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Penny-wise, pound-foolish: the high cost of cheap but incompetent mechanics

Sometimes trying to save money on maintenance, repairs and pre-purchase surveys can prove costly, leading to major damage and even the loss of your vessel.

Most boaters like to tinker and work on their boats. Be sure to know your skill levels and to call in competent professional assistance before exceeding your knowledge and capability.

Some of the most common errors boaters make involve using automotive or household-quality components to repair electrical, electronic, plumbing or hydraulic systems. Why not, you might ask. They’re the same parts, just installed on a boat.

Not true! A boat exists in a far different, more hostile environment than a land-bound house. Salt water and sea air are corrosive. A boat moving through water or even at the dock must absorb pounding and vibrations. That’s why you should always use sturdily constructed marine-grade wiring, plumbing, hydraulic, engine and other parts on your boat.

If you want to work on your boat, but know you don’t have the skills or expertise, many professional boat mechanics will work with you and teach you how to maintain and repair specific systems. That’s how my husband, who always does most of our maintenance, learned to rebuild our AquaFlush heads and maintain our diesel engines after we bought our current boat.

Hiring the wrong mechanic – or marine surveyor – can have devastating consequences, too, especially if that “mechanic” is really just a guy working the docks offering low rates but substandard skills.

Recently a knowledgeable source wishing to remain anonymous shared with me his box of horrors. It’s a collection of corroded valves repaired with incompatible metals, a poorly patched fuel tank, degraded hoses and a deteriorated fuel fill hose with a tragic tale. All parts were survivors of heavily damaged, sunk or destroyed vessels.

Many items came from vessels whose owners have tried to save a few bucks by hiring a roving “dock worker” or “truck mechanic” working from his truck with no business license or insurance, offering only a phone number on his business card. Don’t ever hire such a worker, my informant advised, unless you have clear evidence of his competence, have spoken to satisfied customers and can see his proof of insurance.

Horror stories abound around marinas of “dock workers” hired for a single task. In an oft-repeated tale, they start the job and then pause, having identified another system requiring work, leaving the first system partially disassembled, then the second, then a newly identified third and fourth repair unfinished, rendering the entire boat vulnerable with the electrical and other systems out of service and batteries disconnected. Without operating bilge pumps, in one case when water started coming in from open hoses there was no way to prevent the boat’s sinking at the dock. The owners’ “cheap” attempted repairs proved catastrophic.

A ratty fuel fill hose was the culprit in an accident involving the purchase of an old wooden Chris-Craft as a liveaboard. The newbie owners hired a marginal surveyor suggested by their broker, who gave the boat a brief once-over, never noting the broken fuel fill hose. When the couple fueled the boat and tried to start their engines they wouldn’t start. Their mechanic recommended opening up the engine room to provide air. When they again tried to start the engines, the boat exploded, burning the man and tossing the woman, a professional dancer, onto the concrete dock, leaving her with a broken back and life in a wheelchair.

Before hiring a mechanic or surveyor, do your due diligence, checking references and insurance. Your boat’s – and your own – survival might depend on it.

(photo by Capt. Nicole Sours Larson)

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