Don’t Fear the Refit

San Diego has become a veritable Mecca for vessel facelifts by offering a broad scope of services and a deep talent pool capable of making the old new again.

Are you feeling itchy about your existing boat and considering a new one, but the thought of buying and learning another vessel gives you hives? Plus, you love your boat. What if you could have the boat you love and know inside out, and have it feel new to you?

The learning curve would be flatter. The expense most likely would be lower. And the input? All yours. And there’s no success story like a custom job that’s a reflection of exactly what you want — whether it’s your boat or another older vessel that’s caught your eye. It’s just a refit. Easy peasy, right? Actually, yes.

One such success story is Crystal, a 112-foot Deep Sea Marine motoryacht that underwent an extensive refit in San Diego.

Marine Group Boat Works is capable of hauling and refitting large yachts, such as Ronin, a 192-foot Lurssen yacht several years ago.


“Built in San Pedro of military-grade steel, she is really well known and has an interesting history,” Fraser Yachts’ Neal Esterly said of the iconic vessel. “She has cruised from Alaska to Nova Scotia, has chartered and at one time carried a sea plane.”

Crystal fell on hard times when a previous owner lost her to the bank, but her captains speak well of her. “She is the classic long-range yacht fisher that a lot of people respect and would like to own,” Esterly said.

“Buying an older boat makes a lot of sense,” said Todd Roberts, president of Marine Group Boat Works. “You can usually expect to get more boat for your money, with the added benefit that during a refit of it you’ll learn where all the bodies are buried.”

When it comes to boatyards that can handle small tasks, total refits and more, San Diego has its share. Marine Group Boat Works is one such yard. It’s capabilities include lifting and cleaning large yachts, and taking a well-known local boat that had seen better days and turning it into a gem.

Crystal’s captain, Jerry Giacalone, agrees. “There are a lot of local resources [in San Diego], and with the right connections, there are lots of opportunity for savings, even on big projects.”

Crystal was a big project. She was hauled, stripped to bare metal and painted. Her teak decks were replaced, and she got two new 77 kw John Deere gensets and a state-of-the-art electronics suite. She was then rewired and mostly re-plumbed. And then the serious work started: changing the interior and tweaking the layout to create a whole new ambiance and experience on board.

Joe McCarter of J. W. McCarter & Associates, a high-end residential design firm, was tapped to do the interior. It was McCarter’s first yacht project, but he took to it like a duck to water. “The biggest challenge was the use of space and the need for access points to systems,” he said. “It’s made me rethink all my land-based projects, too, because you have to be so efficient on a yacht.”

The owner spent a summer cruising Crystal before the refit, to get a feel for exactly what he wanted to change. Then, although hands-on, he remained mostly remote, wanting to be surprised by the transformation of the finished product. He was, and he loved it.

Crystal underwent a total refit that expanded and updated the helm, gave the main salon a modern facelift and made the bar area nightclub-worthy. And it was all local talent that made it happen.

A New Hub

San Diego makes a lot of sense for refits. Key competition is Ensenada, Mexico, and Seattle. For big boats that are migratory, Ft. Lauderdale also competes. But the West Coast has its advantages. First is the weather. Work can be done year-round in California. Second is access to a huge network of highly skilled contractors and a healthy supply chain, with marine suppliers and chandleries on just about every corner of the waterfront.

Then, there’s convenience and cost. “Ensenada has higher lifting capacity than we have here, but then we have easier access to top-quality equipment without import hassles and expenses. And there’s no language barrier,” Roberts said. “Also, the labor and tax rates here are lower than in Seattle and moorage is cheaper than in Florida, where slips for big boats are expensive and hard to find.”

Giacalone agreed, saying he priced Ensenada for the basic stuff. “But once you factor in travel, hotels, gas and simply the time, you’re better off being close to home,” he said. “Most owners have more money than time.”

