Stem to Stern: It Sure Looks Like Fun

Michael Rybovich ponders whether boatbuilding is actually fun and fulfilling—or a sure path to madness.

There are a lot of occupations in this old world that look like fun to those of us on the outside. Rock and roll, automobile racing, charter fishing, just to name a few. If you look beyond the gold records, championship trophies and world record taxidermy you’ll discover that there is a business component to all of these that reveals the ugly side of making a living: Production defines success. You’ve got to sell records, win races and catch fish in a consistent manner to stay viable. Everybody knows the ones that do, and nobody gives a damn about the ones that don’t. Running a boatyard is a business, even though it might appear to be a fun way to keep the wolf away from the door, but peel back the embellished press releases and the offshore glamor shots, and you are staring at the unvarnished truth: Working on boats is a competitive enterprise with slim margins.

The boatyard business is not like some, where each day you run the same tasks with predictable results. One’s P&L statements are relatively consistent when one’s work involves high-volume production manufacturing, plastic surgery, or suing insurance companies. This is not true in custom boat work. Everything we do here has an estimated price associated with the job based on historical data compiled from previous, similar projects. The problem with estimating, based on historical data is that it is only accurate if the same crew on which it is based does the work again. And that’s not taking into account the physical toll each year takes on the craftsmen. People rarely get more productive with age. Here’s a typical project scenario: Johnny put a set of covering boards on a 58 Merritt for us in 2016. Start to finish, tower leg bases, rod holders, fuel fills and guard metal re-installed, he had 165 hours in the job. In 2022 we put Johnny on another 58 Merritt, same job. We base the labor estimate, at our current rate, on 165 hours. When the job is complete, he has 215 hours in it. What happened? Apparently, we forgot to figure in Johnny’s pending paternity suit and looming divorce, his elective double-knee surgery last year, his raiding of his 401K to fund a Vietnamese currency scam, and the fact that he’s pissed at me because I told him to clean up around his bench and get his mind on work. All I can do is pray we break even. The old days of billing time and materials until completion of the project are way back there in the big bang. We never have a customer tell us, “I don’t care what it costs or how long it takes, just do your best.” The headstones in the cemetery, assigned to those folks, are so worn by the elements that carbon dating is the only accurate method of determining the date of demise. Quite often, I have inquisitive visitors to the yard ask: “Mike, how the hell can you price these jobs in the yard when no two jobs or workers are ever the same?” It might be time to share with the audience how the boatyard owner goes about it. Here goes:

  1. Call from the customer or captain.
  2. Inspect the job if local and available.
  3. Check the historical data for that job to see what it cost on previous boats when similar work has been performed by us.
  4. Discuss project with my yard manager, which usually results in adding additional hours to the bid, since he is a bleeding liberal and thinks the privileged boatyard owner expects too much from the employees.
  5. Estimate cost of materials as a percentage of the labor cost.
  6. Check the yard schedule to see when the right man for the job will be available.
  7. Discuss bid again with yard manager, which usually results in again adding additional hours to the bid because he is a radical left-wing socialist and believes that the boatyard owner owes the employees a stress free, fully funded, equitable existence instead of placing a selfish emphasis on productivity.
  8. Increase the material cost estimate to allow for cutting expensive lumber or metal too short, wasting expensive catalyzed paints and resins by mixing in greater volume than what is required, breaking or misplacing expensive plumbing fittings or electrical components, or repairing damage to the boat caused by no one in the yard, since, according to the yard manager, “These things just happen and it really is no one’s fault.”
  9. Discuss bid again with yard manager, which generally results in adding still more hours to the bid, since he is a communist and feels that 2- to 3-hours a day of actual work is too much for any cold-hearted, capitalist boatyard owner to ask of the down-trodden, working class.
  10. Check to make sure there will be room in the yard for the project since the jobs that were to be completed weeks before are still in the yard due to incompetence on the part of the boatyard owner to efficiently schedule work, resulting from his unrealistic productivity expectations based upon pre digital-age performance numbers when cretins like him had no Snap Chat, Tic-Tok, or Instagram capabilities.
  11. Discuss the schedule again with the yard manager at which time he reminds the boatyard owner that the employee has a life outside of work and, at any time, he or she may feel that personal issues take preference over any commitment we make to the customer and that all greedy, profit seeking, blood sucking boatyard owners and rich, slave-owning descendent customers need to understand that.
  12. Finalize labor and material cost estimate and work scheduling for presentation to the customer.
  13. Upon the customer’s acceptance of the bid and the delivery of the boat to the yard, commence work.
  14. Immediately following the initial saw cut or removal of hardware, the trade supervisors, who collectively possess several advanced degrees in pessimism, discuss the project with the anointed tradesmen who enthusiastically respond to negativity, and inform upper management that the job is much more difficult than what had been explained and that, “It, quite possibly, is something that can’t be done. If, on the outside chance it can be done, it will require far more time than that which has been allotted and it will be done whenever it is done. Don’t expect miracles.”
  15. Following a yard stay of three times the original estimate and numerous visits to the Cardiac Care Unit by the boatyard owner, the job is completed and the boat is launched and tested.
    At that time, the yard manager, who now has declared Jihad on the infidel boatyard owner who complained about how long the job took, defends the innocent comrades who have produced this work of art, singing their praises and beheading all who blaspheme in questioning the productivity of the poor, slaving martyrs.
  16. The boatyard owner now attempts to make sense of the labor and material numbers pertaining to the project and approve the final invoice. His ever-optimistic office manager provides him with an accurate record of each hero’s performance and does her best to present the data in the most favorable light. The boatyard owner, whose ignorant, sucker parents raised him to believe that one’s word is one’s bond and a handshake is a contract, bills the customer for the initially agreed upon price and loses his ass. The Masses spew forth in triumph, chanting in self-praise: “Come forth, all ye, and bear witness to our beautiful, flawless work and then behold: The incompetent boatyard owner who under-bid the job. He is but a fraud and a fool.”
  17. The boatyard owner exhales with relief as the project eventually departs the yard, seeking solace in the fact that he has again contributed to his two favorite charities: The General Fund for Employee Esteem and The Happy Customer Foundation. He calls his accountant to see if he can take advantage of the loss. His accountant reminds him that in order to take advantage of a loss, one first must turn a profit and he’ll certainly be made aware, if and when that ever happens.
The cost to play in our world has changed a bit over the last 75 years.

Photo: Courtesy Michael Rybovich

Our yard manager, Josh, does a magnificent job around here in his mission to keep our customers happy and keep the yard humming. In addition to his skills as a leader and a manager, he’s a good sport and knows this is all in jest and that I am simply poking a little fun at the constant challenges he and I face in our mutual pursuit of excellence. But seriously, it’s easy to see why this all looks like fun from the outside. The creative element, the pride in quality work and the immortality aspect of leaving something behind, all provide the spectator with a sense of wonder and envy. It’s the lure of deep-rooted seafaring traditions and the frequent opportunities to venture out upon the blue part of the planet as well. I hear it all the time: “Wow, you must feel so lucky to be able to work on boats all day and get paid for it!” Truth is, I do love what I do, and I know this luxury is a rare blessing from the big guy. It truly is a wonderful life. Yeah buddy, it’s a laugh a minute.

For your entertainment, in the process of moving our design office to another part of the yard, we found an old invoice of ours from 1947 and thought it might be fun to compare it to an invoice of today, if we performed the same tasks on a similar boat. We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we?

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This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.