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  • Holly

How a New Catamaran Gets Built

In a recent trip to La Rochelle, France and took a Fountaine Pajot factory tour. Then, we got to watch as one of our friends got their catamaran commissioned. And just like being in labor without an epidural, it’s not something you can ever fully prepare for. In this blog I’ll share how a new boat gets manufactured and commissioned and what I learned that surprised me the most.

The birth of a boat is nothing like you would imagine it to be. Originally when we weighed the pros and cons of buying a built to order new boat versus buying a used boat and refitting it, it seemed pretty straight forward. You say, I want this base boat, add this and that and hand me the keys. Just like buying a car right?….turns out this is not at all what happens. I want to share my observations now having gone on the tour and seeing our friends go through this, and then later when we are actually going through this and you can laugh hysterically at the gap between my expectations and reality.

Like all serious things in my life, I’m not a fan of surprises so on an annual trip to France to visit my husband’s family we squeezed in a tour of the Fountaine Pajot factory just outside of La Rochelle, France. This is the factory where they build their small vessels, between 40-50 feet, and assuming nothing major changes, this is where our boat will be conceived from a magical concoction of fiberglass and balsa wood and comes out the other end, fully masted and bathed roughly eight weeks later. But that’s just the beginning.

I’m gonna insert a disclaimer here to say, I’m not a boat builder, I’m just sharing what I observed and what I understand based on what I’ve seen and learned about through my own journey. Just like anything else in life, I fully reserve the right to be wrong.

Okay, let’s break this whole thing down into three trimesters.

The first trimester. This is the manufacturing process.

This particular factory is laid out to accommodate each progressive step through the building process. There are roughly between 8-10 separate stations in the factory working on about that many boats at the same time. One boat comes out of the factory each week, roughly, give or take...with the whole month of August off in France...and the holidays...and all the other reasons French people take time off.

The process all starts with the moulds, huge, double-sided moulds which form the deck/cockpit and a single-sided mold for the hull. These things are gigantic and there is only one boat in them at a time. Try to picture two or three huge semi-trucks parked next to each-other, that’s about the size. Once the pieces come out, they are measured and tested to be sure they achieve the right level of resilience. These two major pieces are made of one continuous surface which ultimately get fused together with layers of gelcoat, fiberglass and foam. The moulds produce about 200 boats but start to lose fidelity in their shape after that, which is roughly when the builder decides to update the model...because they will need to update the moulds anyway.

They have separate stations each part of the manufacturing process after that and they work on roughly 8-10 boats at a time, all in different stages. While the moulds are doing their thing, the bulkhead pieces are cut to spec separately while the cabins, kitchens and the head enclosures are all built and assembled in single units to be installed later. We walked through a field of heads that were just hanging around ready to be lifted into the boat.

Before the hull piece comes out of the mould, they are lined on the bottom and sides with square blocks of balsa wood cores cut from the strongest pieces of the inner ring of the tree (imagine a block cutting board). It was explained that each individual balsa block is pre-treated with resin to make each block individually watertight before they are then put into the boat and fully sealed in resin, which I’ll explain. There’s a lot written on balsa wood cores, but do your own research. Personally, I’m a big fan of having a rigid hull so I’m a fan of balsa wood cores.

The hull is then sealed with huge pieces of fiberglass again for additional reinforcement and the thickness is measured to the safety certification. Each end of the hulls and partitions are filled with foam cores as are the inner walls within the hulls, so they have pockets of air sealed within the boat. This technique claims to produce unsinkable boats...I’ll just knock on balsa wood here and move along.

Once this is done, the entire hull piece is wrapped in a massive plastic bag on the inside and vacuum-sealed for resin infusion. The goal of the resin injection into this massive bag is to fuse all the fiberglass, wood and the interior hull structure together to create a homogenous composite structure. I’m sure it also helps contain the caustic fumes and protect the workers from terrible health issues as well. Resin is precisely measured as it’s going in, and as it comes out to ensure exactly the right amount of it is used to get the effect they want. The idea is to have each individual small balsa block core water sealed, then add the fiberglass, then have the whole thing again sealed as one piece so if there was ever a puncture, any water intrusion would be contained to where the puncture entered, and not threaten the surrounding wood.

