The romance of the water

Published On: September 2, 2014Categories: Features, New Markets

On-water repairs aren’t for everyone, but some fabricators are finding business to be lucrative.

Question: Do you respond to your customers’ repair needs by hopping in your boat and going to their boats to do the work?

Range of answers: “Sounds like fun” to “Nope” to “Oh my God!”

Charles Klein, owner of Dorsal LLC in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., said, “I should think about that. That would be a way to write off my boat on taxes. But then I’d have to have a power boat. Nah. You can tell I’m a sailor.”

For many, the practice doesn’t work for their area or business model. Yacht owners sent dinghies to pick them up, so there’s no need for fabricators to use their own boat. Customers might not be willing to pay for the added time and effort. The waters are dangerous.

But for a few, a boat put to work is a valuable piece of the business pie, another way to say, “Yes, we can do that.”

How big a piece of the business pie?

From good listening skills to cameras to boats, preparation is particularly important for the onwater fabricator.

From good listening skills to cameras to boats, preparation is particularly important for the onwater fabricator.

“I meet people maybe six times a year to make repairs or replacements” says Sean Lawlor, owner of The Cover Loft in Annapolis, Md. “When customers are travelling through the Annapolis Harbor area, they will call for work to be done before heading south.”

Justin Jones, team leader at Sewlong Custom Covers of Salt Lake City, Utah, estimates “30 percent of our business is provided with our onsite service, otherwise it is local dealer work or local retail work.”

And from Aussie Boat Covers in St. Kilda Marina in Melbourne, Australia, Neil Hancock says, “We have a dozen marinas and yacht clubs located around central Melbourne which we service regularly. Around the bay there are many facilities as well—marinas, fixed, protected and unprotected moorings.”

Hancock says he receives “up to five calls a week during our peak season from September to April and maybe one or two a week during our quiet times. The ratio of work on the water to workshop is 50/50. All my customers’ boats are marina or moored vessels and some part of every job is in that situation.”

Right questions, right tools, right boat

From good listening skills to cameras to boats, preparation is particularly important for the on-water fabricator.

At Aussie Boat Covers in St. Kilda Marina in Melbourne, Australia, Neil Hancock regularly serves "a dozen marinas and yacht clubs located around central Melbourne.... Around the bay there are many facilities as well - marinas, fixed, protected and unprotected moorings."

At Aussie Boat Covers in St. Kilda Marina in Melbourne, Australia, Neil Hancock regularly serves “a dozen marinas and yacht clubs located around central Melbourne…. Around the bay there are many facilities as well – marinas, fixed, protected and unprotected moorings.”

“Customers generally call to ask how best to go about repairs and to get quotes,” says Hancock. “This is followed by the standard conversation about location, boat type, cover design, fabric and damage that needs attention. After ascertaining that information, I make a decision based on the customer’s responses and that leads to either meeting on the boat for a quote or going to the vessel to remove damaged covers and start the repair process.”

Those answers—and experience— serve as a tool checklist, notes Hancock. “Standard cordless drills and well-stocked fitting trays are very important as well as pliers, hammers, top snappers and clamping tools. We find double-sided tape handy and odd bits of plastic and fiberglass filler for clips that have pulled out of the hull. A new addition to our clip trays has been the self-adhesive press stud base, which, when applied correctly, is very strong and hides some horrible sins like oversize holes and scratches left by failed clips.”

“I carry what I need, whether I’m in my own boat or being picked up in the customer’s dinghy, and do not need a large variety,” says Lawlor. “The tools I use are standard canvas tools including a scissors, cordless drill, clamps, patterning material, tape, tape measure, Sharpie, fabric pencils and a variety of hardware.”

“Offering a mobile service,” says Rendell, “is difficult, and sometimes I see it as an art. An important thing I’ve learned over the six years of my business is not to hesitate to buy that specialty tool. The right tool for the job is so important. Being on the road does not allow the time to be busy trying to make the wrong thing work or to deal with lower-quality tools failing.”

Quality pays. As does organization. “Being organized allows me to know what I have with me, where it is located, and to maximize the space I have to store it all. Forgetting one important tool or supply can really put a cramp in the whole job,” Rendell says.

One important tool for the Sewlong crew is a camera. “We use the barge to get around to our customers’ boats, both in slips and out on the buoys. We take lots of photos to help us remember what needs to be done.”

For these fabricators, the tool belt is a boat. Lawlor says, “I have access to an 18-foot Wahoo and have fenders for padding when typing up to a boat.”

“My mobile boat repair and upholstery service currently does not have a work boat larger than a 9-foot inflatable,” says Rendell. “My pick up, delivery and repair service is done from my truck. Depending on the distance and depth of repair, I have loaded my inflatable to reach a boat on a mooring. I hope to add a larger work boat to my fleet in the future.”

Hancock says he has “the luxury of two vessels for on-water repairs. Locally we use our marina workboat for anything within a 10-mile radius. For repairs up to 60 miles away, I have a 450-horsepower 26-foot offshore Haines Hunter that gets us there quickly and safely. Both vessels allow us to carry large frames up to 20 feet into marinas where we can pull alongside for safer and easier transporting.”

Some of the risks and costs

One person’s risk is another’s comfort zone—whether you’re talking personal safety or the cost of insurance.

“I have worked on and around boats my whole life and enjoy being out on the water. I do not believe it is any more risky than working in a boatyard on the hard,” says Lawlor.

0914_f1_1As a counterpoint, for Hancock, “on-water repairs are extremely dangerous for a host of reasons: approaching and attaching vessel to vessel, boarding from one to the other, securing yourself while carrying out repairs, alterations or patterning, handling tools and making sure that the completed work doesn’t compromise the vessel in its environment.”

And when asked about how his insurance rates are affected by his choice to be on the water, Jones says, “This is a big issue! A typical insurance policy for a 23-foot boat might cost between $150 and $300. Because we have a permit in the national park, they require a commercial $1 million policy that costs us $2,500 to insure the boat.”

Lifestyle and business choices

Working on the water may have marketing benefits, too. “One of my customers made reference to ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Fabricators’ when I arrived at his boat with his frames and covers onboard my boat,” says Hancock. “The title has stuck. At every opportunity, I will travel by water from my workshop to my clients’ vessels because I can, and it is a great reward for hard work and preparation.”

For Sean Lawlor, using the boat makes perfect business sense. “I decided to fill this need to provide outstanding customer service to those boaters travelling through our area. It is indeed cost effective and takes less time than driving to many marinas that we service,” he says.

On the other hand … “I must admit that doing on-water repairs is more about the romance of the job we do, the feel-good factor, not what I would refer to as a cost-effective way of running your business,” says Hancock. “Spending time in the boat allows me to forget all the things that clog my mind and brings me back to work happy and content. Thinking it’s paying its way is good enough for this crusty old fabricator.”

Dara Syrkin is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Neil Hancock, Aussie Boat Covers

“On one occasion, we transported frames 35 miles from our marina to a river location for the installation of two bimini tops, a link sheet and all-round drop clears for a 30-foot party boat. The job was a wonderful success. The weather, however, had turned very bad and the trip home was horrendous, stupid even.

“At the mouth of the Yarra River we experienced 10-foot waves, but foolishly continued on. We made 10 miles in 2½ hours before making the best decision: to head for another marina for the night. The following day was typical Melbourne after a storm and we coasted home without a scratch but much wiser, I think.

“We chose to do the job by boat up the river because the customer’s home is located in a very secluded part of Melbourne where carrying the frames from the roadside to the water would have been extremely unsafe. The property is fully fenced and drops over 100 feet from road to river. We have since completed more work for that customer and some of his neighbors.”