Finally, there’s the “fun factor.” It’s easy to convince a crew to spend time in San Diego where there’s lots to do. For yachts on the South Pacific circuit, spending a few weeks or months in San Diego is convenient, and the crews full of Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans who staff many of the big vessels like spending time in Southern California.

15 Reasons San Diego Is a Good Choice for a Refit

1. Southern California weather makes year-round work easy.
2. San Diego has more and bigger boatyards for larger projects than what’s available in Florida, and big yards can do big jobs quickly.
3. San Diego has a huge network of skilled subcontractors.
4. California is perfectly positioned between popular cruising destinations in Mexico, Alaska and the South Pacific, and work can get done on the shoulder seasons as boats move north/south and east/west.
5. San Diego is an obvious stop for migratory yachts and charter traffic that come from the South Pacific on their annual circuit.
6. The well-trained employee pool is sustained year-round thanks to work on commercial and military vessels to fill in gaps.
7. San Diego labor rates are lower than in Seattle and are on par with Ft. Lauderdale.
8. Moorage in San Diego is more affordable than in Florida.
9. The marine supply chain is well developed; marine stores are everywhere and major brand equipment is easily sourced.
10. Aussie, Kiwi, South African and American crews love San Diego; there’s a lot to do, so they don’t mind a layover.
11. The local talent pool is deep and possesses good technical and carpentry skills.
12. For Americans, there’s no language barrier.
13. There is no problem with taxation on the importation of equipment.
14. For Americans there is no problem visiting the boat, because they stay in-country.
15. The labor pool is not stretched seasonally like it is in Florida, so you get good focus any time of the year.


Economic Impact

San Diego has become a destination for owners and captains, because the resources run the gamut: painting, yacht finishing, carpentry, mechanical, electrical, electronics, custom stainless, canvas fabrication, steel and fiberglass repair, HVAC (chillers, pumps and air handlers), desalination, galley equipment and design. Plus, owners can take care of provisioning, crew uniforms and staffing for the finished product. If it’s needed on or for a boat, it’s in San Diego.

And the impact on the local economy is substantial. Roberts said that for every $1 spent in the marine industry, seven more are generated within the community. He provided examples of how the money flows beyond boats.

“We booked 397 hotel room nights and 560 rental car days last year for people who visited their boats during a project,” Roberts said. “Crews and owners are spending on hospitality, entertainment and logistics during the repair process.”

Per Roberts, yacht owners and crews spent $45,000 on wine for provisioning, so spending goes well beyond marine equipment, to things such as soft goods, bedding, tackle, food, flowers and so on. “These aren’t guesses, they’re audited results from Florida, and I think our numbers are actually higher here,” he said. Such monetary infusions translate to jobs at every level.

“I think there are maybe more than 700 people working in the San Diego marine industry,” Roberts said. “And these are skilled, high-paying jobs for people who take those incomes and spend it locally on other goods and services.”

Boats getting facelifts are like winning the economic lottery for San Diego and its populace. The U.S. Superyacht Society estimates that almost 10 percent of the total cost of a refit gets injected back into the local economy, well beyond direct marine repair dollars. This represents guest and crew expenditures, provisioning, entertainment and crew training (and excludes fuel, dockage, repair, marine equipment, regulatory fees, insurance, freight, etc.). So on a $1 million refit, nearly $100,000 flows to people who may have never set foot on a boat and don’t derive their living from one — except that they do.

Of note is this: Most of these jobs go to small companies and individual proprietors, and that’s what makes up most of the U.S. economy overall. Per Esterly, Crystal’s project dropped more than $2.5 million into the local economy, and that excludes the vessel’s purchase price. Ten percent of that is a lot of grocery money.

Starting Point: the Boatyard

So, you’re convinced to do a refit but don’t have a clue where to start. A good yard should be the first step. Marine Group Boat Works is one of several boatyards in the area and has an enormous yard in San Diego and one in Cabo San Lucas. The company employs 225 people; one-third focus on yacht repair and refit and one-third on the new construction of vessels 60 to 200 feet. Leveling the workload between seasons, the yard also does commercial and military vessels, so the workforce is gainfully employed year-round.