After the resin comes out and the big plastic bag comes off, the hull is one solid structural piece at that point, which is incredibly impressive...until I stopped to think about the holes that would be later drilled in to accommodate the underwater blue lights that are on our commissioning list...still thinking through that.

They then slide in the bulkheads making custom adjustments by hand because nothing that big can come out exactly perfect, based on just small unique characteristics of each boat’s resin process. They fiberglass and glue those pieces together as the full resin piece cures. We were able to see exactly where the watertight sections of the boat were, which gave me a feeling of serenity that’s hard to describe.

The next phase is assembly of the hull. They lower in the individual cabins, heads and the kitchen enclosure as single units into the boat. It sorta reminded me of building the Lego Friends catamaran with my niece. After this, the engine mounts and sail drives are installed and the electrical network is laid out through a series of plastic pipes between the stern and bow. This is then quickly followed with all the major systems installed, generator, air conditioning, engines, etc. are put into the hull piece while it’s all open. As all this is happening, right next to it, the cockpit deck is receiving it’s lifelines and stanchions.

But this next part is really cool and we got to see this happen while we were there. They have this assembly station where there’s a huge lift and they lift the deck and cockpit section above the hull section and lower it down... and in just a few minutes it finally becomes a boat!

After this point, the electrical continues along with the installation of the winches and major finishing work. It was also good to be able to look under the hull on a finished boat out of the water, since the at the boat shows, they don’t give you that viewpoint. The boats then get moved into a separate area with a testing pool where they test the engine, AC, look for any issues or possible leaks.

Sidebar on the factory itself. Fountaine Pajot has an impressive operation and we didn’t have any major concerns coming out of the tour or how the boat was manufactured. The place was spotless, unless we arrived the day after the cleaning ladies came. But seriously, not a speck of dust. While pretty low tech...there’s not like big robots walking around or anything like that...the workstation areas were extremely well organized and safe, and everyone was wearing their protective eyewear. Workflow was well mapped out and you could understand by just looking at the work charts, what the quality control process was - even if I don’t read French, it was pretty clear what they were looking for as it passed quality review in each stage. There’s a series about twenty quality control categories, checked by maybe a dozen different people through the course of the manufacturing line. All the twenty or so categories of systems on the boat are checked and rechecked at different times in the process, which was reassuring.

This is when the second trimester begins...masting, final inspection, dealer handover and commissioning.

It takes about ten working days for the factory to get the boat from their factory site to the La Rochelle port which is about a thirty-minute drive. Most of that time is waiting for the window of time the transport vehicle is available, which is done through a third party. However, because the boats are so big and wide, this is definitely not a ride without peril. The roads through La Rochelle itself match it’s charming age; it became an established port town in the 12th century so hopefully you get my point.

The final inspection and masting stage was interesting and I learned a lot. The boat is put on blocks where it enjoys its hull treatment, then it gets lowered into the water, where a couple of crews overlap. While the boat is going through it’s final inspection, and putting up the mast and standing rigging by one crew with blue marking tape, the second crew is receiving and inspecting the boat with yellow marking tape. Officially this is when the owner has 2-3 days to inspect the boat and officially have it handed over. Notice I never mentioned the owner at this point.

Based on the contract, the owner is to receive and inspect the boat, but what actually happens is the broker receives it on your behalf unless you know the exact date your boat is being transported and lifted into the water in time to book a flight to be there when it happens - or hang around ahead of time for some unknown period of time. Based on other owner’s accounts, this is what really happens. And, the broker may not be there for this either. Instead, it would be the broker's’ agent, who in reality at the time we saw this happening was the commissioning company contracted by our broker to do the work. You heard that right, it’s not the owner and not the broker who was approving the final handover from the factory...which was unnerving, because officially this is when you are considered the owner of the boat and when your warranty kicks in. It’s also the day you need to have an insurance policy.

