Military strategist Helmuth von Moltke said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” This is also true for a boat refit plan
I started the refit of my boat, Passion, with a simple plan. Just as my geezerly body has needed a few parts replaced and some other repairs to keep me going strong, so too did my aging 1980 Pearson 40 to get her prepared for her future life as a long-distance cruiser. I bought Passion knowing she had been neglected and needed a lot of refurbishment. My surveyor identified a number of “older systems” needing replacement as well as some other more significant issues like blisters and an aging engine on its last legs. I planned a modest two-year refit project to rejuvenate her, based on the surveyor’s recommendations and my own desired upgrades and improvements for extended cruising. I thought it was a reasonable plan.
That reasonable refit plan fell apart as soon as I started. The “modest refit” mushroomed into a total top-to-bottom rebuild and customization. The worst enemy of any refit is the thought process that says, “Well since I have the ‘X’ part out, I might as well repair/replace the ABC system.” In my case that led to more fuel capacity, relocation of the batteries, a watermaker, improved storage, complete interior refinish, hull and deck repaint, complete rewiring, and on and on.
As with so many fixer-uppers, the deeper I dug, the more work I found I wanted to do. I think you get the picture. Now, many years into the project, partly due to the intrusion of multiple job changes but mostly due to project creep, I am finally nearing the completion of my fixer-upper refit. Here’s my advice to anyone contemplating buying and refurbishing a fixer-upper—plan for it to take a lot longer and cost a lot more than you think. This is the curse of the fixer-upper; many excursions into the unplanned and unknown.
Things I Learned
This seemingly endless project has taught me some seemingly trivial but extremely helpful tricks and techniques. Every one of these is time-tested and will save you incalculable hours, reduce the volume of expletives and produce a far better outcome.
Cover it up: For the first couple of years, the boat was sitting out in the open. Rain, snow, wind and the brutal Texas summer sun dramatically slowed progress and often reduced the quality of my work. A simple fabric shelter, like the one shown here, allowed me to work productively in the rain and wind and kept me out of the sun. You can buy them as a kit or you can fabricate a simple cover on your own from wood or metal pipe, and tarps. A shelter improved my productivity by at least 35 percent, probably more. And when you are done you should be able to sell the shelter to another boat owner or someone with an RV.
Get a workbench: This sounds almost silly, but a good workbench that is close to the boat will allow you to properly clamp parts in place while you work on them. This allows you to do a far better job, faster and more safely than if you try doing everything on the ground, on deck or in the trunk of your car. Workbench kits are available online or from any home improvement store. I like the ones sold under the brand “2 x 4 Basics” (2x4basics.com). They use run-of-the-mill 2 x 4 lumber and plywood and can be made into any size from 4ft by 8ft on down, so you can make the table fit almost anywhere. The total cost is around $125 with lumber and a top. At the end of the refit, sell it, take it apart, take it home or just abandon it. Someone will snatch it up immediately.
Buy the right tools: It is generally very easy to buy, and then when you are finished, sell, used tools from somewhere like Craigslist. Having the right tools will save you an incredible amount of time, and when you sell them you will recover nearly all of your investment. Having the right tools will also allow you to do a more professional job.
Learn to love cardboard: I learned very quickly that making any new parts for inside the boat was not going to be easy. Nothing is flat, symmetrical or square. I, therefore, found myself cutting a cardboard pattern for nearly every new part—shelves, bulkheads, counters, stringers, you name it. Cardboard also allows you to visualize a part so that you can get an idea of how it will look. This, in turn, may prevent embarrassing problems like having a cabinet door that can’t be opened all the way due to another structure being in the way, or a part that is too large to fit through the companionway (yes, I did it), or creating something that is just too ugly to live with. Large sheets of cardboard (up to 60in x 96in) can be purchased at a shipping supply vendor such a Uline (uline.com). The cardboard also can be used to protect the interior or deck from getting scratched or chipped from tools and feet and hardware.
Get the shop vac off the boat: This may sound trivial but the typical shop vacuum, an essential piece of equipment for any large boat project, is also one of the most damaging. It gets bumped around the interior, scratching up the sole and bulkheads. It can also be a significant trip hazard as it blocks your movement inside the boat. My solution was to put the vacuum on the ground, beside the boat and run 2 ½in hose up on deck from the ground. This size vacuum hose can be purchased online from someone like Amazon, or from a specialty tool vendor like Rockler or Woodcraft. It comes in 10ft to 20ft lengths and is relatively inexpensive. Couplings and adapters are available to join the hose to your existing shop vacuum and its original hose and tools. To save the effort of climbing up and down the ladder each time I needed to start or stop the vacuum, I purchased an inexpensive remote-control power switch, like the kind used to turn Christmas lights on and off.
Make it clean: Every article and book ever written on refinishing talks about how important it is to prep the part being finished. But how do you get a surface truly clean before you apply the finish? This is no small task, and there is a hidden gremlin that can make the job nearly impossible—silicone. The liquid form of silicone is in an amazing number of products. Most laundry detergents and household cleaners have silicone additives to make them more effective at cleaning. Many other products have silicone in them. If silicone gets on the surface of whatever you are prepping, it can cause “fisheyes” or other defects. The trick to cleaning surfaces for finishing is to use rags that are 100 percent silicone free. To do that you have two choices—wash the rags you use in water and pure ammonia, no laundry detergent, and let them air-dry, or buy rags or towels that are specifically designed for paint prep and are guaranteed to be silicone and lint free. I use a product called Kimtech Prep Wipes by Kimberly Clark, available online.
Dealing with fiberglass dust (and itch): I have saved the best for last. Anyone who has ever cut or drilled or sanded fiberglass has had to deal with the dreaded “fiberglass itch.” Those microscopic particles of fiberglass dust get into the pores in your skin and will drive you nearly insane because of the itching and prickling they cause. The way to prevent fiberglass itch is to wear a Tyvek or dustproof suit with a hood and elastic cuffs at the wrist and ankle. Add gloves and a full facemask respirator, and you are set.
Of course, we all know that wearing that kind of suit on a hot day is as unbearable as the fiberglass itch, and we are often in a hurry to do a small job involving sanding or grinding and “suiting up” is such a hassle. Surely there’s an easier way? Over the many years of this refit I have constantly dealt with fiberglass dust and the dreaded itch. Through trial and error, I have found a solution that works well for me. I rarely get any fiberglass itch even when I lay in the dust in shorts and a tee shirt.
The first step is to vacuum the dust off you. Do NOT under any circumstances blow it off with compressed air. Many people make this mistake. The compressed air either drives the dust deeper into your pores, or it sends it airborne where you breathe it in or have some of it settle back on your skin where it goes into your pores. A good vacuum is essential.
The second step is to take a shower as quickly as you can after you vacuum off. In the shower, scrub any parts of your body that were exposed to fiberglass dust with a “loofah” sponge. These are the coarse scrubbers used in spas to remove the outer layer of dead skin. The loofah also takes off all of the fiberglass dust. You need to scrub hard, but you can remove all the fiberglass dust and as an added benefit, you will end up with younger looking skin, which is a real plus for a geezer like me.
I have learned many other tricks over the duration of this refit, but these seven have made a big difference in the quality, enjoyment and speed of my fixer-upper refit. And to answer the question you are all wanting to ask—no, I would not do it again, but I am very glad I did this one. I now have what is essentially a brand-new boat that is customized exactly to my desires, and I have a personal relationship with every nut, bolt, wire and fitting onboard.
Chip Lawson is preparing for longterm cruising on his now-completed longterm project boat