“We have seven full-time project managers and we work with owner representatives like captains as well,” Roberts said. “Crystal spent a total of six months in the yard for the big and dirty projects. The rest was tackled at the dock in a marina.”

Roberts has advice for boat owners considering a refit. “Communication is everything,” he said. “Bad news doesn’t get better with time, so it’s best to lay the groundwork early with a detailed scope of project, a timeline and a budget, and then keep talking. We’re big-boat specialists and we understand owners. We know that schedules mean something, so we communicate.”

Marine Group Boat Works is more than a yard. It’s also a dealer for Miele appliances and Zodiac tenders. Roberts calls attention to the selection of quality products his team can furnish all the way down to their concierge service that will provision the boat, dress the crew and buy the flowers for the owner’s arrival. “All this can be done with a call to one guy, and that sets owners and captains at ease.”

Roberts offered tips for working with yards. “Get an understanding of the yard’s manpower and ask how it will be allocated to your project,” he said. “Get a schedule, a list of contractors — both in-house and from the outside — and get a breakdown between labor and materials costs. That helps unwind any BS really quickly.”

Remember, when it’s time and materials, the owner takes the risk. And when it’s a fixed cost, the yard takes the risk, so weigh your options and understand the deal.

Project Management and Finding Resources

No captain? No problem. Or so says Fraser’s Esterly, who touts the availability of resources. But unless you’re very hands on, you’ll need at least a good project manager to get you through the day-to-day grind and to connect you with local contacts. Yards often have their own project managers, but owners can hire an independent one from the many captains, engineers and managers available for projects or day work.

Word-of-mouth is the best way to secure referrals, but that can be slow and laborious. A faster method may be to start with or Mariners World marine directory ( and make a few calls. Then once the conversation is going, follow the network to the people you need. Other good sources are brokers who represent the kind of vessel you’re refitting, and there’s always talk on the dock.

“You can get a lot of information from yacht finishers,” Giacalone said, mentioning Morton Marine. “As they do washdowns, varnish and basic maintenance, they get to know a lot of contractors they can recommend.”

Getting to know San Diego’s network will also save money. “You can start with the yard, but many marinas down here let you bring in your own contractors and that is a much more cost-effective way to get long-term projects done,” Giacalone said. “Direct relationships mean no markup.”

Giacalone spent much of his career at Knight and Carver, so he’s plugged into the local workforce, and that made Crystal’s refit go smoothly. “I used people I worked with for years, like Jay DeCarolis at Top Notch WoodWork,” he said. “I’ve come to know people I can trust, and when something goes wrong, I know where to go to fix it.”

Not everyone has a Jerry Giacalone, but a bit of research can lead a boat owner to a resource he will trust.

The Pretty Parts

Numerous design firms specialize in yacht interiors, but as mentioned before, Crystal’s new layout and aesthetic are attributed to a residential designer, Joe McCarter, who gutted the salon and in place of the dark bar to port added a dining area with a drop-lid feature that covered some necessary plumbing overhead. The backdrop consists of blue ice tile that approximates a flowing waterfall. To balance this feature, McCarter added a lighted display cabinet to starboard, showcasing the owner’s collection of fishing reels.

The galley was completely redone with Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances. A lighted bar topped with German frozen glass that changes color to suit the mood was added. Seemingly acres of mahogany and walnut woodwork adorn the living spaces, some with alternating grain on the veneers that looks as if it moves, following you as you walk. The color palette is taupe, gray and graphite — “greige,” as it’s become known in design circles.

“We were going for an easy, driftwood feel,” McCarter said.

Forward on the main deck is a media room with a popup flat-screen TV that complements the 80-inch TV on a lift in the salon. In all, five cabins can accommodate 10 guests, and up to seven crew can bunk in five service cabins. The wheelhouse now has twin Stidd captain’s chairs that face an array of five monitors that display everything from navigation information to camera feeds from every remote corner of the vessel. The Portuguese bridge outside has controls at the wing stations from which the visibility is excellent for docking. And outdoor deck space abounds, including the large second deck — where the owners can lounge when the tenders are placed in the water — and the California deck, or upper cockpit, that overlooks the fishing action below.

