Refits are slippery. They wiggle out of control, grow into an enormous headache, or suddenly a panel flaps down and behold another hornet’s nest of worry and money. There are those who know how to emerge from refit projects unscathed — we’ve tracked down captains and top-level shipyard experts to dish the rules on refit dos and don’ts.
The Captains’ Perspective
For Capt. Sean Whitney of S/Y Catalina (ex-Timoneer), pre-refit visits are key. When he began refit discussions with Pendennis, the engineering and estimating teams visited him before finalizing the specification and works list. The refit’s main focus was the hydraulic system’s removal, modification, and upgrade. This included the in-house shipyard team replacing more than 400 hoses, all the valve blocks through the entire yacht, as well as installing two new clutched PTOs on both the main engine and generator, and the addition of an AC pump enabling small sail adjustments in light airs. After visiting the yacht prior to her arrival, the technical project team was able to hit the ground running with these jobs when she was hauled out, saving time and ensuring a smooth refit process from the outset. “As well as thorough preparation, a successful refit also needs both the yacht and the yard to work coherently,” says Whitney.
Capt. Tristan Mortlock has done a few rounds on the refit circuit — he filmed the one he did last year and posted it on his YouTube channel (see: Super Yacht Captain: 2019 Super Yacht Engineering Refit: Vlog 39). The top tip from Mortlock: Don’t rush the planning process. Then, give clear and precise instructions that don’t leave any room for interpretation. Schedule delays into the plan as there are always unforeseen works. Have penalties in place to minimize delays but also make sure you understand what you’re asking of the yard and understand that you need to be realistic. “Try and have the vessel [pull] into a big shed so weather won’t have an impact on your schedule,” he says. He also recommends regular meetings with all parties involved, and an open invitation to flag and class. Warranties need to be clear and concise and job changes or additions should be done by email — never on the phone.
Capt. Craig Rutkai has skippered the Ferretti Custom Line 97 M/Y Anne Marie for the last 10 years. There’s always the surprise costs and extra time during the project when you find unexpected issues, costs, and resources. “Make sure logistics, parts, and equipment are readily on hand and not halfway around the world. Sometimes the shipyards are stretched, and you can get caught in a void where people are pulled off your project to work on another,” he says. Or, a new face jumps into an ongoing project, causing setbacks because they aren’t up to speed. “We like to see the same faces that are familiar with the boat,” Rutkai says.
Miscommunication and failure to communicate are often why refits can go awry, as well as owner expectations and budget.
Miscommunication and failure to communicate are often why refits can go awry, as well as owner expectations and budget. Progress payments based on the job or time can also become an issue, and time and material costs per project are open-ended unless you have a cap cost established. “The captain has a price in his head, but when the project is complete, the final numbers are nowhere near what they thought it would it cost,” Rutkai says.
For him, the characteristics of the perfect project manager are organization, accessibility, relationship skills, respect, and willingness to meet the captain’s needs — not easy, he concedes, because the project manager has to cover that middle ground between the captain, owner, and yard. “I would say my number one tip is: Have a backup plan in your plan that includes optional changes that are acceptable to the outcome,” he says. “Be flexible. Not everything will go as planned; you might lose a battle here or there, but you need to focus on winning the war. Do your research before you get to the yard and try to have the larger projects already outlined, planned timelines, and an estimate of costs. Stay in touch with the PM and yard, keep them up to speed on arrival times as there are other vessels coming and going all the time. Share notes with other captains and crew — I always learn something new from friends that have just finished their yard period.”
Capt. Simon Johnson is aboard Turquoise Yachts’ 77-meter M/Y GO. His gripe is that there are always too many promises and assurances from yards. They have the upper hand, because they have control over the outcome, and can charge daily the longer they take. “Often,” he says, “we have very separate viewpoints, so initial negotiations are key.” He advises shopping around and finding a yard that is “hungry for you.” Johnson expects an excellent project manager who will be 100 percent on the yacht project — not shared. “He has to be bilingual with one point of contact on the ship,” he says. Johnson expects weekly reports that he can present to the owner. “Progress of work goes hand in hand with staggered pay chunks,” he says. “My job is the smooth flow of funds, quality control, and the timeline. The yard’s responsibility is to make sure that they do what they say, when they say. The only penalty we can impose is paying late. The penalty that they can impose is locking in the ship and poor workmanship. It is too out-balanced in their favor.”
“My perfect project manager is unflappable, organized, but most of all takes all my calls and is not defensive, but acts immediately. Best advice when selecting a yard? Ask other captains and contacts.”
Yards and captains agree that problems arise when additional work needs doing, or the owner makes an additional request. Johnson insists on the need to be ahead of the curve for this factor, and most of all the owner’s input. “Usually, if the owner has confidence in the rate of progress, then he will jump in with special requests. It all plays in our favor — the yard gets more work, which they get paid for, and we have a happy owner,” he says. A few bones of contention for Johnson center around quality control and not being able to choose external contractors. What he does like are short weekly meetings and work done on time to quality. “My perfect project manager is unflappable, organized, but most of all takes all my calls and is not defensive, but acts immediately. Best advice when selecting a yard? Ask other captains and contacts.”
