19 October 2017 | Port Townsend, Washington State.
Photo: Lifted out and gone... we finally put paid to our Volvo Penta.
We stood by the dockside with the two mechanics looking on. They could see for themselves the unburned diesel from our engine exhaust causing the rainbow coloured sheen on the surface of the seawater. They'd already inspected the rusting metal baking tray under our engine sump which was there to collect leaking black oil. Of course they'd not seen the pump that spewed out red coolant because I'd not long since paid an arm and a leg to get that replaced by old Jim Betts up in Juneau. Then there was the heat exchanger still unused in its box, also the alternator that was only six months old...
Our Volvo engine was dying a slow death upon its four hard-rubber mounts so something had to be done. We'd pulled into Port Townsend down in Washington State because there was a Volvo Penta dealer there, these were the experts who could finally fix our green lump of Swedish junk that caused us so much grief. We'd already had to abandon our plans for the Northwest Passage because our engine just wasn't up to the job... its unreliability would have killed us up there in the ice. There was no easy way to get the thing fixed in Alaska so here we were eight hundred miles south in Port Townsend, a gruelling six week day-hop voyage to finally get our engine sorted.
The two mechanics looked on thoughtfully knowing full well we were irrevocably in their hands. It was easy to spot the glance, you know the one I mean, that hidden look between them when a sailboat turns up that's in trouble - especially an English one. Did they not realise that we were experts in this game too? They said the engine needed to be taken out from the boat to fix the oil leak because the sump gasket seal had likely broken. Okay, that concerned me but I could go along with that. Then a compression test showed that one of the four cylinders was running at rock-bottom low pressure, allowing unburned diesel fuel to bypass the piston rings to eventually mix with the raw-water coolant that ejected into the sea. Perhaps that also explaining the embarrassing amounts of grey smoke from our exhaust... we were well used to smoking out some serene anchorage in the early morning calm. Somewhat sheepishly, I told them the engine had already been rebuilt back in Australia, that it had never been much good since then, that the gearbox transmission had been replaced only the previous year which had then straightaway leaked gear oil from a damaged seal. I told them about the freshwater pump and the alternator, the low oil pressure reading on the gauge, the hole in the heat exchanger that I'd once plugged with chewing gum mixed with epoxy resin...
They both smiled and laughed the requisite laugh - I always get nervous when someone laughs at my crap jokes because when they do that they just want to be on my side. I decided to cut to the chase and asked them, as Volvo Penta experts, what should be done. They talked things over thoughtfully which I found more reassuring, then my gut feeling inside kicked in meaning that for some instinctive reason I trusted them. They suggested a new engine which of course I knew they would, but they said to put in a new Yanmar, not a Volvo. Joe, the senior of the two explained that taking out the old engine and rebuilding it a second time wasn't a good idea, it would cost a small fortune anyway. That said it all but an authorised Volvo Penta dealer telling me to fit a Yanmar engine? Our Volvo had been a pain in the arse and a constant source of irritation for over seven years... and for many years even before its rebuild in Darwin but Sänna
had originally been built with the Volvo engine. Doug, who appeared to be the no-nonsense mechanical wizard smiled when I asked why they didn't recommend a replacement Volvo. They both agreed, repower Sänna
with a new Yanmar...
So we hauled Sänna
out of the water and had her chocked up outside the workshops of Haven Boatworks. Life would be a little tougher living onboard out of the water but these guys said the new engine could be delivered the next day from Seattle. It would take around a week to fit and we could then be on our way. We explained that we were heading south, that we were now well into the late autumn and soon early winter storms would be hurtling in from the Pacific. We were behind schedule, we seriously needed to be on our way.
That's not a problem they confirmed over in the office. We got an estimate of costs and I felt sick. First, I asked for a fixed price quotation, not just the low-reading estimate I expected... but that couldn't be done they categorically said. The job couldn't be costed like that. This definitely seems to be the American way of doing things when it comes to boats; of course many yanks who own a boat also have an open-ended cheque book. There's huge amounts of wealth in America and boats are more often a pure money thing, not always a serious passion. Sure there are many good Yankee sailors who grow their ponytails and turn native on their offshore travels but there's a lot of glamorous botox around too. So I got the estimate and talked things over with Marie. The estimate showed thirteen thousand bucks, which was gut wrenchingly sickening but somewhat less than we expected. It always is. We looked at each other and smiled uneasily... here we go again we both thought.
