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  • Holly

Deciding on Options & Learning About Commissioning

Decisions, decisions ...and so many things to consider. Commissioning and deciding about options when buying a new sailboat is not a straightforward process and neither is getting answers to what we set out thinking were pretty easy questions. In fact, it proved to be as elusive as trying to photograph a unicorn. In today’s blog I’ll outline our experience with outfitting and commissioning and what we are learning through the process.

So when we first started this endeavor to buy a boat I figured, okay, you pick the model you want and the configuration and a few bells and whistles and you're off to the races. That’s how it works right?….uh no. This is honestly the most bizarre buying process I’ve been through in my life. As I’ve mentioned before, we had to get in the queue to buy a new boat two years in advance that will get built at some future point in time, that you can only roughly estimate, committing to buy a boat that we had never sailed, for a price that was still yet to be determined...because the would change two more times between when we put a deposit down and 12 months after that. Who does that? Apparently everyone who buys a new boat. It’s crazy.

But here’s the real kicker. The base boat is basically made up of the basic parts that give it structure and make it float, everything else on it you choose and buy separately as an option. It’s more like building a custom home. You pick from one of the four models then every other decision you have to decide separately.

Because I’ve never lived on a boat, when I first saw the options list, half this stuff I didn’t even know what it was or why it mattered. Also...there’s different opinions about certain things and decisions on those things impact other decisions you have to make. It’s like the butterfly effect.

I’ll give you this simple example. How does the decision on a freshwater electric head affect a decision about how you wash and dry your clothes?

Let’s start with the heads. The theory is seawater stinks so if you get freshwater that’s better because nobody likes a stinky head and electric is better because you push a button versus pumping the thing which can be problematic bouncing all around in rough seas. Okay, that means you need to consider a watermaker, which any cruiser would generally want. So how big a watermaker do you need to account for the water use for everything else, including freshwater heads? So now you have to think about all your water how big a watermaker do you need overall. Okay so everyone knows that seawater heads are super stinky but having a seawater option is good because you also use less freshwater, that you would otherwise get from your watermaker. Okay so do we go all freshwater or have some heads that are seawater or do we have to have them build in a conversion so we can have both on all heads?

Why does that matter? Because the size of your watermaker then means you have to consider how much power you need to operate your watermaker on top of the rest of your power requirements. So now you need to figure all the power requirements you will need because you need to determine how many batteries you need how much solar you need and where other power sources will come from, like a hydro generator or wind generator.

Then you have a debate with your spouse about just running the generator to charge the batteries right? Yes, but what if you are in a super remote place and don’t want to use a lot of diesel fuel for your motors and powering the generator just for the watermaker isn’t great because you need to load up the generator, so how big of a generator do we need? Well it depends, will you be running a rice cooker, or a washing machine while you also have the generator on?...uhhhh. And are you getting a washer dryer combo or just the washer and you’ll hang the clothes, won’t they mold, ya so we should get the dryer option right? Okay, which model should we get and will it fit? Every decision is connected...the Butterfly effect.

This is one small example of every single decision you have to make on the options of a boat. For our boat option list, just from the factory there are 400 line items give or take. I won’t read through the full list, but if anyone wants me to, send me a facebook request and I’ll do a quick read through of the options list and all the drama in a separate recording.

Of all those 400 decisions, about a hundred decisions are super simple to make. Yes, we want the lazy jack, and the cockpit courtesy lighting. But here are the decisions that have required the most amount of research and that impact other major decisions you will make.

Water requirements and watermaker system; water is life and even though you are on a boat surrounded by water, your watermaker system can be crucial to making your life easy or hard….fresh water is always something to be monitored and considered, but for us, it wasn’t something I wanted to obsessively spend my time rationing. It’s too stressful on top of everything else. Other people will roll their eyes and say water rationing is part of liveaboard life. I understand, yes it is, and even with a watermaker it's definitely always a thing to monitor. But for us, I want to spend time worrying about things that are outside my control, not inside my control, so having a big watermaker is a big deal. And, I like there’s that.

110V or 220V system, depending where you want to travel and expect to hook up. We don’t intend to bring the boat back to the states, so what electrical system will be most useful based on where we want to go? This took some time to get through.

All the intricacies of your power system based on your estimated power requirements; AGM or Lithium, how much solar, whether or not you want AC, which affects your decision on the generator. This whole topic is a hot mess and we are still working through it. The challenge on this one is that we are in this weird in-between time when lithium isn’t quite ready for prime time and there’s still a bunch of risk with this decision.

