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What Your Boat Repair Shop Wishes You Knew

We ask some longtime shop managers their perspectives on how to make your experience better.

When you and your shop are on the same page, chances are you'll head off any problems before they become major headaches. (Photo: Rich Armstrong)

Today's boats are complicated, and engines are complex. Most of us aren't equipped to do repairs in our backyard, so we end up taking our boats and engines to someone way more qualified to get them working well. Sometimes, though, things don't go smoothly, and it feels like we're not always on the same page as the shop. When that happens in life, often it's because we don't have the other person's perspective. We're here to help solve that problem. We talked to some owners and managers at respected shops across the country and asked them what they wished you knew about the business of fixing boats.


Jack Madison has been the general manager at Catawba Island Marina in Port Clinton, Ohio, for 32 years. Madison says that his shop really wants to get to know its customers because that helps them set expectations both ways. Phone calls and emails don't convey who the person really is. "We love meeting our customers face to face and getting to know them," he says.

Consumer takeaway: Make it a point to meet the service manager and even some of the techs when you bring your boat in. Having a personal relationship makes it easier to solve problems and prevent misunderstandings.

Madison says that it helps when their customers are very specific about what's wrong. The more information the technicians have, the faster they can solve the problem, which will save you money. Instead of describing a rough-running engine as "it just isn't running right," he says their technicians can be far more efficient when they hear, "After I've run the engine for an hour or so and turn it off, it stumbles for a couple of minutes when I start it again, but the gauges are all OK."

Consumer takeaway: Especially for intermittent problems, keep a log for the shop that details when the problem happens ("Right after I start the engine"), what happens ("It's a grinding noise that lasts a few seconds"), and any other details ("This has only happened on hot days"). Make sure the service writer notes your comments on the work order so the tech will see them.


Randy Hynd, owner of Sunset Marine in San Diego since 1977, wants people to understand that while they try, they often can't handle everyone at once when it's time for winterizing. "Once the kids are in school, chances are you're probably not going to use your boat much, and that's the time to schedule service," he says. If you delay until the first cold snap, it might mean the shop can't get to you when you need it. Also, he says, "if your boat has been sitting for two or three years and you suddenly want it up and running, it almost always will need more work than you think," he says. "Boats and engines don't like to sit unused."

Consumer takeaway: For general maintenance, try to pick a time when the shop is not slammed; winterizing and spring commissioning are almost always the busiest times. For seasonal winter and spring work, ask the shop when the best time is to schedule, make the date firm, and mark your calendar so you won't forget.

Madison says they try to fit everyone in, but longtime dock customers often get priority over someone bringing his or her boat in for the first time. "The boat owner who's been our customer for years gets priority." Hynd adds, "Also, sometimes there are emergencies, such as a sinking boat, that we have to attend to right away, which create unavoidable delays for our other customers." He also says that some shops prioritize commercial boaters who make a living with their boats.

Paul Hopkins is president of Port Charles Harbor in St. Charles, Missouri. He says that Fridays and holiday weeks are very busy times. "Everyone would like their boat to be finished on Friday so they can use it on the weekend," he says. "Scheduling isn't always easy. Until you diagnose the failure, you don't know how long it will take to do the repairs." Also, he says, a boat can be scheduled for one repair and, once work begins, related problems may crop up, such as a corroded bolt that slows down the repair of a sterndrive.

Consumer takeaway: Unlike, say your doctor's office, boatyards can't always factor in much time for emergencies. But if you're a longtime customer, you should expect the shop to try to accommodate you as best it can. If you're not, that doesn't mean you should always accept delay after delay. Keep on top of things, even if it means calling the shop daily or stopping by to see how the repair is going. Being the squeaky wheel often gets results.

Good Service Has A Price

"Finding good technicians is challenging, and costs money," Hynd says.

Hopkins agrees. "Customers may not realize how long it takes technicians to get certified," he says, "and that they have to continue their education yearly to stay certified. This knowledge doesn't come cheap."

Consumer takeaway: Don't simply shop for the cheapest labor rates. A well-equipped shop staffed with qualified and experienced techs will cost more initially but can save money in the long run by reducing return trips.

Boats And Car Repairs Are Different

Hynd says that today's boat repairs — with so many more complex systems — are not as standardized as they once were, or as easy to diagnose. Hopkins agrees. Unlike a car dealership, he says, it's often very difficult to locate parts. "On older boats, we sometimes find that the manufacturer of the component is no longer in business. So it takes longer to source parts or come up with a fix," he says.

Consumer takeaway: It's tempting to compare a car dealer to a boat dealer. But because of the huge scale in the automotive world, the reality is that boat repairs (especially fiberglass work) are often customized. They often take longer. And unlike the auto world where auto repair shops are busy year-round, in many parts of the country boat repair is a seasonal business and shops aren't always fully staffed.


"Some of the long-duration outboard-manufacturer warranties may begin limiting some repairs as the warranty progresses, says Hynd. "After a few years, they may not cover such things as electronics or gaskets. Shops have no control over that."

Mark Trodden, service adviser at Prince William Marina in Woodbridge, Virginia, says that boats and cars are very different when it comes to repairs and warranties. "Car warranties," he says, "are usually bumper-to-bumper and cover almost everything, sometimes even maintenance. Boat warranties don't usually cover as much or for as long."

Madison says, "Our shop warranties, for our work, have an expiration date." He says shops would go broke if they kept extending their own parts and labor warranties by a few weeks or months for everyone.

Consumer takeaway: Know the limitations and dates of your own boat, systems, and engine warranties. Also, make sure you know what the shop offers for its own parts and labor warranties; these are usually for time only, regardless of whether the boat has been used. After a repair, make sure you use your boat so you'll know it's fixed correctly, and before you put your boat away for the winter make sure that the fix lasts. If you have work done just before winter layup, or during winter, and then find the problem still exists next spring, your shop warranty may already have expired.

Diagnosing Is Work, Too

"We can't really just give a customer a rough estimate before the problem is diagnosed," Hopkins says. "The service manager often has to go to the boat and look at the accessibility of the repair area. On cruisers and houseboats, accessibility can be very limited. Every boat is different when it comes to repairs. Some are easier than others. In some cases, only a small person can get into the repair area, and we can't tell what the work will entail until he accesses it." Customers sometimes feel they should not pay for the diagnostic or estimate time, Hopkins says. But, he explains, he has to pay their techs when they're on a boat, whether it's for diagnosing or repairing.

Consumer takeaway: Expect to have to pay for diagnostic time, but ask if the shop will credit that time toward your final bill.

You're Not Alone

And now that you know theirs, your next visit just might go a little smoother.

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