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post #1 of Old 12-16-2000 Thread Starter
Sue & Larry
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Refitting an Older Boat

Larry thoroughly inspected Serengeti's standing rigging despite the fact that it was only two years old.  
I am not going to sugar-coat it. Doing a complete refit on an older boat is very much an all-consuming task. It will consume your time, it will consume your energy, and it will consume your pocketbook. And, if you’re able to deal successfully with all that consumption, it may just be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.

Serengeti is a 1978 Formosa Peterson 46 that Larry and I purchased a year and a half ago to replace our previous cruising boat. We made the switch with the full intention of executing a complete refit addressing structural, mechanical, and cosmetic areas. Back in September of 1999 we wrote about our first few months on this project, along with our goals and accomplishments at that time. Did we know then that it was going to be another year of working on the boat virtually every single day, seven days a week, to get to where we are now? Maybe we did, way down deep, but we were certainly in ever-hopeful denial, always telling friends we would be finished in another four to six months. A refit always takes longer than you think!

Once a boat has 20 odd years of life and use behind it, unless it’s been meticulously maintained and updated along the way, it’s going to need some very serious attention in many areas to make it a safe and comfortable cruising vessel. The marine environment is very harsh on all boats. If you’re considering an older boat for cruising, be prepared to face the very real and common problems that all these boats share. Without a willingness to address these areas up front, you’ll probably experience breakdowns along the way. We recently overheard a man whose baot had just been towed into a boatyard pontificate about his troubles. "I just don’t understand it. It’s worked just fine for 15 years!"

"Much of the work involved in a refit is needed simply to maintain the integrity of the boat."
Things don’t just happen on boats. Breakdowns usually occur as a result of one or two reasons—poor owner maintenance and/or the fact that all parts have a finite life and eventually wear out. Fiberglass sailboat hulls built 20 to 30 years ago appear today as if they will last forever. This, however, does not hold true for all the other myriad components. Regardless of the boat’s manufacturer, numerous materials and pieces of equipment common to all boats have a finite life expectancy and will need to be replaced. When looking at an older boat, you may find some areas that have been renewed over the years, but chances are there will be a good long list of things that you will need to address. Much of the work involved in a refit is needed simply to maintain the integrity of the boat, but there are other areas of work that may make your refit longer to complete.

In deciding what work needed to be done on Serengeti, we had three separate goals to achieve. The first was to make the boat structurally and mechanically sound. Our second goal was to draw from our previous 10,000 miles of cruising experience, and incorporate the features we felt would make us most comfortable whether living at anchor or making passages in our new boat. The third goal was strictly aesthetics. We wanted everything to look beautiful. These last two goals certainly added time to our overall refit.

To achieve our goal of soundness, we first had to address our teak decks. On older boats, teak decks are considered a detriment rather than an asset by most people. As teak decks age, their maintenance requirements increase in order to keep them water tight. At some point this becomes impossible, and the teak should be removed from the decks. When a deck is allowed to leak, water can damage the core of the deck upon which the teak has been laid. On Serengeti, we decided to remove the teak decks altogether, and thus be done with a potential problem once and for all. Once the teak was off, we examined the decks, and luckily found no rot or water damage. If we had, we were prepared to cut out sections of the deck, remove the damaged core, and replace it with new coring material.

The refit started with removing the teak decks.
Water leaks in general are a notorious problem in older boats. To address this we removed and re-bedded all deck hardware including the stanchions, stern rail, hatches, ports, and cabin-house handrails. Our original chainplates were inspected and replaced, along with all of the turnbuckles, which, upon close scrutiny, revealed hairline cracks. The rest of our standing rigging was only two years old, so we inspected it closely, but found no reason to replace it. Old engines are a constant source of frustration for many cruisers. Rather than rebuild, we chose to replace our diesel engine (see Replacing our Diesel Engine.) We also installed new fuel tanks, fuel lines, shaft, flexible coupling, propeller, exhaust system, and bilge pumps.

Plumbing and electrical problems pop up all the time on cruising boats. Hoses, and especially hose clamps, need to be regularly inspected and replaced. Every seacock should operate freely and show no damaging signs of corrosion. Electrical connections distribute the power to many of the boat's electronics and safety-related equipment. A poor connection can often be the source of that Gremlin that makes your bilge pump work one minute and not the next. We wanted to make sure that all plumbing and electrical systems on Serengeti functioned properly when needed, and were set up in a way to make future maintenance easy to carry out. We found it much easier to start over with all new wiring and plumbing, rather than spend countless hours identifying, then patching and mending all the problems. 

"Our next goal was to maximize the boat’s comfort both at anchor and while underway."
Our next goal was to maximize the boat’s comfort both at anchor and while underway. Protection from the elements is crucial for people who are on their boats all the time, and many boats have either old canvas dodgers and biminis which need replacing, or none at all. The biggest, and most ambitious facet of our refit project was the design and fabrication of a fiberglass bimini and dodger to replace our tired old canvas. The opening safety glass hatches and windows yield great visibility in wet and stormy conditions while the rest of the structure, combined with side curtains, provides the ultimate in protection.

Systems to make sail-handling easier have developed greatly over the years. If not already addressed, you’ll want to update those on an older boat to make short-handed sailing easier. We combined a fully-battened stacking mainsail system with lazy jacks and Harken Battcars to facilitate raising and stowing our mainsail. A second roller furler was added to the staysail, and self-tailing winches replaced all existing older winches. Leading all sail-control lines aft to the cockpit is something we plan for in the near future.

