Boat Service Is Not Car Service

car boat

This vehicle notwithstanding, there are usually big differences between service requirements for boats and cars.

Many boat owners expect the same type of service on their vessels from boat yards as they get on their automobiles. And some yacht yards are even trying to reconfigure their service to be more like that of auto dealers. After all, both cars and boats have mechanical and cosmetic issues, so boating newcomers could be forgiven for assuming service similarities across the board. But there are many reasons why they’re different. Here are three reasons why boat owners are often surprised when they get the yard bill.

1. There are hundreds of thousands of any one make and model of car, while there are only a handful of similar boats. Even production boats have options that are not built by the manufacturer, like engines and generators, so very few boats are identical. Due to this relatively low production number and the custom configuration found on many boats, boat brokers and distributors often partner with a local yard to commission and service their particular brand. These sales and service businesses are separate, not the same combined business as in the auto industry. That same local boat yard more than likely works on other brands, too.

2. There are no coordinated manufacturer warranties or recalls for all the components on your boat.  Warranty issues can include a morass of different manufacturers, all with their own requirements and relationships. And it’s a rare boat yard that’s large enough to have factory-trained painters, mechanics, electricians and such for each type of vessel they work on.

Instead, most yards have mechanics trained on certain engines (Yanmar, Honda, Caterpillar, Detroit Diesel, Cummings, etc.) as well as electricians familiar with certain generators, wiper motors, and sanitation systems. They have body specialists (fiberglass gurus) and painters who are more likely to be generalists. And finally, if they are lucky, they will have riggers and carpenters who are more artisans and problem-solvers than factory-trained installers.  It’s one thing to put together the jigsaw puzzle of boat components in production; it’s quite different to pull things apart and rebuild them again.

Take, for example, a simple grounding where a propeller is damaged. The yard is unlikely to go back to the boat manufacturer to get it fixed because the boat builder is unlikely to have made the propeller in the first place—and in today’s just-in-time world, is equally unlikely to have a spare on the shelf. Instead the boat yard will go to a propeller company to get a compatible replacement. This means they have to have savvy workers able to identify many different manufacturers’  products, and of course this takes more time.

3. Another major difference between automobile service and boat service is the size and complexity of your boat: how many cars have two engines? Or an engine and a separate generator? Car dealers may sell a specific service like a $29.00 oil change directed at attracting a large number of customers, since they’ve devised a set payment to the technician for this work.

Most boat yards work on a time-and-materials basis because the time to perform a specific service is not straightforward. To use the oil change example, access around an engine can greatly affect the time it takes to perform this seemingly simple service. And for any major repair, hauling and dockage is charged on a per-foot basis, and is typically an added cost to any repair.

For most boat yards, repair estimates can and should be broken down into two parts: the discovery portion, and the actual repair estimate. A reputable boat yard will quote you a certain amount of time to find the extent of the problem and then a certain amount to repair it once they know what they’re up against. They will also be willing to stay within certain parameters, say 10% of the quote.

Boat yards would love to get to the point where owners drop off their boats for service with a documented work order signed by the owner agreeing to the work and pricing. It would mean fewer billing disputes and happier customers. They would also appreciate getting paid before the vessel leaves, just like in the car industry.

Tips on Servicing your Boat

  • Whenever possible take your boat to an “Authorized Dealer” for service.
  • If your boat yard is not an authorized service center for your type of vessel, make sure they are a qualified warranty provider on the component (engine, genset, etc.) you are having serviced.
  • Always get a written estimate for repairs.
  • Make yourself available to discuss the extent of damage and cost of repairs, and be  sure about the repair schedule: Boats left without specific instructions and agreements can rack up storage charges until a go-ahead is given.
  • Keep all your equipment warranties in one place.
  • Document service authorization in writing/email, not verbally over the phone.

These differences between the car and boat industries have left many boat owners perplexed and angry over bills. In theory the two have similarities, but in practice they are very different beasts.  So try not to compare boat service with car service, and get a written estimate. You’ll be glad you did.

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