The Price of Progress

Oh, the days when labor was cheap and parts were expensive.

This fall, I sprang Anhinga, our 37-foot Bertram, from Stuart Yacht, and as is the custom at boat yards, I was presented with a bill for her three-week incarceration. The yard's owner and my friend, Greg Burdick, allowed me to cast off without paying, which is not always customary. I suspect he prefers that I tally the damages off-site in case they cause a medical emergency.

I bristle at the thought of paying a guy $55 an hour to aim a pressure cleaner at Anhinga's underbelly or $80 an hour for a glorified car stereo installer to fuss with my electronics. I've suffered through the reasoning for these ransoms over beers with my boat yard buddies. Sure, plumbers get $65 an hour, but consider the work. I understand that lawyers, insurance companies and the EPA have made boat yard business more complicated, and I am familiar with J.P. Morgan's boast about the cost of boat ownership. Still, it's hard to be compassionate when my wallet is foundering.

This year, as I attempted to negotiate a more favorable accounting with Burdick, he mentioned something that helped me make sense of the numbers.

The economy of the boatyard business has changed since he took up the cause in the 1970s. "It used to be the cost of materials that caused customers to cringe, Burdick said. "Labor was relatively cheap.

When he came ashore to skipper Stuart Yacht, the average yard rate for labor was about $12 an hour. I can testify to this from personal experience, because at the time, I was a young swab wetting out fiberglass and gleaning my meager cut of the booty.

"In those days, selling materials was profitable, Burdick said. "That's hardly the case today.

These days, customers rarely visit his boat yard seeking marine supplies, he said.

"Discount marine chain stores have squeezed the margins on everything from woven roving to electronics, he said. "In some cases, there's not enough profit left to cover our overhead for handling a transaction.

I am typical of Burdick's service customers. I do not supply my own materials, however, I browse the discount catalogs and expect the materials charged on my bill to be priced accordingly. Boat yards have had to adapt to remain profitable, Burdick said.

"These days, our profit is tied to the business of selling skilled, well-managed labor and access to our equipment and facilities, he said.

I hate to admit it, but I find Burdick's explanation plausible. I have "done it myself, and I have hired mobile marine specialists. When I add up the time spent and the aggravation I have endured to save a buck, it's never been worth it.

Given the new economics, it seems to me that the quality of the work performed and the experience that a captain or owner leave a boat yard with are very marketable assets. As a veteran of boat yards good and bad, I find this thought refreshing and intend to make the best of it. Until somebody creates discount marine service or until boat yards qualify as not-for-profits, I'll stick to my short list of boat yards that know my boat and treat me right.

Hell, perhaps next year Burdick will even wash Anhinga before I pay her bail.