all means, if you must stay in the hurricane belt during the season instead of fleeing south of Grenada, get your boat hauled out. All other things being equal, it will be safer on the land. Some of the marinas in the Caribbean now have sophisticated cradle systems which are approved by many insurers for use in the hurricane belt. This means your insurance might actually pay something if your pride and joy is injured in a named windstorm. Some of the marinas are also more protected by natural terrain than others, and it would be wise to investigate this issue before committing to a particular yard. Your insurance company could be a good source of this information. According to Jim Nolan of BoatU.S., some insurers may not cover boats on moorings, or may be particular as to the type of mooring.

But during the sailing season, is it safe to go with a mooring instead of a slip? It depends on where you are. Some areas are more prone to crime than others, and even the best boat manager cannot stop a midnight break-in. On the other hand, my own boat was burglarized in a slip within 50 feet of the guard shack where “24-hour security” was maintained. In some busy areas, such as the British Virgin Islands, mooring rates have risen so dramatically that the only advantage to swinging on one is that you may be able to find one to rent.

Given all this, if you have to leave your boat, do you need someone there to take care of the vessel while you are away? Professional boat managers can be found in almost every port of call in the Caribbean. Phil Oliver, of Antilles Yachts in Nanny Cay, Tortola, recommends that you use someone who is headquartered in the marina where the boat is located.

How much attention does the boat need? That depends on your comfort level. I know people who have left their vessels unattended on a mooring for months at a time. Other people want someone handy near the dock.

The biggest advantage to having a boat manager is not in the routine oversight, but when problems arise. The boat manager is paid not for just doing the mundane stuff, but, as Oliver puts it, “Having the ability to make prudent decisions at the correct time.”

“I can come up with a slip or a mooring on a moment’s notice for a good customer,” he says. And, as he points out, the entire trick to getting projects completed, especially in the Caribbean, is being a “local.” The contractors who get a large portion of their business from a boat manager are interested in keeping him happy — even if they don’t care at all about you. The boat manager is responsible for seeing that contractors do the job on time and do it right.

Boat managers charge from $100 a month and up (mostly up), and often charge a small percentage (say 10%) for overseeing a large project. That was a cost I saved on the projects I contracted in Antigua. I did not pay anyone to oversee the contractors. Of course, the projects didn’t get done, so I didn’t have to pay the contractors either. I saved a lot of money.

Keeping a boat in the Caribbean is not significantly more expensive than Florida, and less expensive than some places in the U.S. Whether you should try it, and if so whether you should hire a boat manager, depends on your budget and your level of patience.

You can, indeed, get by without a boat manager by following some precautionary steps:

1. Ask around about boat contractors. Ask people — especially cruising sailors — who have experience in the area. Do not rely solely on the marina staff. Many of the marinas have “arrangements” with certain contractors — and those arrangements are not necessarily made for your benefit.

2. Get a written estimate including a promise or due date.

3. Don’t prepay for labor. Many contractors will not even ask you to prepay for hardware.

4. Stay in touch and get status reports. All of the eastern Caribbean is online now. Make sure your contractor has an e-mail address.

5. Somehow, someway, inspect the work before paying, or at least have someone you trust do it for you.

—Jerry H. Jeffery, Jr. is a mediator and freelance writer who lives in Maitland, Fla. He and his wife Anita regularly sail their boat Santa Maria in the Caribbean.