Building a barge is complicated. With the complexity come the inevitable mistakes and problems. When the bottom of a barge first hits the water neither the customer nor the manufacturer anticipates that every aspect of a new barge will be perfect. Post launch repairs and fixes are simply part of the process.
And so it was with Wanderlust. Immediately after launch there were 54 items on Wanderlust’s “snag list,” the Brits’ term for what Americans call a fix it or punch list. Over time the builder reduced the number of outstanding items. Yet even as the number of entries on the list dropped, difficult and expensive to resolve problems, like the peeling side deck paint and generator issues, collected and were left unresolved. When the builder’s repair work slowed, these problems remained. With time, newly revealed problems and follow-up work for unsuccessful repairs joined the unanswered issues on the snag list. The list began to grow again.
Eventually the builder seemed to simply give up on doing any work at all. As of October 2016, Wanderlust’s complaint list had grown to around 80 entries. Later additions to the list included major faults like the appearance of diesel in the forward cabin bilge and peeling top deck paint. These problems would be difficult and time consuming to repair.
To set things right will be expensive. Estimates by a surveyor put the cost for Wanderlust’s repairs in excess of $100,000 US, including expenses. Boatyards have told us that the work will take at least three to four months to complete. That’s a whole lot of time and money to fix a two and a half year old barge. Even more disturbing is that we routinely discover more build related issues as our time aboard continues.
Why are there so many problems?
Part of the trouble comes from what appear to be cost saving maneuvers by the builder. Shorting the anti-freeze in the engine and central heating saved the builder around $120 US; it cost us $1300 to rectify. Undercoating the deck’s paint and primer perhaps saved the builder $500 in costs. Current estimates put the cost of correcting the deck paint problems at well over 20x the amount saved. On the scale of the price of the boat, the costs that the builder saved were small. It was a true false economy.
Another big part of Wanderlust’s problems can be traced to the management of the build. Oversight and quality control during her construction were clearly not as effective as they should have been. As an example, in the spring of 2015, a French plumber sent by the builder found the source of the under floor floods that had been plaguing Wanderlust: A joint in the PVC sewer pipe had been dry fit without cement. When the joint pulled apart all sewage from the guestroom toilet went into the bilge. A simple quality check before the joint was covered over by the hardwood floor would have revealed the unfinished plumbing connection.
Looking further we’ve realized that the lack of oversight may be more pervasive than we imagined. Indeed, we’ve uncovered places where Wanderlust’s build does not seem to conform to the regulations that govern the construction of boats in the UK. This is something we had not expected. We trusted that the builder would be most careful to meet all of the marine requirements.
Part of this belief came from the builder. The manufacturer’s brochure states:
“Each craft is built to stringent standards and all boats conform to the Recreational Craft Directive.”
The builder also told us that a consultant was employed to specifically verify that their barges conformed to the regulations.
But as we looked into aspects of Wanderlust’ fuel system issues and reviewed the seemingly relevant Boat Safety Scheme standards, there appeared to be areas where Wanderlust’s build was non-conforming. If our barge was non-compliant with the regulations it could create future issues. Wanderlust’s owner’s manual, provided by the builder, explains the situation:
“At the end of a four year period, you will need to submit your boat for a Boat Safety Scheme examination. Once the boat has been shown to meet the BSS standards, a BSS certificate will be issued which shows that it meets the requirements of the navigation authorities.”
Simply stated, if Wanderlust were to fail a BSS examination she would not be eligible for a license in the UK.
In October of 2015 I noted in an email to the builder that some of the elements of Wanderlust’s fuel system did not seem to comply with the UK’s Boat Safety Scheme. In particular, these two clauses from the BSS were areas of concern:
“All permanently installed fuel tanks and fuel system connections must be accessible for inspection.”
“…[The fuel lines] need to be able to carry fuel effectively without any leaks, risks of leaks, overflows, or spills.”
Not long after, on October 7, 2015, I received a reply back from the builder:
“I can easily demonstrate that the fuel arrangements comply with EN ISO 10088-2001 and EN ISO 21487:2006. We use a consultant to verify that all aspects of the build conform with the relevant European standards at the date of build. This forms part of the CE marking of your boat.”
