Rapid refits are becoming big business, but how can you guarantee a speedy turnaround – and is it worth it? Charlotte Hogarth-Jones and Olivia Michel investigate...
Want to make you and your boat unpopular? It’s simple: just announce that you’re planning a super-fast refit. With new-build yachts taking several years to complete and in high demand, many people have turned to buying older boats with the aim of giving them a rapid upgrade over three to four months and getting them back on the water. The pros? More time on your yacht to holiday with family and friends, or more weeks of income thanks to a competitive charter market. The cons? No one in the industry likes doing them.
“When I saw your email about this feature, my first response was ‘don’t do it,’” laughs Pier Posthuma de Boer, refit and services director at Feadship. Like many, he sees the speedy refit trend as a dangerous one. “It’s not good for anyone, because either you speed the work up so much that the quality suffers, or the yard is just going to make promises it can’t keep.”
According to Posthuma de Boer, “there are so many refits being done where yards say it’s just going to take three months, even though they’re not quite sure if they’re going to make it – they just want the project on their books and plan to have that argument later.”
Beyond that, he notes that yards are faced with so many challenges currently, from a lack of skilled workers such as painters and welders to unpredictable supply chains and costs due to the macroeconomic climate. These high-pressure projects can push teams to breaking point, while fast turnarounds can be something of a false economy. A quick paint job might show wear faster than a properly executed one; a speedy interior might lack the level of finish of one that takes just a few weeks longer.
The pressure trickles down to designers too. “Fast refits are a hell of a lot more work,” notes John Vickers, CEO of Vickers Studio. He should know: over the past few months, he and his team have launched more than 215 metres combined of a newly refreshed superyacht, all carried out to extraordinarily tight timescales, and on large yachts between 50 metres and 100 metres. “Clients have always wanted their boats right now, but I’ve definitely noticed a shift since Covid-19,” he says.
“Charters were full and people wanted their boats ready for a holiday because they couldn’t go anywhere else,” he continues. “I think just the nature of Covid was that everyone was thinking they had to appreciate what they had right now – which in many cases meant buying a boat and making it to your tastes as quickly as possible. It’s tricky, but it’s something we’ve managed to do successfully alongside our new-build projects.”
His isn’t the only studio to have received an influx of requests. “The second-hand market has been super active and demanded a lot of us,” explains Laura Pomponi, CEO and founder of design studio Luxury Projects. She estimates they have seen a 50 per cent increase in requests for ‘instant refits since October 2021.
While some shipyards have reservations about taking on these projects, others are making hay while the sun shines. MB92 in La Ciotat in France is facing “probably the busiest autumn we’ve ever had”, says CEO Ben Mennem, who notes that in many cases, owners simply can’t afford to have their boat laid up for lengthy periods. “Yachts are no longer doing a season in the Med and then sitting around all winter,” he says. “Boats do two or three seasons now, going all over the world. Some of them will cruise Greenland, come for a quick refit, and then head to Antarctica. The yacht needs to get to where it’s got to be to earn its living.”
Francesco Fico, the owner’s representative of 66.4 metre ISA OKTO, also agrees. “With charter rates at half a million euros a week, it’s very expensive to stop a boat like this, so the goal is always to shorten refit times,” he says.
OKTO is now considered one of the fastest refits to ever take place at Palumbo’s Savona base, with works including a full pool repaint, furniture reupholstering and a revamp of the swimming platform being completed in less than 20 days earlier this year.
A rapid refit comes with high risks then, but the owners say the rewards justify the potential headaches. Here’s how to do it right…
Step 1: Find a trustworthy team
Choosing a yard for a refit is always an agonising decision – perhaps even more so in the case of the rapid refit. What’s crucial here is that the outfit you go with has the right facilities and experience for this specific job. Don’t worry too much about geography and how close you are to your yacht. It’s “of lesser importance”, says Pomponi, who picks builders for her projects partly based on their track record in carrying out similar work and partly on the yard’s reputation.
In terms of the size of the yard, opinion here is divided. A small shipyard might be able to be more flexible and responsive, and, crucially, have the availability to take the job on. Posthuma de Boer, however, advises going with a big yard, with a big management team. “With these guys, you have the biggest chance of getting [your boat] in and out quickly because they know what they’re doing,” he says. “They do about a hundred projects a year.”
It’s worth asking about things like shed lengths and that the yard is able to move multiple boats at the same time – otherwise delayed projects can sometimes hamper yours – as well as assessing what kit you’ll need for the works and if your yard has it all in-house.
