Can I Really Fix My Own Boat?


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   $
Rusted boat shaft
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 eight 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 eight 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:

Join the conversation! Respond to this article below. 

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)

Rick Bailey

Rick Bailey sails the Chesapeake Bay with his wife, Ruth, on a Watkins 27 coastal cruiser. Rick is retired and writes the “middlebaysailing” blog (

rick-bailey has 25 posts and counting.See all posts by rick-bailey

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