Every detail was considered, from the iStone vessel sinks in the master head to the spa that’s set into the foredeck. All this took a small army of contractors. McCarter’s land-based connections came in handy as a supplement to the usual marine sources.

“San Diego — Southern California in general — has a large selection of equipment and furnishings produced and installed by skilled people. Everything from woodwork and upholstery to tiling and art,” he said.

McCarter noted how challenging yacht work is, thanks to its small spaces where everyone works on top of one another and a yacht’s special place in the owner’s life.
“Yachts are much more personality driven, so it’s critical to have a good captain or project manager,” he said. “Yachts require a different approach because that’s where you go to relax — here’s where you’re spending your money on yourself.”

Crystal’s Portugese bridge now includes wing stations with engine and thruster controls, and the galley gained new flooring, tile, and countertops, in addition to high-end appliances.

Fun Time

Per Giacalone, Crystal’s refit took about 18 months, not all in the boatyard and not all at one time. She left on voyages and returned when more work was scheduled. No sooner was Crystal finished than she went up for sale with Fraser Yachts in San Diego. Having owned an 82-foot Hatteras, the owner took on Crystal because he saw potential in the boat. Now he’s looking for another model perhaps 30 feet longer. It seems he’s always up for a project.

“The owner is a longtime boater who won the Bisbee in his previous boat,” Esterly said. “His motivation for selling is that he had a fun time doing the refit and wants to move up to a larger boat.”

Having a “fun time” doing a refit? Yes, it’s possible, and you don’t even need to have a boat to start with. You can target an older boat with good bones, and with the right people, you’ll still get exactly what you want.

To the Web

Find out more about the companies mentioned in this story and others boatyards in the San Diego area.

Get Answers

Based on conversations with experts, here are five questions anyone considering a refit should ask the yard manager:

  • How will you schedule my job? (This ensures they have the resources and a timeline in mind.)
  • Will you use subcontractors or in-house talent? (Both are fine but scheduling and cost may be an issue with outside personnel.)
  • Will you provide a labor and materials breakdown? (This helps cut through any pricing inconsistencies.)
  • How will you allocate your manpower? (If your work is supposed to be done in a week with five guys and the yard only employs six, it’s unlikely it’ll get done unless your boat will be the only one worked on that week.)
  • When will it be done and for how much? (Having one’s expectations met defines success, so time and budget should be specified and agreed to upfront.)

Find Cohesion

Working effectively with a boatyard is vital to the completion of a successful project. Expect these six things:

Communication. The yard should exhibit excellent communication and follow up with quick answers to your questions. Its people should keep you posted on progress, provide options for fixes and give you a heads-up if the timing, scope or budget is about to change.

Services. A full-service yard should be able to manage all your needs with in-house or subcontracted personnel. Look for facilities with a machine shop, welding services, carpentry, paint (bottom and topsides), systems expertise such as HVAC (cooling/heating) and electronics, and engine work.

Cleanliness and safety. Insist on using a safe yard. The manner in which the yard is kept is a reflection on its general business approach. Safety should be of critical importance, not only for a good outcome for the boat but the well-being of the employees and customers.

Reputation. A yard should have good longevity and a stellar reputation for integrity. No over-promising and under-delivering.

Compatibility and friendliness. A yard should understand and respect your goals, whether they are technical or financial, and generally accommodate any reasonable needs. Expect respect. An owner should never feel like the rounding error on the day’s receipts.

Collaboration. You don’t need to be an expert in a project so long as you hold up your end of the relationship: detailed work list, observations of the problems, clear choices, ready boat, etc. Then, the yard should see you as not only a customer, but a knowledgeable collaborator who is to be treated with respect.