The decision on preferring lithium itself can be a bit of a religious debate, but that’s not the core issue. Let’s assume you believe in lithium and also believe it's safe to put lithium batteries on your boat. That’s just the beginning. You need to think about the whole power system when making that decision. You buy lithium, you need certain battery controllers and just the right electrical system. You want to put them in a cool area of the boat, not the engine rooms, where the factory drops the wiring for the existing AGM batteries. So a new destination for your batteries needs to be decided and the boat needs to be rewired with the right electrical wires to match the load capacity and all that needs to be checked and rechecked so you don’t have issues with the mixed wiring system that controls the rest of the boat.

And nothing scares me more on a boat is the idea of us having an electrical fire with lithium on board. Especially as I record this, just a few weeks ago we had that terrible boat fire off the coast of California that killed 34 people. I feel like if the manufacturer thought lithium was ready for prime time, it would come as a factory option with all the proper wiring and location in the first place, versus as a commissioning option to do after the fact. Retrofitting the boat for it, requires a higher risk tolerance than what we currently are ready to take on. Other people may be different, so that’s just us.

Generator versus no generator. I know, why would you buy a boat like this and not have a generator. I don’t know, as my husband, I don’t get it either. My husband wants to be fully sustainable so he’s obsessed with finding a way not to have one. He’s a simple man.

He had this idea that if we had lithium and the right solar, we wouldn’t need a generator. Which in theory makes sense, unless you really want a boat with air conditioning. He doesn’t think we need it, which is a total contradiction to his ‘I'm all about the science’ life philosophy since he also at the same time believes in climate change. I’m easy….I’m a fan of A/C, not because I’m a princess, but because sometimes my standard equipment runs hot...especially at night...and what it all really boils down to is whether or not he wants to cuddle. Period, end of story, because there’s no way he’s touching me with a ten foot pole at night when it’s 90 degrees inside the boat….end of story.

Hull treatment and antifouling has become a regular dinner conversation. Our daughter just shakes her head but this decision could be the difference between heaven and purgatory. Because once the boat is in the water, it’s not like it’s an easy do over. Copper is supposed to be awesome but apparently applying it properly is difficult to do in a repeatable, consistent fashion. Antifouling vinyl wrap isn’t proven either, and beware about researching it, it’s easy to get distracted and start daydreaming about getting a full hull wrap with some exotic design on it. Moving on….

All the other decisions are intricate, nuanced choices that definitely do make life easier or harder, but we are sailing, so it’s like camping, they aren’t game changing decisions and can be made along the way. Like what kind of props, what’s our WIFI setup or what kind of BBQ (because we are vegan we actually discussed this quite a bit and settled on a plancha ...I love making pancakes.

So the entire point of sharing all this with you is to say, the commissioning is not a simple thing like a boat comes out, then it goes to a commissioning agent who adds a few handrails and sets up your mattresses. Commissioning process actually starts a year before the fiberglass goes into the factory, because all these decisions need to be thought through and submitted as final manufacturers options and then the ex-factory commissioning is the stuff the manufacturer doesn’t do or doesn’t do the way you want it done.

So, enter from stage left the commissioning agent, here’s the kind of stuff they do. They provide the cockpit tents and enclosures, extra inverters or battery monitors. Fire suppression system, bigger fans throughout the inside, flooring like FlexTeek, etc. Chain counter, or how about a water filter for drinking water. Why? Because the watermaker fills your boat tanks, which also collect do we want the UV or just the carbon there’s that.

There’s also changes to stuff so like the hifi pack you get standard from the manufacturer includes all the wiring and the bose system but the TV, which you never wanted in the first place is a pathetic 24 inch, so then you ask yourself if you have it wired for TV do we want a bigger monitor...for rainy days watching movies. Okay sure, so what do we do with the 24 inch? Put it in the owners cabin, why? Well what if someone is sick in bed...ya so we never thought we really wanted a TV on a boat, and now we are going to have two. Dive compressor, outside fridge, ice maker…..sure why not…throw it in there. It’s only money right. And this is why buying a boat is like building a house, takes longer than expected and costs twice as much as you’ve budgeted for. It goes on and on, and we have definitely filled two years of waiting with all this research and reconnaissance on systems and equipment.

The other thing that really surprised me about all this, is the brokers are helpful to a point. It’s all very loose. They send you a list with all the options and it says ‘12 volt outlet’. Okay, I probably need that, but doesn’t it come with outlets already? Yes but updates change year to year, right now there is one in each cabin and in the saloon so you don’t need it. But what if my husband and I both want to charge our phones at night, should we add one in the master, maybe. What if we want to both work on a computer in the saloon because it’s raining, where’s the plug? Curtains in cabins, what do they look like? or sunshades on windows, inside or outside? Outside does salt scratch the windows, is inside better, does that mean you don’t need the curtains or do you still need the curtains for privacy. But the problem is, you don’t know what you don’t know and the broker and commissioning agent just want you to tell them what you want, they don’t really want to spend the time explaining what everything is and what you do or don’t really need. It’s sort of like having to build a house without an architect, there’s things we don’t know enough to ask.

