Seven golden rules for boatbuilding success

Practical: Building a boat

When accountant Fraser Petrie told his friends he was going to build a boat, they thought he was crazy, even more so because of his profession. But – as Fraser explains – you can come in on time and on budget with a bit of nous.

The idea of building a yacht had been slowly forming over a period of several years. When I announced my intention it was met with amazement from friends and family. Comments included: “You, an accountant? Building a boat, yeah right.” “There goes the marriage.” “Are you crazy?”

They laughed when I explained that not only did I want to build my dream yacht, but I wanted to enjoy the journey as well.

After spending several years cruising on a variety of boats my partner Karen and I decided that the dream boat was a fast sailer that had “attractive” lines.

We looked for a stock design rather than a one-off and after a period of investigation decided on a Van de Stadt Helena 38 fast cruising yacht to be constructed using the strip-plank method.

Project management techniques
Having heard all the horror stories that surround amateur boatbuilding projects ð the projects that never see the water, family breakups, 10 years in construction etc ð I recognised that this was a project no different from those I had managed in my previous life as an accountant. I therefore decided to apply basic project management techniques to ensure that the boat was built in a timely manner, within budget and I could enjoy the process along the way.

Professional boatbuilder
My plan was to employ a boatbuilder full-time and to work alongside from the start until end of the project. The boatbuilder would be responsible for all skilled work and the overall quality of the yacht. I would ensure that materials were available when required, that all administration needs were met, plus would be the lackey on the job. This meant doing the unskilled tasks such as fibreglassing, fairing, sanding and painting, as directed by the boatbuilder.

It took six months on and off to finalise the plan and budget. The construction phase took nine months. The project came in on budget, was a great experience and continues to give me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. The resulting yacht is of high quality, has a higher resale value than it cost and should give me many years of trouble-free cruising.

Below are what I consider the golden rules for the amateur boatbuilder.

1. Determine the design, construction method and quality/style of finish
Having had a history with other yachts is a real plus because you will have identified desirable and undesirable characteristics that you will look for in the boat design. Search for the design that best fits your needs on the internet, boating magazines and by wandering along marina jetties.

Once you have settled on the design, determine the construction method. You will have a preferred medium ð see if this is compatible with the method recommended by the designer. Order the study plans, which should include a breakdown of materials required as the basis of the budget. They will also allow you to determine the major stages of the project, keel construction, metal work, rigging, sails and electrical etc.

In determining the design find out what the plans will consist of because they vary greatly from designer to designer. Some offer a bare minimum (and normally cost less) while others offer full-sized patterns, extensive plans and a guide to construction which ð while they cost more up front – may result in substantial savings through reduced labour hours required during construction.

I spoke to several boatbuilders and shipwrights and determined that ð while the hull and deck can be constructed quickly and to a known cost ð when it came to the fit-out this was one of those how-long-is-a-piece-of-string” scenarios. It can vary by thousand of hours depending on the quality and finish required. We wanted a bright interior, which involved painting most of the surfaces and using timber trims. This, according to the boatbuilder, resulted in a huge reduction in the hours required and therefore cost.

2. Recognise your strengths and weaknesses and what you bring to the project
Determine the level of external help required and what you can do yourself. How much can be subcontracted out: metal work, keel construction, cabinetmaker, spray-painter, electrician, rigger, gas fitter, upholsterer etc. Do I need a boatbuilder, shipwright? If so, for what stages?

The additional cost of skilled labour should result in faster construction and a better-quality finish.
If you require the skills of a boatbuilder, determine the terms of employment: full-time, casual or sub-contract.

Full-time employment will usually be for an extended period and will be continuous. You will need to determine what the award wage is and then locate this person. I found that the naval architects (or their agents) will often have some contacts here; otherwise, there are word of mouth and newspaper advertisements.

Once you locate a potential boatbuilder try to spend some time together before you sign a contract of employment. Perhaps going over the plan, reviewing what resources will be required and time frame to determine if you can work harmoniously together. Arrange to see the quality of their workmanship and references from other satisfied clients.