When you take delivery of a new car, you show up on the lot and get a chance to go over anything and make sure it’s what you wanted, then you sign the final paperwork and get the keys. This is not what happens. I will say that the commissioning agent (the guys with the yellow tape) do take a hundred photos and go through their own Quality Control process which appears to be fairly manageable. They also assured us, which was consistent with what we were told from the factory, that the boat doesn’t leave that spot free of blue or yellow tape with anything undone that’s important. Hmmm.

We have heard of things being missed or not installed properly in this awkward in-between state, so it would be important to be there in person and look at everything - although I’m no expert on boat building so hard to know what we would be looking for other than obvious holes or cracks on the deck. Though we had heard of important examples, like through holes being cut in the hull for installations of things, then filled because someone decided they were in the wrong place, but the final gelcoat work was not being done properly before the boat got put in the water. This kind of thing you would never know until you hauled it out, and it’s not like you are ripping off paneling at this point to look for things like this. Other stories we heard about was the people in the boatyard putting the boat keels on blocks so someone could treat the hull but because the weight isn't distributed properly it cracked the keels...again, the owners never knew until they did a haul out and saw water streaming out of deep cracks in their keels, to find out it was a pattern. This is the stuff boat people have nightmares over.

Okay, so the boats in the water, mast is up, blue and yellow tape is gone and the boat’s now ready for commissioning. And I’ve gotta say, understanding the process of commissioning is as elusive as trying to photograph a unicorn. We are taking delivery in France, but other people take delivery with their dealer in the states after they have their boat either captained across or shipped via freight - yes, a ship can be shipped on a container ship. Say that five times fast. If you do commissioning in France it’s two weeks before it crosses. If you have it shipped or sailed, there’s that two weeks, then another 4-5 weeks in the US according to our broker. According to this math that’s 4-5 weeks of work that isn’t accounted for so I’m just going to go ahead and plan for a 6 week commissioning process in La Rochelle.

Our broker will be managing the planning and operations for our boat, working with the local commissioning agent on the ground. As of this blog, our broker ACY has boots on the ground to manage this process in person. I understand that to be the second person on the ground with a brokers logo on their shirt so I’m hopeful that will be fully in place by the time our boat is ex-factory.

Everything between the factory, the broker and the commissioning agent is tracked based on the hull number, which is when all the fun really starts for any new boat owner anyway. We don’t yet have one. At this point they do all the basic commissioning; put mattresses in, install appliances and things like the rigging, windlass and navigation systems, furler, bowsprit, davits for your dingy and anything else us crazy people who liveaboard decide we can’t live without, like line-cutters and fancy props or dive compressors, combo washers/dryers...and yes, even dishwashers if that’s what your heart desires.

Quick little scenic route I want to take you on here...In an earlier blog I explained a bit about the french sailing culture. Simple and minimalist. As these catamarans have grown in popularity, there’s been a whole cottage industry that has sprung up and bolstered businesses of boat brokers for after-sales commissioning. Why, because people buy boats and don’t want simple and minimalistic. We want things like biminis, ice-makers and full laundry facilities...things that we are used to having at home as red-blooded consumers. Not proud about it, it’s just the way it is. So with catamaran popularity going up and sad to say, hurricanes damaging so many boats in the BVIs and just last week as I record this, in the Bahamas, people are putting deposits down to get in the production queue before their insurance claims are processed.

So all this is well and good, but more people like us are saying, ‘I’ll just pick the boat up in Europe, (there’s a lot of boat builders there), and I’ll cruise the Med the first season as we do the shakeout.’ So this is becoming a trend. The problem is the local commissioning companies aren’t set up for this kind of scale, with access to the range of suppliers and even talent available for things like custom electrical systems, etc. Which is actually great if you are a young man or woman who is a badass boat technician, the sky's the limit for you. And even the lucky ones sometimes get offered jobs as first year captains on private boats for the shakeout work.