Okay, so this concludes all the decisions part of this story. Let’s move on to who does what through the commissioning process.

For context, we live in California but would like to cast off from France and start in the Med. Considering all the delivery options, and based on our plans, we are leaning towards taking delivery there locally out of La Rochelle.

Our broker, is based out of the US, they will be managing the planning and operations for our boat working with the local teams on the ground from the commissioning agent, who is the primary agent, who ultimately also acts as both an extension of the manufacturing team for ex-factory assembly of certain things we came to find out, and they act as the local representative for our broker when they aren’t on the ground in France. You guessed it, this sets up a perfect situation for miscommunication when something goes wrong or is in question and the job needs to get done that moment. You couple that with a very old-school manufacturing and supply chain system and you can start to understand the potential problems. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it and it’s an industry ripe for modernization but with a culture that’s slow to change. It’s honestly bizarre.

Let me use a hypothetical example to make my point. So you want underwater lights but you don’t want the ones that come with the boat. You want to cool looking blue ones. You buy them from the broker, who actually is having the work done by the commissioning agent. The guys from the commissioning team drill the holes in the wrong spot so they cover them up and drill new holes and install the lights. You find out later when you are on the boat that four extra holes were drilled in the bottom of your boat and the gelcoat work is sloppy and cracking. Whose problem is it? In theory it’s the broker's problem to fix, but the broker didn’t know anything about it. The commissioning agent has no recollection and the actual guy who did the work left to work at a new boatyard months ago. Just a hypothetical example, we haven’t gone through the process yet, but we have heard many stories like it.

Beyond that, here are some of our tactical lessons we are learning:

  • We will try to get as much installed from the factory as possible and not only weigh the trade-offs of custom options, but the probability of it causing unintended consequences.

  • Properly plan for and anticipate what a custom request will fully entail and work with our broker early to plan for process changes and local lead times, assume nothing and document everything. Ask if that custom request has already been installed on your boat model. Don’t assume it will be the same installation on every model.

  • Appreciate the opportunities everywhere for markups.

  • While we are working with our broker and they are ultimately responsible for a positive outcome, it is our burden to appreciate the cultural differences in planning and adjust our expectations and style accordingly when we are on the ground.

  • Reset expectations about the time it takes to commission and ready a boat; hard deadlines will create more stress (which for us is what we are trying to have less of by changing our lifestyle). We chose to handle this by moving our delivery date slot up but we got in the queue super early.

  • It’s probably good to plan to stay out of the way, it would be like living through a kitchen remodel so I think we should not expect to move straight into the boat. Move in when the boat is truly ready, not based on a date set by yourself or your dealer.

A quick couple minutes here on chandlery and provisioning. In any port you could no doubt find everything you need to provision the boat with the help of a rental van. In local stores and chandleries in the boatyard you can find it all from rubber bottom dishes, linens, folding bikes, appliances, line, weather gear, repair equipment, charts, gangway, etc. Probably the most important things are having spares, oil filters, impellers, belts, and so on.

A person could walk off a plane and probably get everything they need to live there temporarily, commission, provision and cast off.

Extra gear we are still trying to figure out...WHAT ELSE could there be to buy you ask? The list is endless and I’m overwhelmed so honestly I think we will just get things as we go along. But the idea is for some of this stuff it might actually matter what kind you get, so more research is required. Here’s some examples, handheld GPS, binoculars, bosun's chair, sails, sat phone, scuba gear, water toys, ePIRB, tools, rope/wire cutters in case the mast comes down, liferaft, definitely want to research that, safety equipment, medical equipment, all personal decisions that require research. Oh, and I almost forgot the dingy, which I will at some point cover in detail.

It’s a lot and can make your head explode...and honestly people for years have been casting off with only a boat and a smile and they have all done just fine. I want to reiterate the purpose of sharing all this information is if it’s helpful to other people, and share what we are discovering through this journey - what I’m trying to say here is much like buying a used boat and fixing it up, buying a new boat is not all rainbows and frolicking dolphins.

But here’s what I’ll say. We are lucky to be having these kinds of decisions and face the inherent frustrations that go along with it. These are first world problems and I am grateful for them. It means making important trade-offs on what we want and what we think is practical to get done with lower risk - resetting expectations. It calls out the importance of patience and rolling with things and it’s preparation for the mindset we will need to live on a boat. It’s helping us with the transition which is all part of the adventure to make us resilient and prove that we must really, really want this kind of lifestyle.

I will do another blog when we go through the commissioning process and we can compare how it actually went with what I expected at the time I wrote this blog.

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