Can I Really Fix My Own Boat?

(This is Part III of a series on the “Cost of Owning an Old Boat.”  Part I is What Should You Expect When You Buy An Old Boat?; Part II is How to Own An Old Boat and Not Lose Your Mind (And All Your Money)

Absolutely.  Consider this example:

Spring 2013 I addressed a problem on my boat that I had been watching for years.  I hadn’t fixed it sooner because it didn’t need it, but I knew that it would eventually.  The problem was a rusting rudder shaft bracket.  The original part was nearly gone as a result of rust from water intrusion  – a drip from rainwater that was impossible to stop.  So after 32 years, it was time to replace this bracket. I had a choice of how to get it done ($ sign below denotes relative cost among options).

  1. I could hire an independent craftsman with a good reputation   $$$
  2. I could hire it out to my local yard who stores and hauls the boat   $$$$
  3. I could do it myself   $
That gaping hole surrounded by rust should only be slightly bigger than the shaft passing through it.

That gaping hole surrounded by rust should only be slightly bigger than the shaft passing through it.  And no rust, of course.  The gray material above the bracket is a new set of bearings I installed the previous year.

It seemed pretty straightforward:  all I had to do was remove the old one, and have a new one fabricated (there are often no “stock” parts for this kind of project on a boat).  As I looked into it and began working, I ran into difficulties (of course).  Turns out I had to saw a section of the cockpit sole out to access bolts (and repair the hole later).  Right. . . then I had trouble actually figuring out how it un-attached.  Ok. . .  then there was the whole access issue: it was an awkward place to get to (no surprise there – it’s a boat, after all).  I discovered that the biggest impediments to my effort was experience and ideas.  I had never done this, and I needed to think up or otherwise find ideas of how to approach the job.  The internet was some help, but for a good part of it, I just had to sit there and think about it (that was the hard part).

Ultimately, I got the job done, and done in fine fashion, but I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into when I started.  That is often the way with boat projects, because each manufacturer does things a bit differently, and the manufacturing/assembly process can hide how things are put together.  The problems aren’t insurmountable, but they do require some research and thought to find the right approach.  And courage.  In fact, courage is the key commodity.  You have to be convinced that this project isn’t beyond your abilities.  And I’m here to tell, it is not out of your reach.  If I can do these things, anybody can.

Through my years of owning Cay of Sea, I’ve fixed hull blisters, fabricated (remade) interior lockers that were rotted out, repaired that cut-out in the cockpit sole (mentioned above – and the repair is undetectable), repaired an engine-bearing stringer, addressed electrical problems, installed various electrical/electronic components, cleaned up a rat’s nest of wires, refit and repainted the mast, built two new cabinets from scratch, replaced the sanitation system, refit the freshwater system, built a new forehatch, installed 6 new opening ports, installed a new fuel tank, repacked the stuffing box (twice), and the list goes on.  I did not know how to do any of this when we bought the boat, but I learned how.  You can too.

I bought a book early on: This Old Boat by Don Casey showed me how to do a lot of things in principle, but not always specific to my boat.  For specifics, I looked up ideas online, and for some things, I just had to figure it out as I did the project.  Don Casey’s book gave me the confidence to try anything.  I realized I could do it right, or I could pay someone else to do it, who might not (probably would not) do as good a job as I would.  And if I made a mistake, I could simply do it again “till I got it right.”

I discovered that parts and materials cost very little compared to labor.  I could supply the labor, then afford to redo if it turned out bad.  Meanwhile, I got experience and skills doing the project. So, does that include fiberglass work?  You bet.  Finished fiberglass work. . .?  Certainly.  Engine work?  Yup.  Rigging?  Absolutely.  Plumbing and electrical?  Decidedly.  If you can read and understand illustrations, you can do these things.

Meanwhile, you are gaining an intimate knowledge about how your boat works, and how to do specific tasks with “marine” materials, like fiberglass, marine wiring, through-hulls and seacocks, etc. Turns out, the two commodities most in demand for these projects are 1) courage (mentioned above) and 2) your time.  If you have these, you can certainly do anything a “professional” can.  I paid to have a new engine installed in my boat 8 years ago.  I was working then, and had more money than time.  That situation is reversed today.  If I needed a new engine now, I would do it myself, and I would do a better job than I paid for 8 years ago.

Boat work doesn’t require many specialized tools, although the right tool always makes a job easier.  Invest in the correct tools.  You’ll use them time and again, and they will repay your purchase cost through the money you save doing the work yourself.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found helpful as I work on my boat:

This Old Boat (2nd Edition) Don Casey (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing)

Compass Marine Boat Projects

Boat Projects

Small Boat Projects

  1. Tate said:

    I agree 100%. In my experience, if I hire an “expert” they usually do something I have to redo later. I think its smart money to do things yourself unless you have a true craftsman that works on boats because they love it rather than just to make money. In which case, you’d better have a lot of money!

    • Yes, it only took a couple of times having someone else do something on our boat for me. I’d look at what was done and invariably say “that’s not what I expected, nor what I wanted.” Some of this is a matter of expectations and communication. Much of it is simply a matter of expediency, where the workman is concerned. They want to do it fast. I don’t care about fast, I want it done well, to specific standards.

      The true craftsman, as you suggest, is a different kettle of fish. However much time and money the job takes, that’s what it takes. Our job as owners in this case is to write a check for a large amount. There is a Hinckley boat shop not too far from here (on the eastern shore), and we have friends who had custom galley work done there, on their Island Packet. Incredible, beautiful, wonderful work. Exactly what they wanted. It was not cheap.

  2. Haven’t been in that part of the boat yet to look for what you had. Yeesh. Agree on the courage and just thinking and planning but not procrastinating. I’ve had to redo stuff no one could probably see, but I could and that bugged me. Takes longer to do things working on the boat on weekends, but it sure is satisfying seeing progress you don’t get to see at your regular job. Thanks for the ref links and your blog.

    • Greg, I live now in the lap of luxury, with respect to boat projects. With no requirement to work, I can plan and execute these things at my leisure. But I well remember the weekend boat work – with my boat 50 miles away.

  3. This is an excellent series of articles, Rick – thanks for creating them!
    (And thanks for the link to smallBiatProjects!)

  4. Thanks Bob. I kept bumping into folks who were very frustrated with an old boat they bought which didn’t meet expectations. I kept thinking that their expectations and their approach practically guaranteed disappointment. I wanted to offer a different approach. Not that it’s novel in any fashion – Don Casey outlines the very same ideas, as have many other authors, but I haven’t seen many online articles that really spell out this approach in bite-sized chunks.

    Smallboatprojects continues to be one of my favorite sources for how-to knowledge. Thanks for publishing!

  5. I’ve never undertaken a job like this, but I can well imagine the sense of pride and achievement that must accompany successful completion of such a project, especially when it’s something you’ve never attempted before. I’ve had that feeling when I sewed a dress for myself, for the very first time. I know it’s not a very good comparison ;-) but it’s the sense of achievement that I’m talking about.

    • Actually, sewing a dress is exactly the same thing. BTW – plenty of sewing opportunities on a sailboat too. It’s a skill that I hope to improve.

  6. Jan Sopoci said:


    Both inspirational, as well as enlightening. Thanks for including the links to publications that you’ve found to be particularly helpful.


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