Project management in the boat yard: the importance of setting expectations early

Cruising on a boat requires an enormous skill set. To be fully self-sufficient you must be your own mechanic, electrician, plumber, upholsterer, weather forecaster, chemical engineer, procurement officer, accountant, all the while being a community-minded, knot-tying, swim teaching, social director. It is small wonder that some cruisers wind up in their dinghies with sunburns and alcohol poisoning.

Arriving in Trinidad in late June, we lifted our catamaran out of the water and my husband departed for Canada, leaving behind me and our four children.

He said that he left to look after our house in Ottawa. But, we know that he learned to ride an ATV, attended at least one children’s birthday party, went for dinner in Toronto, and was invited to a Buddhist retreat. Meanwhile, we ate our share of Ramen noodles, and sandwiches, making friends with the grocery store staff, as I took on the role of single-mother, boat project manager.

Our early objectives were to paint the bottom of our boat, inspect the rigging, fix the keel, replace the plumbing hoses, and complete some minor gelcoat and woodwork repairs. We hoped to be in the water and back to Martinique by the end of August. Our eldest daughter, Betty, who is 13 years old, just got braces and is having her orthodontist work performed there.

But here we are still in Trindad (after successfully applying for a visa extension) and it’s October. I have reassured Betty’s orthodontist that “Les bagues c’est bon, nous sommes retournons.”

A conversation with a Spanish captain, Joaquim, came about two months too late. As he fiddled with the anchor of his brand new 52-foot catamaran called “Plan B” he said, “You have to set a date. It’s the only thing that gets you in the water,” gesturing towards an army of workers who were busy polishing and cleaning his boat. He was out of the water for about 10 days, and less than an hour after speaking to me, his boat, Plan B, was floating in the anchorage.

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Plan B was out of the water and is now back in the anchorage.

I tackled the project management job with full-on enthusiasm. I established job requirements, I sought quotes. I settled disputes involving stuffed animals. I took our kids to chess club at the Port of Spain public library. We also saw some sea turtles, visited the doctor, fostered a Kiskadee bird, went on a hike and found a home for a partially-blind stay cat. I entered data into a spreadsheet. I sent emails. And – better yet – I received them. Soon, from the dusty annals of my brain, I started spouting project management slogans. “You can have it good, you can have it fast, you can have it cheap. Pick any two.”

When I worked as a technical writer, I took a project management course, and was around project managers all the time as they gathered data from sales, marketing, design, testing and documentation groups. The people that I worked with had fantastic people skills, said some funny zingers (like, “you can’t make a baby with nine ladies and one month”) and made amazing spreadsheets.

But, hand’s down my role model for project management is my husband (Rick). He is the sort of person that stays up all hours, is fully accountable and finds time to write Christmas letters. There are a couple of other qualities that he has as an INTJ, that I didn’t fully appreciate until I assumed this role myself.

Rick’s secret sauce is that he sets expectations, and he does not take anything said at face value. That is to say, he does a lot of his own research. In contrast, I determined the scope of the project, met with contractors, negotiated quotes, bought supplies and tracked the budget. But, I was not as direct as I should have been.

This summer I learned that when managing people and projects it is essential to establish expectations. Setting expectations, is entirely separate from establishing job requirements. I’ve seen a contractor ask Rick outright if he wanted a “fiberglass project to be finished like a professional job or…”. That person was sent packing. I wouldn’t call Rick a perfectionist. But, he expects people do their best work possible. He is direct and treats people as professionals.

As I gathered quotes, I was called “honey”, “sweetie” and various permutations of the same by a contractor who had planned to work on our boat. I wish I had said something at the time. I was also told by someone else that “they’d wait to discuss their work and quotes with my husband”. That made my job easy. They were not hired.

But, overall I was way too friendly. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I am sensitive to feelings and tend to see the person behind an aggressive hair cut and wrangling gait.

The new me will not be making an extra loaf of bread with a contractor in mind and I will be setting expectations early on.

We have been improving our boat since we purchased her in March 2015. We have high expectations for ourselves and for people who work on our boat.

And, I also learned that I cannot assume that I am talking to consummate professionals. Since arriving at the Power Boats boatyard, I have watched someone cut into our keel and into our black water tank – turning a minor repair into something significantly more complex.

Another contractor stepped up to complete the job named Stephen Ramsahai. Everyone calls him “Sun”. He is amazing at matching gelcoat, and is not afraid to tackle the unknown. He works like a chef, tying all of his projects together. Sun spent days on our boat, listening to my children bicker, as he worked by himself in a very dusty room.

In addition to fixing the outside of the keel, he also had to seal up our black water holding tank, which is inside. Sun rebuilt the inside and glassed everything back together. It was not a small operation.

When we bought our boat I didn’t realize that I had signed up to learn how to build a boat. But, that is the level of research needed before working on a boat whether the work is done by me or someone else. Some boat owners will tell you that they will not hire contractors to work on their boat because they only end up doing the work themselves. The onus is on the boat owner to find the happy medium.

Our goal was to leave Trinidad by the end of August. Yet, here we are in October. Suffice it to say, our scope of work has grown. We are stuck here for at least three weeks because our anchor chain corroded while we have been here. The corrosion is very mysterious. I wonder if it was caused by the On-Off boat cleaning product which likely doused the chain when our boat was cleaned?

Currently, we are negotiating to have our rudders painted.

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Rudders? Who said anything about painting the rudders?

The rest of the boat bottom has been painted, but we have a contractor saying that painting the rudders was not part of the quote. Go figure.

And you thought we were sunning ourselves.

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6 comments

  1. I would paint those rudders with a light color white or light gray, the radiant heat can distort the foam if the boat is left out in direct sunlight in the yard, for future ref. Pat

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  2. Lorraine you are an inspiration to many who will read this the marine industry is a massively tough place to get a good job done at a fair price. Keep up the great work love reading your progress so proud of you all.

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  3. Great article,though I still think that doing it yourself ends up being easier. My last boatyard experience was due to hurricane damage, and while all my landlocked house dwelling friends were living in horror of being stuck between the insurance companies and the contractors hired to help fix things, it was just as bad but slower in the boatyard. It is a very frustrating experience. But your advice of not being too friendly, and putting down firm expectations on paper and getting hard copies of what they understand the work will entail may help me next time.

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  4. Very interesting story. but ” “fiberglass project to be finished like a professional job or…”. That person was sent packing.” I can’t help but think that an honest person who was willing to do the job great for the cost of great, or cheap for the cost of cheap was sent packing. The idea of only doing great work, or work completly to some high standard is an idea of priveledge. One has to be pretty financially well off and well placed to be able to walk away from work every time they are faced with someone who wants it done in a way they don’t entirely agree with.

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