Mike Carr, joint managing director of Falmouth-based yard Pendennis, notes that the yard’s upgraded facilities mean they can now carry out both classic restorations and quick facelifts in a fraction of the time they used to. “When we first refitted 65 metre Adix more than 30 years ago, we had to build the cradle, hire a crane and wait for the tide. It took a month just to get the boat into the shed,” he says. “Now, it takes less than a day because we have all the right equipment.” In addition to a crane, he recommends asking if a yard has an enclosed, non-tidal wet basin or not. This allows yards to test water-reliant systems – for example, stabilisers, engines, generators and air conditioning – before the boat has even come out of the water, thereby picking up any potential issues earlier.
A shiplift is another key piece of equipment that can help yards speed up refits. Compared to a traditional dry dock, which can only accommodate one project at a time, a shiplift can transfer yachts from the water into numerous different parking spaces for work to take place. Mennem is excited about MB92’s new 4,300-ton lift, which allows up to seven yachts measuring 115 metres to be accommodated in the shipyard at one time, and will help facilitate ever-quicker refits. “That was a €45 million [£39m] investment for us, and it’s pretty much fully booked already,” he reports.
Finally, 3D scanners are another type of apparatus that can help yards forge ahead. “If we can scan a hull form and have more information available about the original construction, we can advance by cutting and welding packages that just get added at the end,” explains Mennem.
Commercial director Víctor Pérez Campos calls scanning the “main quick fix” at Astilleros de Mallorca, where record refits have included a total repaint of a 90 metre motor yacht in less than four months. “After a visit on board to scan the areas where the new items will be installed, we can prefabricate every piece of structure, equipment or furniture, reducing the yard time to the minimum,” explains Pérez Campos. When working on the 48.5 metre Feadship Audacia, Carr says the use of scanning technology at Pendennis “helped the boat be in the yard for just three months when the total construction time was probably six months”.
The ability to make parts in-house can also help bypass current supply chain issues. Houstoun Demere, VP of business development at Savannah Yacht Center, confirms that with “80 per cent of our customers having tight turnarounds due to pending charter contracts, supply chain issues tend to be the biggest problem.”
At MB92, Mennem shares that “now there’s more of a tendency to rebuild parts where before we would have bought new ones because it was cheaper.” This may increase the cost of the work, he says, but makes the point that fixing rather than exchanging is “environmentally better”, not to mention sometimes quicker.
In addition to the top kit, an extensive in-house team can help things run smoothly. Some 80 per cent of Balk Shipyard’s workers are employed full-time, and the company believes the fact that its team already works well together saves clients time and money. “If you just hire a bunch of people and put them in a yard, you never know how the communication is going to go, and it’s not the most efficient way of doing things,” says Evan Kortmann, the yard’s chief commercial officer.
Going with a yard that’s already familiar with your yacht can also pay dividends, as Stephen Roberts, the owner of 34.6 metre explorer-style yacht Only Now found. To him, it was “a no-brainer to take the boat to the shipyard in Istanbul where it was [originally] built,” and inviting original designer Riza Tansu on board to discuss the new modifications also smoothed plans along. At the height of the pandemic, he was able to make changes to the bridge area, replace the outdoor furniture, rip out and completely “bulletproof” the communication, Wi-Fi and audiovisual tech on board with all-new systems, leaving Roberts free to enjoy the majority of the season on his revamped new boat. “It certainly speeds the process up,” he notes.
A flexible and knowledgeable designer can also help head off any delays in advance, particularly when dealing with today’s supply chain issues. A good designer will only present you with options that they know are currently available, and present clever solutions to address your yacht’s issues in as short a timescale as possible.
At Luxury Projects – where quick refits have included a four-month turnaround on 37.3-metre Her Destiny – Pomponi states that it’s a mistake to try and rush artisans. “Their work is time-consuming, and the process cannot be sped up. If you do, the quality will be less than acceptable,” she explains. “What can and must be done is to guide the client from the start into feasible solutions, like offering readily available materials rather than redesigning.”
Vickers agrees. On his recent rapid refit projects, his team “bought everything suitable that was in stock in London pretty much, and around Europe”, he explains. They searched exhaustively for items that fit the brief and presented the client with a carefully curated edit. Owners need to be flexible here, he says. “If you’ve only got three months instead of three years, you’re more limited as to what’s available.”
The design period is so condensed that a more intense period of time spent between owner and designer can be beneficial, he continues. With the full refit of 75 metre Leander, he spent a week as a guest of the client, during which time he was able to completely rework the yacht’s layout based on his requirements, as well as draw up ideas for the yacht’s joinery, and have the owner sign off the plans by the end of his stay.
