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Boat work in exotic locations

Apr 23, 2012

Tips on getting your boat fixed outside North America

The author’s Moody 422, Astarte, at La Ceiba Shipyard in Honduras.

The author’s Moody 422, Astarte, at La Ceiba Shipyard in Honduras.

Michael Hawkins

One definition of voyaging is “fixing your boat in exotic locations.” That’s pretty accurate because if you are living on your boat and cruising full time, you’ll ultimately have to fix something or get basic maintenance done. Emergency repairs do limit your options to the nearest yard or facility. But when you have a planned project, like a bottom job, you can do some research and advance work to help eliminate, or at least minimize, the surprises.

We’ve been out long enough that it was time to haul the boat and get a bottom job. We were cruising the western Caribbean at the time and had to decide where to get the job done. We are a budget-conscious cruising couple. The more money we can save on work, the longer we can stay out cruising.

The need
Three thru-hulls were stuck half opened/half-closed. The bottom was growing long green “mermaid hair.” The cutlass bearing needed to be replaced.

The research
There are lots of places to get information these days about boatyards. The Internet is a great starting point and whether its cruisers’ blog pages or the websites of the yards, you can filter through lots of info quickly. Access may be the biggest challenge but it’s worth paying for some Internet cafe time to do the research.

Guidebooks offer some info — but these were probably written and published quite a few years earlier so the information may not be timely.
 

Sobocinski’s husband Michael Hawkins checks Astarte’s prop.

The best and most accurate information we’ve found is the cruiser “telegraph.” Talk to other boaters. Whether one on one in an anchorage or at social events, ask questions. Boaters are never shy about giving info — good, bad or indifferent. The radio nets are also great places to get information. In fact, before we made a decision on what bottom paint to use, we hosted a morning “tech net” in the San Blas to gather info about paint. We took a survey of what people were using and what their individual opinions were. This provided us with valuable info from boats out there actually cruising. It helped us make our paint decision. We also asked everyone we met about yards. This helped us quickly rule out several yards. We were looking at hauling out in Colombia, Panama or Honduras, so that’s where we focused our attention.

Besides talking to other cruisers, we asked the following questions of the yards themselves.

Availability: We were flexible but we wanted to know what were the slow times and busy times for each yard. For example in Honduras, the shrimpers all get hauled in May/June and the yards get busy. Yards in the entire Caribbean area get busy putting away and relaunching cruising boats before and after “season” (commuter cruising season/hurricane season). Panama is often busy before boats go through the Canal the first few months of the year. Also, make sure you know if there are events (like the ARC), local holidays or fiestas that may impact your time in the yard (you’ll pay for time in the yard whether or not work is being completed.)

Depth: This is not usually a big issue for us as we draw only four and a half feet with the centerboard raised, but many boaters had issues at some yards. Look not only at the yard itself but all entrances to get there.

Facilities: What are they capable of handling — painting, mechanical, electrical? How do they store the boats on land? What is the size, age and repair of the travel lift? This was a big consideration, as we would prefer not to have to remove our head stay for the lift. Also, can the lift handle the weight and size of your vessel? How long has the driver been there and is he or she good?

Price: This was one of our biggest considerations. We are on a budget so we want it inexpensive, but also want it done right. Check if the yard will “nickel and dime” you with extra fees (electricity, water, ladders, stands, coffee, living aboard). One yard in particular has this reputation and the final bills for many cruisers were shocking. Remember when you are getting prices in foreign countries, be sure you know if they are speaking in U.S. dollars, euros, or the local currencies — perhaps lempiras, pesos or bolívars. Are there discounts for paying in cash, in advance or for off-season? Do they take credit cards?

Parts and supplies: You never know what you’ll find when you haul your boat. Can you get the needed bits and pieces easily and quickly? What are manufacturing or repair facilities like in the area? Time is money in a yard and if you have to wait for weeks for parts — you’re paying for sitting in the yard. Plus, what are the costs and convenience for customs and importing these parts? Does the yard have what you want in stock? If it’s paint — is it fresh? If you bring your own paint or supplies, do you get up-charged?

Live-aboard while working: Some yards allow this, others do not. What is the policy, cost and convenience? Are there facilities like bathrooms and showers available? How safe and secure will you and your possessions be while in the yard?