There are many items that just make cruising life easier. For instance, our new dinghy davits hold the dinghy way up high out of the water and make stowing and launching a breeze. The new electric windlass makes anchoring with lots of chain and a heavy anchor safe and easy, while the addition of solar panels and a wind generator supplies our electrical needs without having to plug into shore.

For comfort down below, first we renovated the galley, improving the lighting, storage, plumbing, and basic good looks. We still plan to add a freezer. Halogen lights were placed throughout the boat to improve specific tasks like reading. The nav station was completely revamped with new cabinetry and all instruments and electronics arranged in a logical fashion with our navigational information available both there and in the cockpit. The heads were updated cosmetically and all plumbing was renewed, including the toilets and all thru-hulls. A new electrical panel replaced numerous individual switches scattered about the boat, and located everything conveniently in one easy-to-reach spot.

Sanding, sanding, and more sanding. Sue preps the boot stripe.
The third goal of wanting everything to look its best has certainly added to the time and cost of the refit. Like many sailors, we derive a great deal of pleasure in the visual beauty of sailing. Rejuvenating Serengeti’s outside appearance meant many hours of sanding and fairing in preparation for spray-painting her decks and cabinhouse with Awlgrip. We’re not kidding when we tell you that we actually had to put duct tape on our fingers to be able to continue sanding. Our skin was literally being worn away. A new dark green boot stripe and gold cove stripe gave our girl a whole new appearance. The refinishing of the teak toerails and teak in the cockpit put the final touches on our beautification program.

Down below, we were lucky that our woodwork and upholstery were in very good shape. Often on boats of this age you’ll find water-leak damage, particularly around ports and hatches. We did need to replace several headliners, and chose to add doors to a few storage areas that revealed their messy contents to all.

One thing we’ve both realized while working on this boat is that it’s much easier and quicker to build a whole house (which we used to do) than it is to refit a boat. Many of the components of an older boat that need to be replaced were originally installed at the factory before the deck was put on. To gain access to these areas today is often very time-consuming and may even involve the need to cut away flooring, bulkheads, or cabinetry. These jobs are messy and definitely not much fun to do, but we found they were within our capabilities.

We learned through this whole process that you have to work as a team and share a common goal. I can’t tell you how many stories we heard about couples breaking up during the building-a-boat or refitting-a-boat stage of their lives. It’s definitely not a glamorous part of the sailing life.

"We learned through this whole process that you have to work as a team and share a common goal."

Throughout this project, Larry never ceased to amaze me. While I had days where I felt a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we’d undertaken, Larry had his head stuck in yet another small space, analyzing, stripping and completely redoing one more tired, old system on the boat. There is no doubt he got a great deal of pleasure in learning the boat and making things right. I found myself often drifting in another direction, wanting to work on the jobs to beautify the boat for more instant gratification. We were working so hard, and everything still looked so bleak. Somehow I managed to sneak in completely "renovating" the galley before we attacked all of the more serious items on the list. Mostly though, I sanded and filled and faired and caulked and painted and sanded some more. Then I sanded some more—it’s a lot of sanding!

Our refit project of Serengeti has been a huge time commitment, not to mention a big financial commitment. Not having completed everything yet, we’re not ready to give you an exact number, but we are keeping track and are still within our initial $40,000 to $50,000 budget estimate. It sounds like a lot, but when all is said and done, we’ll have far less money in our new boat than we had in our last, newer vessel. We believe, however, a project like this only makes financial sense if you do the work yourself. To employ professionals at $60 per hour would be unfeasible, since the total price would far exceed that of a new boat. Remember, we’ve worked almost every day for a year and a half.

After a year and a half of work, Serengeti is a source of satisfaction.
As hard as the work has been, there have also been great rewards. We know now that we can build or repair anything out of fiberglass. We can fabricate things out of wood and steel we never imagined being able to do before; and we know every system of our boat inside and out. We’ve made wonderful friends with other cruisers doing similar work to their boats and learned valuable skills from each other. You’ll never meet a boat owner who says everything is finished. There are certainly things we still want to do to, but at least the boat is in traveling condition again, and the work can be done at a more leisurely pace.

Today we sit in our cockpit with the utmost feeling of satisfaction, and a certain amount of exhaustion, as we look around and see how Serengeti has been reborn. We still find it a little hard to believe that we were able to accomplish all of these tasks ourselves. It’s wonderful to have such confidence in all the structural and mechanical systems of our boat. Additionally, we know that if there’s a problem, we can diagnose it and repair it on our own. We’re finding Serengeti to be extremely comfortable to live on and wonderful to cruise.

Last week, I was at the helm as we motored out of an anchorage. Upon passing a sailboat going the other direction, I looked over my shoulder and saw that the woman on board was still staring back at Serengeti. I then distinctly saw her mouth form the word, "Nice," to her husband. I was so childishly happy and excited that she obviously appreciated all of our hard work that I missed the channel marker and promptly ran hard aground. "Keep doing that, and we’ll have to refit her all over again!" Larry said jokingly—but only after we were floating again.

Suggested Reading List

  1. Building Our Sailboat by Michelle Potter
  2. Hull Blisters by Don Casey
  3. Let the Refit Begin by Sue & Larry
  4. SailNet Buying Guide - Freshwater System Pumps


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