By the end of the following week, his team had turned his hand drawings into proper CAD designs, and by the end of six weeks, all the visuals and design drawings were approved, while the yacht’s interior was already being ripped out. That left as much time as possible for the build to take place.
Having the key decision maker's ear for that one week was useful, he says, and is a good idea, especially for owners who live abroad or travel frequently. “You also get to see how they live, the type of interiors they like, and you can develop a concept together.”
The project lead
A project lead who you trust and who can make decisions on your behalf is key. If plans need to be run via three or four people, that can easily lead to three- or four-week delays, say the yards.
“The most efficient refits I’ve done have been with senior captains who are well-schooled in doing them,” says Posthuma de Boer. “They have the direct ear of the owner, they know the boat inside out because they’re on it every day, they can manage operational and logistical decisions and they have authority on the budget – but, of course, that very much depends on the skills of the captain. There are a lot of captains who are simply more skilled in sailing a boat than managing administration.”
In that case, a management company can be the answer, but wise owners should plump for a small firm led by a handful of experienced professionals, advises de Boer. “What we have sometimes are management companies that throw a lot of youngsters and spreadsheets at a project,” he says. “That doesn’t add efficiency. It just costs more and takes more time, and creates additional operational costs.”
Step 2: Prep as much as you can
Besides choosing a decent team, the best way to ensure a fast turnaround is to prep for the work as far in advance as possible. “Often when an owner wants a boat tomorrow, they bring it into the shipyard, and then it just sits there while they do all the preparatory stuff that you could have done beforehand,” says de Boer. Ordering furniture and having it made, doing the engineering and pre-ordering parts can all be part of this, as is making a proper plan about what works can be done at the same time and in what order certain processes have to take place.
“The yacht can’t give us the work list the day it arrives and expect us to do it,” stresses MB92’s Mennem, calling refits “a team effort” between the client and the yard. Prior to OKTO’s refit, Fico explains that using Pinpoint software was crucial for allowing the crew to keep track of necessary jobs on board and communicate with the yard, receiving quotations two to three months before the yacht’s yard period. “When we arrived, the new parts were waiting for us,” he explains.
As waiting lists increase, simply booking in early is a wise move. Carr has now noticed that clients are starting to engage much earlier than before, with bookings already made for winter 2023/24, while Kortmann finds it strange that many owners don’t book a slot in advance. “You already know when your five-year survey is, so reserve that slot now,” he advises, while also noting that being flexible when works are carried out – for example, in the spring rather than the beginning of the refit season in October – can help to move works forward.
Step 3: Consider quick fixes
If time is of the essence, then it’s worth thinking backwards from what you’re trying to achieve. If the aim is simply to give an older yacht a bit of a facelift, there are simple hacks that look good but take a minimum amount of time. Kortmann says that wrapping the yacht’s interior is “a quick and dirty way of fixing it, and making it look nice and smooth again”, while replacing the aft sliding door often has a big impact on the look and feel of the yacht. “If you expand the swimming platform in the aft, that also gives you another look, and you can do that easily. Many of the older vessels have fixed benches outside and inside. If you take them away and replace them with loose furniture, that’s a big change.”
Joris Saat, an independent refit consultant currently working on a 60 metre yacht, advises focusing on “small things with major impact, such as the carpets and flooring”. Concealing equipment can make a dated boat look fresh. A project is cheaper and quicker if the boat can stay in the water, he notes, so rule out painting, fairing, or anything below the waterline if you really want things done fast. Another means of making a quick but significant visual impact is through lighting, notes Pomponi, suggesting that installing LED lights without altering anything else can sometimes be enough to “magically change the ambience on board”.
As a general rule, replacing engines and generators, stabilisers, window frames, moving pipes and insulation or displacing anything that was fixed to the wall or the floor usually takes three months at the very least.
Step 4: Be flexible
A bit of lateral thinking can help projects happen faster. If you don’t want to lose your yacht for a number of months in a row, you can think about splitting works into small chunks, or combining certain elements of the refit with two-month maintenance periods, says de Boer. It can make work less efficient, and more expensive, but means you don’t have to change your sailing schedule. You can also start and finish refits in separate locations, meaning, for example, that you could start works in the Mediterranean, make a crossing, and finish them in Florida, thereby manipulating the refit into a period that suits the yacht’s schedule. It’s an approach that worked for owner Andy Scott, who finished the UK refit works on 31.7 metre Elton in Valencia to make the most of an opportune weather window.
A proper understanding of what’s being asked from the owner’s side can help move mountains too. On the 88.5 metre Cloud 9, Vickers says that the client’s respect for the time situation really helped make the impossible, possible. “They helped themselves by being aware that they were asking a lot and made sensible and quick decisions – a four-month refresh is a serious challenge, they trusted us, we were able to do it and they were able to use the yacht this summer and also gained some weeks of the charter.”