Anyway, the commissioning agents are often not only commissioning for the one boat a week I mentioned being produced by FP in our case, they often commission for multiple brokers and even multiple boat factories. These guys have a scaling problem and are trying to transform to manage all the know, like getting modern IT systems versus using paper-based methods to run the operation. It might also be the first time they implement a request on a new FP model and it potentially has some implications on the installation. Like for instance Lithium. Even though in the states or other countries it might be clear where to get the batteries and set up a systems with the right amount of solar, this is a relatively new thing out of France and a whole lot could go wrong if it’s not all sourced and installed properly as a whole system. Then there is the cultural and language barrier, that’s a whole separate blog for the future but suffice it to say, even if you speak French, there is much room for error just because change requests go through more than one line of communication with someone halfway across the globe.

Back to the point. We saw some friends getting their boat commissioned while we were in France on that same trip. We got to see a lot of first hand and I won’t get specific about the issues out of respect for the innocent. However, because of all the scalability issues, I think it’s important to properly plan for and anticipate problems that go along with any custom request - or try to avoid as many crazy customized changes as possible...maybe do that along the way. And, assume nothing and document everything.

I think it would be generally in a buyers’ best interest to assume nothing and to actively look for problems at major stages of handover, from the factory, to the commissioning agent, leading up to the boat being put in the water. This is where the big problems can be identified early...assuming you know what you are looking for. Another thing we decided was to not get the boat during crunchtime, which is July. Avoid June and July leading up to the August summer vacation holiday season. We decided it's better to allow more time than less and not to be in a big hurry. We might be shivering in February but better than to be stuck and miss a whole season because everyone up and left for holiday before our mast was up.

The third trimester of this boat pregnancy, labor and delivery...and this could take some time.

This phase of the boat birthing process includes chandlery, provisioning and shakeout. For some it takes a whole season. Chandlery and provisioning (especially if you are picking your boat up in another country). Keep it simple and shop local. Use Amazon or pick things up along the way for everything else. In the local stores and chandleries in the boatyard we saw it all from rubber bottom dishes, linens, folding bikes, appliances (220v), gear, line, weather gear, repair equipment, buoys, charts, dinghies, etc. Nearby there is a huge store; like our Target or Walmart and it’s Europe so they have IKEAs like we have Starbucks. Sure creature comforts are awesome but are they worth the $5,000 or so to ship a container. I’m not sold on that yet. I think a person could literally walk off a plane with two suitcases and stock everything else from the boatyard and a trip to a couple stores with a rental van. In terms of exchange rates and costs, it is what it is. Electronics seemed to be high but everything else was a wash if you compare the exchange rate versus the cost of shipping from the US.

It’s the shakeout that could be treacherous. Not for your safety so much as for your nerves. Well, could be safety if you have a major issue, like a steering failure or electrical problems. I’ll put an asterisk here. Had we known when we put our second deposit down, what we know now about the adventures of shaking out a new boat, I can’t say for certain that we would have opted to buy a new boat. I’m not regretting it now, just not sure...although I have a little weakness for that new boat smell. Based on what I’ve heard from new owners, I think it's safe to say that everything that will break badly will happen the first year, which is at least when everything is still covered under warranty. That’s the bright side. My point is, don’t underestimate what is involved in the shakedown, which is why I reserved it as part of its whole separate trimester...that might go on for a while. Like it was when I was pregnant with my daughter, she was two weeks late and I was in labor for three days. I was completely done being pregnant and the pain felt like it would never end. It’s like that.

It’s when I came to this realization that birthing a new boat is more like doing a major home remodel. It’s not like suddenly it’s done. There’s a lingering punch list that goes months after your general contractor takes his crew to the next house and you’re crossing your fingers they show up to redo the work they got wrong the first time. It’s just how it works.

So the biggest lesson I learned through the visit to the factory, the broker, the commissioning agent and seeing our friends...manage your own expectations. I think you have to go in with the mindset that yes, it’s an amazing milestone and incredible point in time as you launch into your new liveaboard life.

Building and commissioning a boat, just like pregnancy and labor, it’s a magical experience and absolutely life changing, but some parts of it can really suck.

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