Overall: And finally, get the overall feeling about a yard. Are they helpful and friendly on the phone? Did they answer your e-mail questions quickly and completely? Were they responsive? Do you speak the language of the country you plan to haul in and if not, does anyone speak your language in the yard to help you? Our Spanish is primary level so we were pleased to find a yard where many of the staff spoke fluent English. If you can actually visit the yard in person in advance — do so.

The decision
After gathering lots and lots of information, we decided to haul out in La Ceiba Shipyard in Honduras. The shipyard was responsive to lots of our e-mailed questions often getting back to us within 24 hours. The yard got great reviews from every boat we spoke with that used this particular facility recently.

The negatives about the yard that we heard were relatively minor in the big picture. We heard that the bathroom/shower wasn’t very clean. That’s true, but we’ve seen worse. We also heard that rats might be a problem. We knew that was true of any boatyard. We never had an unwanted visitor. We did discover that the bugs are a bit bad. We sprayed some bug spray at the base of the ladder, stands and our power line and that helped limit them on the boat. Also, town is a cab ride away and there are no nearby places for a cold beer or lunch. Also, come with a full water tank for drinking as the yard’s water is not potable — though they do sell five-gallon jugs of drinking water.

The work
We had determined a date in March with La Ceiba Shipyard. They are busy in late April and May when the fishing boats start to come out of the water. Plus some people store their boat here so it is busy in November as people prep their boats for relaunch.

The yard launched a powerboat before hauling our boat. It gave us a chance to see the lift and lift operator in action. We spoke at length with Jorge the operator. He had been at the yard more than eight years and claimed he had never lost a boat. He was reassuring and pleasant, speaking fluent English. The lift looked well maintained and was very large. Our 42-foot cruising sailboat was a lightweight compared to the large power yachts and fishing boats in the yard.

The boat was centered in the lift slipway with the help of four workers with bow and stern lines. A diver in the water secured the straps underwater and Jorge made sure they were positioned correctly. Our Moody has clearly labeled “Sling” marks on the side making it a bit easier to position.

Once the keel and rudder were clear of the water, the lift drove us to a grassy area where we would get settled. We had the boat pressure washed once there. Because we have a centerboard, we stayed in the lift and got raised a bit more to drop the board for washing. We raised the board again and the boat was put on blocks and stands. The yard uses standard metal stands with wooden pads. Our boat was secured with 10 stands and wood under the keel. We got charged for each stand, but that was in the contract.

La Ceiba Shipyard did not charge extra like some yards for living aboard while being on the hard. That was one of the price issues you should consider when doing your haul-out budget. You did get a daily charge for water and electricity, but Internet was free.

Though on a budget, we did choose to let the yard do the sanding, priming and painting. We determined that by having the yard help, we would limit the days in the actual yard. The price seemed fair for the work — they charge a per-foot rate. The worker we had assigned to us, Kirk, did a great job and was there early every morning and worked with very few stops. He was conscientious, spoke English and knew what he was doing. We did lose him the last few days of the job, but got Angel, and he also worked hard and efficiently. He did not speak English, so we got to practice our Spanish.

The paint we wanted, a Hempel product, was available in the ship’s store and priced the same as it was in Panama. You pay for all the supplies that are used — and though the prices in the ship’s store are not outrageous, you will save some by bringing along your own supplies like painters’ tape, brushes, rollers and roller pads. We kept track of what supplies were being used. Check your bill regularly throughout the process to help avoid surprises at the end. Plus, the yard will know you are watching carefully.

We handled replacing the broken thru-hulls (which we had on board). One thru-hull, we discovered, had been mounted incorrectly and required being cut to be removed. We were originally going to have the yard handle the removal and replacement of the cutlass bearing, but we ended up handling that ourselves over a weekend.

The yard takes credit cards or cash (either lempiras or U.S. dollars). When settling the bill, we had an issue with our credit card — so be sure to check with your credit card company in advance. The yard will not relaunch you until you are paid up. There were no real surprises on the bill. The prices were all discussed up front and La Ceiba Shipyard has a very clear contract with prices listed.

The experience
When taking on major projects in foreign ports, you take advantage of the skills and expertise of the local craftspeople. You also help the local economy and get the advantage of labor costs that are cheaper than the U.S. However, there are the challenges of language, money exchanges and contracts. Check out the facilities you’ll be using and talk to people who used them recently. It was a lot of work from research to completion, but overall was a positive experience.

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Barbara Sobocinski and her husband Michael Hawkins are cruising in the Caribbean aboard their Moody 422, Astarte. Formerly in the TV business, Sobocinski now is a full-time cruiser 
and writer.

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