“There are many good refit shipyards globally,” says Capt. Jim Thom of S/Y Seabiscuit. “We chose Pendennis for the refit of 42-meter S/Y Seabiscuit because we were inspired by its flexibility, collaborative approach, and impressed by the engineers whilst researching the scope of work.” He notes that their project priorities were the main engine, generators, and hydraulics — they replaced the engine and generators and then the hydraulics system was given an extensive overhaul. “We were hoping for more than just a regular service, however, and this is where the yard’s hydraulics team brought extra value to the yacht,” Thom says. “We’re happy that we made the right choice for our technical refit and much of that can be attributed to finding the right shipyard for our specific refit goals.”
When S/Y Mariette of 1915 undertook her refit in 2018 at Pendennis, Capt. Charlie Wroe, his crew, and the shipyard team discussed the specialist crew work that was expected within the scope of the project. Everyone knew their role and how it fitted into the wider schedule; the crew got on with their jobs, and the Pendennis project manager was able to align the rest of the works in the yard.
The Yards’ Perspective
New Zealand’s Yachting Developments has undertaken refits and restorations on yachts of all sizes, from modern vessels to a major 18-month refit of the J-Class Endeavour (“Refit of the Year” winner at the 2012 World Superyacht Awards). Managing Director Ian Cook suggests clients ask themselves several questions before beginning any refit work: What are the yard’s capabilities and facilities? What is the yard’s history of refit work and can it deliver on expectations? Can the yard provide proper references for previous refit projects? What is the yard’s accessibility? Does the yard have its own trades or does it mostly use contractors? Captains should also find out the yard’s hourly rate and any extra costs on top of hourly rates.
“The yard should also be sure that it is clear of its own capabilities, versus what would need to be contracted out (and if this is possible/achievable in the time frame),” Cook says.
From the yard’s perspective, consideration should be given to whether the crew will be involved in the project, the boat’s management team, the boat’s history, previous work done, recent surveys, and the scope of work and contract variations. Have all parties clearly defined their expectations/time frames before the project begins? And does the boat have the funding necessary to do the project? What are the yacht’s insurance and liability policies? “The yard should also be sure that it is clear of its own capabilities, versus what would need to be contracted out (and if this is possible/achievable in the time frame),” Cook says.
Txema Rubio, the commercial director at MB92, offers his key point — the owner’s team and the shipyard work closely together to satisfy the owner’s needs and expectations. “Every pre-project is like an iceberg, with the owner’s desires and requests just the tip,” he says. “What we cannot always appreciate but should understand, however, is everything involved below the surface that requires considerable study. This starts with understanding and defining what the owner’s expectations are.” Only once the project’s parameters are decided can the quote package be developed. “Existing as we do in an environment where everything is customized, this translates into time — to design, to quote, to carry out feasibility studies, to plan construction and engineering, to consider every detail required to prepare the most accurate and comprehensive quotation package for the client. Only after this process can the prices be produced and the negotiation begin.”
Rubio stresses the value of choosing a well-established yard with the financial footing to support the project and the necessary health and safety standards, network of suppliers, client confidentiality, etc. An experienced shipyard will have greater flexibility in incorporating the inevitable additional works that happen with these projects.
Rubio advises captains to read and sign the refit contract two to three months in advance to give enough time to clarify exactly what the offer includes: the financial planning and subcontractor payment terms so that all parties can be on the same page prior to signing. “Also, by having the confirmation of the contract sufficiently in advance of the yard period, it allows the shipyard time to plan and optimize resources ready for arrival,” he says. And it’s important to end well too — “While we may all be itching to be out on the water again, the project should be finished in the same way it started — with care and attention. Carry out sea trials with the technicians involved in the installation, commission everything installed, and coordinate any potential post-project items alongside the after-sales team.”
An experienced shipyard will have greater flexibility in incorporating the inevitable additional works that happen with these projects.
President Doug West oversees operations at Lauderdale Marine Center in Fort Lauderdale. His to-do list mirrors Rubio’s at MB92 and he adds quality control checkpoints, the importance of timely decisions, and a place for crew that makes them feel comfortable during the shipyard period.
Lusben, which has been operating for more than 60 years and includes refit and repair for vessels up to 140 meters, has yards in Viareggio, Livorno, and Verazze. Following a briefing on guidance and clarity for a new refit project, Technical Manager Francesco Figaro will ask for all the yachts’ specs and data to gauge an accurate evaluation of the project by Lusben technicians, designers, and engineers. After that, the key aspect, explains Figaro, is to present a specific budget cost plan in line with the suggested solutions. “Flexibility and receptiveness are key,” says Figaro. “It’s crucial to establish a collaborative relationship with the customer that allows ongoing dialogue and a prompt response whenever any doubts arise.” Safety and compliance, admin assistance, and crew care are also important factors, says Sales Manager Fortunato di Marco. Finally, at project end, Lusben guarantees assistance post refit and delivery.