There will be administration issues associated with full-time employment. Register with the tax office to be able to deduct and remit income tax, plus there may also be health care, workers compensation and superannuation deduction requirements. You will need to be able to pay the boatbuilder each period and remember to allow for accumulated holiday pay, which is often paid at the end of the project or year. The employee will also be entitled to paid sick leave and other “employment” benefits.

Also determine whose tools will be used. Will the boatbuilder supply their own? What tools will you need to provide?

The advantages of this approach are that you have continuity of skills, some level of worker loyalty and often it can be cheaper. Disadvantages are that you may end up with an unsatisfactory worker or you may not be able to get along and in this case they are often harder to get rid of.


Should you employ a casual boatbuilder you must determine how you will use them: two days a week, two weeks per month or perhaps a mentor relationship. This can work well if you are handy. However, you can get difficulties if the boatbuilder moves on or takes more secure employment. The cost per hour will be higher than a full-time employee.


The contract boatbuilder is often the most expensive option. However, they are self-employed, so the administration is low and often the skill and work ethic is high because that's how they have remained in business. You will need to agree on the amount of time they can give you and when it will be required. The contractor will normally provide all their own tools and is a more specialised tradesperson than the all-round boatbuilder. The main disadvantage is that they are inclined to take on more work when it is available, which can result in your project having a reduced priority and thus lead to delays.

The decision to employ a boatbuilder and on what terms will involve considering the implications of having skilled labour on site. The cost of a boatbuilder will be a substantial percentage of the overall boat cost (in my case it was 20 percent). However, it can result in a better-quality finish and thus a higher resale value when that time comes. It will probably mean less maintenance on the boat because things were done well the first time. It will also mean reduced project time because you have an extra body on site ð this can reduce other costs such as rent and lost income and make the project a lot less straining on you and perhaps your partner/family.

There are some horror stories about boatbuilders, so it is important to select them carefully. Determine how you want the relationship to be, discuss it with the prospective boatbuilder and see the reaction. You must be able to work together. If in doubt, look further afield.

Make the most of them

The key issue is that no matter which way you employ skilled labour, make the most of them. Ensure that you have the necessary materials on site for them to do the job. To pay someone while they drink tea because you failed to order this or that is a bad sign.

Delegate tasks to suit the level of skills employed. If you are not so highly skilled as the boatbuilder, remember you can still sand, bog and fair, paint, fibreglass and do more sanding. Do not have a highly paid professional boatbuilder sanding the hull when their skills are better used.

I found that by having a beer on a Friday afternoon (after work) I was able to discuss the coming week or two with the boatbuilder so I could ensure we had the materials on hand.

3. Formulate the plan and budget
The plan should factor in if you will build part-time, full-time, where construction will take place and the implications of this. If in the backyard at home consider the council regulations, neighbours, noise, dust, fumes and transport access.

The plan should encompass all aspects of the project: skills required, administration (insurance, tax, employment agreement), financing and timeframe. In prioritising you must recognise that there are key events in the project that need to be in place before the next stage can proceed. For example, in my case finding the suitable boatbuilder was my number-one priority, and until I had located this person and come to a verbal agreement I was unable to go ahead with the project.

If you are familiar with project management software, you will find this a useful tool. If not, a spreadsheet will suffice.

Go over the study plans, refer to the construction materials list, then add to this every piece of hardware on the deck, sails, rigging, plus all that is required to use the boat: instruments, refrigeration, galley, anchoring and head etc.

The budget involves taking this list and putting dollars to each item. Determine probable suppliers, use local chandlery catalogues, obtain quotes and prices for everything you can think of, right down to door handles and hinges. Remember to include insurance and allow for consumable items like thinners and sandpaper. At the end add on a minimum of 10 percent for contingencies. I suggest that you use the catalogue prices for the budget even though when it comes to your purchase you may negotiate a better price.

Most of all in the budget process do not kid yourself ð come up with a realistic figure and then you can make decisions about how to fund this. Many boatbuilding projects that fail are severely compromised by a lack of funds and, remember, you will lose on a partially completed project, whereas you may profit on a fully completed boat.