There's no doubt these guys were good, in fact I'd say they were the best we'd dealt with since leaving the Mediterranean. They weren't as good as the Turks but then no one ever would be... the highly-skilled Turks always give a good price up front and then stick to it. Here in Port Townsend it's just not like that but then we ourselves are no novices either. The engine didn't arrive the next day from Seattle like Haven promised but then we never seriously expected that to happen, it arrived three days later which was still pretty good in my mind. In the meantime our green lump of junk was lifted out by Doug with a forklift truck... I was impressed, one man and three hours work... it had taken old Jim Betts and his young sidekick ten hours just to change a water pump. Our old Volvo Penta then stood forlornly on a pallet outside of the workshop, it was covered in black oil looking extremely sorry for itself. I was genuinely sad to see the bastard go. But one week here in the boatyard then we would be gone I thought, we'd be on our way south with our brand new Yanmar.
Well over three weeks later we finally hauled Sänna
back into the water. There'd been a few complications. Our state-of-the-art Balmar marine alternator that was only six months old didn't fit the Yanmar. Our existing transmission gearbox didn't either so there needed to be an adaptor plate which someone forgot to order. Our three bladed propeller was the wrong pitch and a little too small, we needed a brand new prop from Seattle. There were other problems too but, I have to confess, Joe and Doug did know their stuff and we were mightily impressed. We got a new refrigerator installed too but that job went less well, a supposedly two day job that took longer than fitting a new engine. We got ready to launch but then came the time when we had to agree the final bill from Haven Boatworks...
Thirty-two fucking grand, more than twice the amount they estimated. The same worn-out trick played again. It invariably happens every time, give a low initial estimate to get the work in hand then maximise the actual costs as the job progresses. We appreciate there's always the unforeseen, the foulups and all the extras but never does a project come in under the estimated figure given - which is why hardly any marine contractor in America worth his salts will work under a fixed price arrangement.
But we're tight-arsed English and, as I've already said to you, we're no novices either.
Footnote: Let me say that Haven Boatworks in Port Townsend are without doubt a good outfit but we ourselves have considerable experience when it comes to project managing a major refit... with our previous instances of using hard-nosed American contractors having served us well. Sure, with some contractors we've managed to agree a fixed price quotation cost and they've religiously stuck to what was agreed, Canvas Outfitters in Anacortes a prime example. But agreeing to an open ended estimated-only cost is always going to lead to cost overruns... there's never ever an under charge with the final bill. Neither is the system of low estimating then ramping up costs purely an American thing, it's prevalent in most developed marine industries throughout first-world economies. The trick is to be prepared and on top of your game.
Undoubtedly my experience of running my own business in the dog-eat-dog environment of the construction industry serves me well. Effective project management is the core attribute of managing your costs, you must write down and record everything that is agreed, list every cost estimate given both written and verbal and, importantly, keep a record of every variance from what has been agreed. Also, if you are able, try and record actual working hours spent on the job even if only a rough estimate but the key thing is to note everything in detail in which the contractor has caused a problem, you will need this in the final negotiations when it's time to agree the bill. The system of cost estimating and then billing is always a two way relationship, there is no absolute obligation upon you just to pay the presented invoice in the way that paying a prior-agreed fixed cost quotation requires. An estimated cost is exactly what it says on the tin, it needs to be agreed and fully justified before you pay the final amount.
You are entitled to a full meticulous breakdown of materials and costs which the experienced contractor will invariably record on a sophisticated computerised job costing system. Agree to receive this breakdown at the outset, if not agreed then do not use that contractor or accept to pay their presented bill. Remember, if an oily mechanic needs to wipe his hands he will use a roll of paper towels, the full roll of towels will be recorded on your project managed job number, not the four sheets of paper the mechanic actually used. Nor will you be charged the Walmart price for paper towel rolls, you will be charged the contractor's purchase cost of paper towels plus ten to fifteen percent markup. Also remember that an experienced mechanic or whoever will cost much less than an inexperienced one... head scratching time, incorrect materials or not having the right tools can be exceptionally expensive because you will still be billed by the hour.