At the time that this message was received, I had no real knowledge of the RCD or ISO standards, or their relationship with the BSS. That would change. Though it seemed clear to me that aspects of Wanderlust’s fuel system did not conform to the BSS, which I understood to be a legal requirement, it would require considerable effort to unravel the relevance of the EN ISO standards. Was I incorrect in thinking that Wanderlust’s fuel system did not conform to the relevant standards?
Later, on February 5th 2016, we received a second message from the builder:
“As per your contract and under UK law I now suggest that I come down at a date agreeable with you to assess your concerns. I [the builder] will also bring a representative of our notified body to give a report on the alleged non-compliance of regulation.”
The second message also came with a price tag. If we wanted the builder to inspect Wanderlust’s fuel system in France we would need to wire him £3130 in advance. No work would be done during this visit. It would just be an inspection by the builder and a representative from the Notified Body to assure that Wanderlust’s build conformed to the regulations.
It is true that under the terms of the contract, if a customer complains about a fault on the boat, the builder logically has the right to inspect their boat prior to doing any work. But there is no clause in the contract or the governing laws that suggests that the customer has to pay in advance for an inspection.
Even the suggestion that a member of the Notified Body would come along “to give a report” is highly unusual. No expert, surveyor, solicitor, or yard owner, which we have asked has ever heard of a builder bringing along a member of the Notified Body for an inspection.
In retrospect, the second message from the builder appeared to simply be an attempt to push us away from our complaints. It seemed extraordinarily unprofessional. We felt as if we were being bullied.
Along with the fuel system, there were other elements of Wanderlust’s build that seemed to us to be non-compliant to governing regulations. But in the absence of full access to the written standards, or the experience in evaluating such issues, it was hard for us to get a full picture of what was done improperly. Consequentially we hired a marine surveyor to examine Wanderlust for RCD issues. The surveyor we chose specializes in RCD compliance and has worked closely with the Notified Body.
The surveyor visited Wanderlust in October of 2016. After a several hour-long examination he judged that 10 out of the 30 RCD’s Essential Requirements relevant to her construction had not been fulfilled. All told, there were more than 40 individual faults found. The range of issues well exceeded what had expected to find.
Among the faults identified in the RCD survey were the ones described in our original complaints to the builder about the fuel system. Our expert’s opinion was clear: Wanderlust’s fuel system configuration is not compliant with the RCD/ISO standards.
A casual inspection by the builder or his consultant should have easily revealed many of the places where Wanderlust’s build did not conform to the standards. Our RCD surveyor’s report did not inspire confidence in the self-certification process imbedded in the RCD compliance protocols. To us it seems that Wanderlust was built with the belief that her owners would never look too closely at their boat.
Not all of the problems discovered during the RCD survey were critical. Some of the items identified were functionally minor. For example, the Craft Identification Number (CIN), the boats base identification plaque, was not located properly. Operationally, it is a minor problem that is unlikely to seriously trouble a boat owner.
More concerning are safety issues. The secondary fire escape route from the master cabin is unusable. If we are in the master cabin and there is a fire in the salon or galley, there is no way for us to get out of the boat. It is a problem that we had noted early on, in the absence of knowledge of the regulations. The lack of a secondary escape route just seemed to be wrong to us at launch and we included the issue on Wanderlust’s snag list. The builder never made an attempt to resolve the problem.
Looking back, what could we have done different?
In retrospect it would seem sensible to hire a qualified marine surveyor look over the boat for RCD compliance before the handover is completed and the launch payment is made. If we had to do it again, we would have arranged to do just this. We would not have taken our builder’s word that his consultant would and had carefully examined our boat for regulatory conformity.
There are other things that could be done. But in the end, no matter the precautions that a customer takes, it comes down to trust. The customer must be able to trust that the builder is meticulous, thorough, and careful. A customer must trust that a builder is motivated to scrupulously comply with the governing standards. It is simply not practical for customers or their surveyors to completely monitor every aspect of a build.