CEO Simone Antonini heads up the shipyard at Baia di Pertusola, La Spezia, in Italy. The Gruppo Antonini has been building and refitting maritime vessels since the 1940s. Not surprisingly, Antonini’s tips don’t vary much from the other yards: His focus is on clearly defining and agreeing on the refit’s final objective, devising a sequential plan of works, evaluating potential risks and critical issues, engaging classification companies, and paying utmost attention to required regulations, engaging the best maritime specialists, and considering the yard’s strategic and logistic location. Finally, Antonini adds, “It’s also important to keep up with personnel training and developments in applicable technologies.”
“The more detailed the specification, the less confusion and gray areas; budgets will be better controlled, and delays reduced,” says Paul-F. Grünig Binimelis, project department manager at Astilleros de Mallorca. Always work with a contract, he advises, such as ICOMIA. Everything should be recorded in writing: work orders, change orders, meeting minutes. “Most of the time, conflicts arise because the client’s expectations do not match the technical or working specifications, so the owner’s expectation should always be considered during the specification plan.” After the contract is signed, he says, it’s usually too late and you may end up with change orders, pricing discussions, and delays.
“The more detailed the specification, the less confusion and gray areas; budgets will be better controlled, and delays reduced,” says Paul-F. Grünig Binimelis, project department manager at Astilleros de Mallorca.
Another mistake is establishing a re-delivery date before listing all the works in the timeline. “Once the actual schedule is set up, then this is when the work timelines should be analyzed all together and revised in order to get a realistic and feasible re-delivery date,” he says.
Understand the implications of decisions. “You can’t make a bad decision if the implications have been properly thought through,” he says. “The problem comes when a decision is made without identifying the risks and knowing their probability and the consequence. You should always listen to the implicated parties before taking any decision.” Everyone should bear in mind that changes/modifications must be operational and accessible for future maintenance work.
A condition survey will help to prevent the yard from assuming costs beyond its responsibility and help control project budgets. Finally, says Grünig Binimelis, “Never forgot the teamwork spirit. The project manager needs to anticipate what the team needs in order to work in the most efficient way and he should never transmit the stress from the client or the yard management onto the team.”
“Few captains can really run refits. They are trained to drive boats, not manage complicated and technical management projects,” [Carlevaris] says.
Misunderstandings can be eliminated if yacht captains or representatives, as well as the shipyard, know and can explain exactly what they have in mind in terms of objectives, processes, and action plans, says Stefano de Vivo, Ferretti Group CCO (CRN Shipyard is part of the Ferretti Group). “In my experience, yacht captains arrive at the yard very well prepared and have already appointed technicians and surveyors, which helps a lot. There are things they might see and we don’t and vice versa; it’s all about teamwork,” de Vivo says. He particularly likes seeing boats from within the group coming in for refit, like family members returning home. “For me, the perfect refit captain must be passionate about the work,” de Vivo says. “Rebuilding is not the same as a new build, so he needs to be excited and passionate about opening up panels to see what lies behind and be flexible about what he finds. Be ready, enjoy improvising and dealing with the unforeseeable. Keep an open mind,” he advises. “Try not to surround yourself with people who get stressed by unforeseen events and ‘Armarsi di santa pazienza!’ (Be patient!).”
Andrea Carlevaris is the founder of independent ACP Surveyors in Monaco. His 36-year career includes working as chief engineer on commercial, cruise, and superyacht vessels before founding ACP. “Few captains can really run refits. They are trained to drive boats, not manage complicated and technical management projects,” he says. “A marathon is the result of a long period of preparation; the same applies to a refit project,” he says. “The number one thing a captain brings to a refit is his knowledge and understanding of the owner. And hopefully,forget he will run his crew in a participative way, getting everyone involved and feeling proud and excited about the project.”
Carlevaris recommends working on a “some now, some later” basis because, depending on the project’s scope, not much can get done in a short chunk of yard time without compromising on quality. “It sounds [costlier], but in the end, it’s not,” he says. Build a team of professionals around you: technicians, engineers, designers if you’re doing modifications, and it’s worth employing a lawyer to straighten the refit specification and contract. “Captains who work as one-man-bands are not cost-effective. Every item of work and material should be individually listed on a quote and it’s okay to build in penalties to clarify roles and responsibilities,” Carlevaris says. “It’s normal to have a snagging list post yard departure if it’s small and precise and this can be agreed before the yacht leaves the yard. Make sure any confrontations are constructive and result in a solution. If you keep shouting at someone, they will switch off.”
His final word: Have enough self-confidence to accept advice and understand that you cannot be all things to all people. And that’s not a bad maxim for us all to live by.
This feature originally ran in the August 2020 issue of Dockwalk.