Most experienced project managers or quantity surveyors in whatever industry will tell you that final full-paid billing of estimated contracts is usually around sixty percent of the initial contractor's billing invoice once negotiations have been completed. Contractors invariably build this into their own cash-flow planning, which is also the common formula in the legal professions and in every other commercial environment in which invoice billings are based upon hours worked at a cost rate per hour. As a rule of thumb actual real hours worked on the job are usually around seventy-five percent of the hours booked, the rest being wastage which you will likely be billed for. Materials are straightforward to work out, there is a finite cost plus a calculated overhead recovery cost then a reasonable profit percentage markup added but any billings based upon chargeable hours are lost in a murky grey area that can be to your advantage providing you keep your own meticulous records. You must be honest and always pay for agreed extras but ensure they are agreed beforehand. Extras billed that have not been prior agreed or are billed higher than expected are then more easily subject to disagreement... remember that possession of the money is nine-tenths of the law, not the commercial terms agreed. Do not be afraid to stand your ground or even back-charge your own time.
If you are familiar with spreadsheets then record every item of work that is costed. For these items of work have a column headed Prior Agreed, Agreed Addition and Disputed. If you do not use spreadsheets then any other method of recording will do providing you can present this at the final billing stage. Do not show your records to the contractor until you are presented with any final invoice but in the meantime pay any stage payment requested providing it is not the full amount - but notify and record to the contractor exactly what you are paying for at all times - these payments must clearly show they are for work and materials only from your Agreed columns. Do not make payments for work that you will ultimately dispute though it's best not to dispute or raise disputes during the progress of the project... constantly disputing work during progress is the prime reason for projects slipping seriously behind schedule other than parts and material delays - a hostile relationship benefits no one. Of course this excludes major foulups and in-progress corrective work that is the contractor's responsibility. Corrective work and foulups go into your Disputed column which will also include items that you have not yet openly disputed - saving up as many of these as you can is your future bargaining chip. Also, making in-progress stage payments is normal and shows goodwill on your part. Refusing to make any requested stage payments at all will usually stop the job and rightly so.
If asked to prior pay upfront deposits for materials then that's fine, materials are fixed costs but pay up only when given proof of delivery. If the contractor is not in a position to pay for or fund materials without your money then do not use that contractor. Good contractors have authorised credit periods with their suppliers unless that credit has been stopped or cannot be agreed for financial reasons. But contractors have wages to pay as well as other fixed cost overheads, their own cash-flow is vital to running their business and they have to return a profit to survive... also to keep your project running.
Beware of the contractor or anyone with the 'Rolls Royce' on display in the parking space right next to the office main entrance... an old business colleague of mine always turned up for meetings driving a beat-up banger for exactly these reasons. The flash expensive car sometimes shows underhand cunning or deviousness, wanting to show off the trappings of the high-life is a trait most experienced and genuine business people religiously avoid. Do not accept invitations to socialise or become overly friendly with the contractors or their staff, this makes it difficult to dispute the final bill. I was once wined and dined at an expensive restaurant by a large firm of accountants then found the entire dinner bill inadvertently included on my detailed final invoice breakdown... with an eleven percent markup plus their extortionate hourly rate. This is standard practice in the legal and accountancy professions.
In the end we paid Haven Boatworks pretty much the right amount we were comfortable with, far less than their first billed invoice presented. We paid for all agreed extras and negotiated an amount very close to the hours actually worked on the job. The five rolls of paper towels were rightly knocked off the bill because no one could justify how they'd used full rolls. Importantly, Haven Boatworks paid for their own foulups, screwups that everyone makes regardless of whether they're good or not though many contractors will attempt to pass on the cost of their fuckups to you. This is common practice and you must be on your guard. We then paid promptly because Haven Boatworks are a smallish business that faces the normal constant battles to survive. It's never easy being in business.
Seriously, I would highly recommend these guys because in the end they did an exceptionality good job.
Please visit our SV Sänna website for more details of our circumnavigation voyage from the UK. Also at www.facebook.com/SV.Sanna. Like our Facebook page if you'd like to receive more news about our sail adventure. You can contact us here.