At this point you can still pull out with very little cost but once the ordering starts you are committed.
Keep working the plan ð it's the most vital step in the whole process. Like a business plan, it will allow you to confront and solve problems before they arise, the greater the effort here the greater the chances of success.

4. Determine how you will finance the project
With the budget drawn up and the project plan, you now have a good idea of how much the boat will cost and when those funds will be required. You should now determine how you will finance the boat and arrange for the funds to be available when required.

Be aware that if you experience cash-flow difficulties this can have a drastic effect on the project, the morale of the participants and the attitude of suppliers. This can result in delays and increased stress levels, which can negatively impact on the quality of your boatbuilding experience. If you require external financing, come to an informal agreement at this stage.

5. Make the decision and stick to your project plan
The moment has arrived to make the decision: proceed or not. If so, activate your project plan.
* Lock in the finance.
* Order the boat plans, rent the shed and set a commencement date.
* Sign the employment agreement with the boatbuilder.
* Begin ordering materials and subcontracting tasks.

In the commercial world organisations often require three quotes for an item of over so many dollars. I suggest that you do the same. Identify major suppliers of your materials: fibreglass, timber and steel.

Go through the telephone directory and select three of these suppliers and draft up a request for a quotation that details what materials are required, when they are required and what form you want the quote to take (for ease of comparison). I found that by ringing the suppliers first I was able to establish contact, find out if they supply these materials, and if they had supplied other boatbuilders.

When the quotes are received comparisons are made which lead to a decision. This procedure will be ongoing throughout the project, and it will apply equally to the riggers, electricians, sailmakers etc. It may allow you to improve on your budget (better buying) or at least understand why you elected to go over budget (better quality, service, new material etc).

Getting contractors to do things on time is often a problem, and where it is critical it pays to book them early, and ring them regularly – two weeks before, one week before and the day before. Just make them courtesy calls to confirm all is well. Forward-plan and problem-solve before hiccups result in delays or overspends.

6. Track the project from start to finish
Convert your budget into an actual-versus-budget report. By adding and updating a forecast-to-spend column you can predict the total cost of the project against the budget (actual-cost-to-date plus forecast-to-spend-equals-total-forecast-cost).

Every item of expense incurred must be accounted for. It is the only way to maintain control. This will allow you to keep track of the project and highlight savings and overspends. It will help you see any cash-flow difficulties before they arrive.

Monitor progress according to the plan, review requirements, dates, targets, look ahead look for problems, bottlenecks and solve them before the become an issue.

7. Stay on top of the administration
Employing a boatbuilder will involve regular administrative tasks such as wage payments, tax remittance, superannuation, to mention a few. Funds need to be available and suppliers' bills paid on time.

Insurance need to be in place. During the building process your investment will increase over time and because this is often a substantial investment, boatbuilding insurance may be prudent (remember the three quotes). Note that many insurance companies will not insure the home builder (another reason to employ a professional boatbuilder) and many insurance companies will not insure the construction process over many years, which is another reason to keep it short.

Also remember to insure your tools and have public liability insurance to cover the public having an accident on your site.
The project plan needs to be updated regularly, including the actual/forecast expenditure and the progress to date. I found that keeping a diary of the project was helpful in tracking progress, pitfalls and got my mind thinking in the right direction for problem-solving.

Satisfying experience
From my experience, with up-front planning a boatbuilding project can be a highly satisfying experience resulting in the construction of a quality vessel on time and within budget. That vessel will also have a higher resale value than would otherwise be the case and can give you years of low-maintenance cruising. In addition to all of this you will know every aspect of your dream boat.


Fraser and his partner Karin left Brisbane in 2004 on the maiden voyage of their Van de Stadt 38, Luna. After cruising through SE Asia, surviving the tsunami, typhoons and volcanic eruptions, they have returned to settle (for a while) in Tasmania. This is their fifth yacht, and they have been sailing on and off for 15 years.

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