The twenty-year refit

I've been browsing the brokerage ads again. (A dangerous habit, I know.) There's a trend in some of the listings that has me a bit worried: boats that are less than a decade old, but are advertised with "Just finished a major refit!!!".

A major refit after less than ten years is a sign that the boat was poorly specified and poorly set up to start with. Builders should be embarrassed and humbled if their boats need a major refit so soon after launch.

A reasonable ten-year refit might include, as major items:

  • Replacing the sails and running rigging
  • Engine inspection and overhaul, likewise for other mechanical bits
  • Upgrading the electronics
  • Battery replacement
  • Cosmetic work- stripping and refinishing the brightwork, etc.
  • Checking all hardware for corrosion or other damage, and replacing as necessasry
  • Topsides paint, if you're really picky about appearances

After twenty years, there's a good chance that it's time for more serious work in addition to the every-10-years stuff, such as:

  • Replacing the standing rigging
  • Re-bedding or replacing hatches, portlights and deadlights
  • Galley equipment replacement
  • New lights, instruments, HVAC and other electrical items
  • Interior re-finishing (paint, upholstery, etc.)
  • Topsides paint, if you're a bit less picky in your expectations for finish quality

And at somewhere between twenty and thirty years, it would be reasonable to expect replacement of major equipment:

  • New engine, generator and other engine room bits
  • New windlass, winches and other powered hardware
  • Complete electrical overhaul

But all of this stuff keeps showing up in 5- and 10-year refits, which strongly implies that the original equipment simply wasn't up to snuff.

How soon is too soon?

An engine, unless it's a cheap outboard in daily use, should not be toast in ten years. If so, it was either junk to start with, or was specified / installed / rigged / used incorrectly. A well built, well installed engine should run reliably well beyond 20 years; it's not unheard of to get 40 years out of a high quality motor if it is well maintained.

The same goes for the windlass, the generator, the circuit breaker panels, the winches, the standing rigging.... all of this stuff should last through the boat's second decade of heavy use, if not longer.

Winches, furlers, blocks and other non-powered gear should last even longer. All equipment will eventually wear out, but this wear should manifest itself as a gradual deterioration in performance after two or three decades- not as sudden catastrophic failure at half that age.

Tanks are among the worst offenders. Fuel and water tanks should last the life of the boat- which, with modern construction techniques, should be well over half a century. Polyethylene or fibreglass tanks, along with well-designed integral aluminum tanks, can easily last that long. And yet boat after boat gets torn apart for tank replacement (a tedious, expensive job at the best of times) after a decade or two.

Frugal versus Cheap

There is a difference between frugal and cheap. A frugal builder will specify top quality equipment that lasts a long time, but will keep the systems simple so that purchase and maintenance costs remain reasonable.

A cheap builder will specify a ton of fancy but poorly made equipment; this makes the boat seem luxurious and boosts profit margins, but creates a tremendous expense for the boat owner when all that poorly made equipment breaks down. And if a builder is willing to skimp on the quality of mechanical and electrical systems, where problems tend to make themselves obvious, what does that say about how many corners might have been cut in non-obvious areas?

A wake-up call to builders

Now, this isn't to say you should avoid buying a boat that's had a recent refit. There's a good chance that the owner who did the refit will have done a better job, and specified more durable equipment, than the boat originally came with. Comprehensive twenty-year refits are normal and to be expected.

What this should be is a wake-up call to builders: if your boats are showing up eight years later with "Major refit!!!" splashed across the ad, you screwed up. It's time for you to hire a quality control engineer, one who outranks your accountant, and have her whip your shop into shape.



Here, Here

Hi Matt,

Great post! The only thing I would perhaps change would be the standing rigging. Twenty years might be a bit long. We usually recommend 10 years, but the key, I think, is the number of miles

Standing rigging

Matthew's picture

Hi John,

Regarding the standing rigging, I would have to say "it depends". You work your boat a lot harder than most people do, and you seem to err on the side of caution, so I'm not surprised that you'd put enough miles on in 10 years to warrant replacing the standing rigging at that time.

There are some rigging systems- pressed swages on 1x1 or 1x19 stainless comes to mind- in which the most critical and vulnerable regions are impossible to inspect, so I can understand replacing those even if the boat isn't used heavily. And with synthetic rigging, the end lashings must be renewed periodically, but I wouldn't call that an overhaul- it's just part of routine maintenance on those rigs.

If the standing rigging is designed to be easily inspected, though, and is properly sized, I do think it should easily survive past 20 years on a boat in typical light cruising service. We expect double or triple that lifespan from similar systems on land. Radio towers and power line poles, for example, use cheap galvanized steel stays with spliced or clamped ends, and we leave them up for a half-century or more. I would hope we can expect "marine grade" parts that are unloaded 90% of the time to last at least half as long as their (far cheaper) terrestrial counterparts do in year-round duty!

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