Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How to make fitting-out really, really fast

Above: Small but perfectly formed, Arabella awaits her return to the water.

Arabella was craned out on 15th April. The plan was for the yard to carry out a couple of jobs - servicing the outboard, doing the antifouling - while the sails went off for laundering and I dealt with reapplying teak oil on the brightwork that needed it and polishing the hull. I was happy that the sail laundering (by the ever-prompt and helpful Sanders Sails) and the polishing/oiling (by me) would be done quickly, but knowing the yard as I did, I assumed for planning purposes that Arabella would be out of the water for at least four weeks.

Yet here she was, ready to crane in again after only eight days ashore. That may not sound especially amazing to those people who manage to squeeze all their preparations for the new season into a day or two, or indeed between tides. But believe me, for Arabella, getting all this done in eight days was something wondrous to behold. In fact, get this, we had caught out the marina, who couldn't actually crane Arabella back in until 28th April, by which time she would have spent a meagre thirteen days ashore.

And what, might well you well ask, had caused this miracle....had the yard turned over a new leaf? Hired more people, perhaps, or just decided to do things quickly? Had global economic conditions, and the dwindling bonuses of investment bankers, brought more modest customers like me to the fore once again? Had my lawyer written the yard rude letters?

No, it was something far simpler. The yard had gone bust.

They went into administration at the beginning of April. They played no role in any of the jobs that needed to be done to get Arabella turned around and back at her berth, ready for the season ahead. And that, sorry to say, was the single biggest contributor to this extraordinary reversal. There I was, already beginning to give in yet again, to surrender to the inevitable and to plan on another season delayed or curtailed while the yard dragged its feet on the tiny number of remaining tasks...and then the yard, in letting me down right at the end, inadvertently cut me loose and forced me to make alternative arrangements.

Suddenly, all manner of things got done. That new spinnaker pole you see there, is mounted on brackets that I (gasp) actually fitted myself. Now, don't mock. I thought it would be simple too, but no, after protracted email correspondence, the yard informed me that they were still waiting for some of the parts and the job would have to wait. When I went round to liberate from their premises the things that belonged to me - before the administrator arried and tried to lay claim to them - the box of nearly-but-not-quite-all the bits for the spinnaker mount was included with the other items I carted off in a trolley.

Upon inspection, I saw that the yard had been right. Not all the bits were there. There was a nut missing. A three minute walk later, the chandlery gave me one of the correct size - for free - and three minutes after that, I was back on board merrily bolting on my spinnaker pole mounts. Half an hour later, they were done.

I could recite a litany of similar items, but to do so would be to divert attention away from another valuable thing I discovered as a result of the yard's misfortune: the value of alternative suppliers.

I'd decided early on that, with work and domestic commitments as pressing as ever, there was no way I was taking on the antifouling. As for servicing the outboard, with my mechanical skills, there was no surer way of ensuring that I became another dreary coastguard statistic ('rescued due to engine failure'). These jobs were pre-booked with the yard well in advance. Once the yard ceased its involvement, I had to start ringing around to find someone to take on these tasks.

At first I tried to do the decent thing. The marina company naturally wants its customers to use onsite suppliers where possible. In fact, as part of its protectionist policy, it charges an entry fee to offsite contractors. I sent emails and left messages with five different providers, which were either on site or permitted by the marina to advertise in the marina reception. Not one of them - not one, mind - could be bothered to respond. I never received a single acknowledgment.

Annoyed as hell, I contacted off-site providers instead. The response was startlingly different: I nearly had my arm chewed off. Within a few hours, the outboard service was delegated to Orca Marine, who were even happy to come and collect the engine and drop it back afterwards (a big bonus for someone like me, who tries to travel to the coast by train as often as possible, but then lacks a car with which to run local errands around Southampton). Equally impressive were Boat Care UK a very slick operation that was set up by David Hawkins as a college project and then became his career: David's firm got the antifouling job and, on the strength of their excellent response time and professional approach to service, subsequently won the task of polishing and sealing the hull when my feeble attempts to extricate myself from work commitments failed. (Edit: regrettably, Boat Care UK folded in late 2008. One of their employees, by the name of Will French, subsequently set up the excellent Blue Yacht Management - they have looked after Arabella for me ever since, and very well too.)

Were these people cheap? No. They were not especially geared to the needs of yachties with 21-foot secondhand boats. However, they were no more expensive per hour than the yard had been, and they were hugely better value for money simply because they not only did their jobs well, they also chased the work and did it quickly, treating me like a valued client despite the fact that I wasn't offering them a Sunseeker to work on. In fact they were much like Sanders Sails, another off-site provider that had yet to deliver anything other than an efficient and professional service.

With the best will in the world, it would be difficult to show how the appearance of my Tohatsu changed once it had been serviced, but the shots below show what a good job Boat Care UK did.

I was left only with the task of masking up and oiling the teak rubbing strake and a few other untreated bits of brightwork, which took me a pleasant afternoon on one of the first days of the year on which the sun was out and it actually felt like Spring.

All of which added up to what, exactly? Well, for starters, that the businesses based around the marina were either too buried with other customers on site, or couldn't be bothered for some other reason. Whereas those off-site were, at the very least, competitively priced, and were prepared to come get the work before someone else did.

And while I bore no ill-will towards the erstwhile yard, whose work was rarely less than good and which was run by some very nice guys, there was no getting away from the fact that the demise of their business had liberated me to an degree that I doubted I would have ever have achieved, had it not been for the fact that I was forced to take control and run the closing stages of the project myself.

In truth, some very minor jobs remained, some of them a little ironic in nature. Such as cutting a vent in the companionway washboards - discussed, agreed, invoiced and paid for a while back. And more tellingly, revarnishing the handrails - originally done by the yard as one of their early tasks, in a refit which had stretched on so for long that the varnish was now wearing through...

I wasn't troubled by these items. They were easy to do and I wouldn't even be out of pocket, because I would make damn sure I deducted any costs from any final yard bill when it arrived from the administrators. There are advantages to being a lawyer. But when all was said and done, and the cheques were written and invoices were filed away - for review by some future buyer who would shake his head and wonder at the idiot who spent so much in total on a boat that was worth so little money - it all added up to something much more important.

Come 28th April, Arabella would be back afloat, looking beautiful - even if only to me - and more finished, and readier to sail, than she had ever been. The waiting, the polishing, the varnishing, the oiling and the paying of endless refit bills were over. The disappointments of last season, when Arabella sat idle, even on the few fine days that punctuated that lousy summer, waiting for the yard to get on and finish the work, were behind us.

It was time to go sailing.