Scott goes one step further, encouraging owners themselves to “muck in” as it will both increase the speed and decrease the costs of refitting. Beginning in November 2020, Scott’s classic sailing yacht was refitted, re-rigged and commercially certified for charters with West Nautical in just three months at Endeavour Quay Specialist Boatyard in Gosport Marina, Hampshire. “I’ve built 500 houses and have owned seven or eight boats, so I know my way around major refurbishment issues,” explains Scott. “The challenges of the project were whenever we had to involve bigger companies. It’s important for the safety bits to get the right people in, but cosmetics-wise, just do it yourself, I’d say. If it’s a labour of love, you’re bound to do it more efficiently.”
Step 5: Leverage personal connections
As in business, personal connections count when asking teams to go the extra mile, and it can pay to either draw on your own relationships, or ask others to do the same. Kortmann puts the speed of some of their fastest refits down to “the Netherlands network”, something he says is not specific to Balk. Having a wealth of reliable labour and smart people “enabled us to work with suppliers in a really short time”, he says, adding, “There’s trust and open communication there.”
The three-month refit of the 88 metre Maltese Falcon was also able to happen thanks to a close relationship between the boat’s owner, and the yard’s (Zancle 757) CEO Rocco Finocchiaro, who also happened to be a former captain. The pair had met at Yacht Club de Monaco, and “the owner felt that she could count on us to make the best of the refit and [overcome] its challenges, thanks to our emotional investment in the boat,” he explains.
Dynamics on the work floor also have a minor part to play. “It’s not so much only a good relationship between senior management and the owner of the boat, but it’s also the relationships between people [that matter],” notes de Boer. “At the end of the day, if I have to choose between two projects and one is an idiot and one is a nice guy, you’re going to choose the nice guy. That will speed up the process for sure, although it won’t save you months.”
Step 6: Increase your budget - or don't
The age old solution: throwing money at the problem. When it comes to rapid refits, the general consensus is that a bit more cash is going to be necessary, but it’s not a fix-all solution. Some processes simply cannot be sped up or the quality suffers if you do (using heaters to dry paint jobs, for example), while sceptics claim the extra cash doesn’t get you far.
“It goes without saying that super-fast works can involve huge costs” says Giulio Maresca, president of Palumbo’s Marseille shipyard where a 15-year Lloyd’s Register survey for 73-metre Titania was finished in just eight weeks. Maresca details that the additional “preparation and manpower” needed to reduce hours were the source of higher bills. Scott likewise used extra shift work at Endeavour Quay boatyard, but it came with a price, he says. “Extra shifts will effectively double the speed at which you get stuff done, but if you expect people to work weekends and late nights, they will charge you more.”
Spending more on spare parts will also help owners tackle supply chain issues, as was the case with OKTO’s refit. “We increased our spending budget by 20 per cent to 30 per cent to order extra parts and stock them on board,” explains Fico. Pomponi has seen that “the average new owner spends about 30 per cent more on refits compared to three years ago”.
On the full exterior and interior refit of Oceanbird, a 53 metre Sanlorenzo, Vickers’ team of 13 was able to produce a whole set of CAD plans and 25 visuals in three weeks, and states that the owners’ increased budget is what propelled the project at speed. “I could increase the team, I could get the very best resource and contractors, and it’s brilliant, as it means you can really deliver.”
An expanded design team might be a better use of funds than asking yards to work double shifts. “We’ll work weekends, but we don’t often run two teams (one during the day, one during the night), because we don’t find it gets the best result. Additional communication is required between them to have a clear view of the project, and it adds extra pressure,” says Kortmann.
Posthuma de Boer agrees. “A couple of years ago I would have said that it’s true, but experience has told me it’s not,” he says of the trend to up your budget. “In practice, paying twice the money and putting twice as many people on the job offers marginal gains. The time that’s needed to communicate, the extra money you have to give people for overtime, just the fact that the industry isn’t used to it and you’re limited by other factors. You can speed things up a little bit, but by no means can you halve the time.”
Still want to go ahead with it all? There’s one final piece of good advice. “I always tell owners to use the boat for at least a season,” says Saat. “Use it, sail it, really work out exactly what needs to be changed and what you do and don’t like.” From his experience, what starts out as a minor three-month refit often turns into a mid-sized one, while average projects can end up comparatively major.
Rapid or not, it’s worth taking the time to work out what you’re getting yourself into. And, hey, why not enjoy that first season on your boat while you’re working it all out?
First published in the November 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.Shop now