Lessons Learned Building a Semi-Custom Trawler Slide Deck

Last weekend we presented our experiences in going through the design and build process for Nordhavn 5263. The slides are at  Hamilton_TF10_BuildingTrawlerWebPost.pdf

In discussing purchase costs, we broke the total cost into three components: 1) base boat & standard equipment 2) factory/dealer options and 3) post-delivery items. The amount you spend above the base price depends on what is included in the base price and how you equip the boat, but often is more than people expect. We’ve seen estimates as low as 10% over base. We made some major customizations so, for us, the extras were a substantial portion of total price. Factory options were 10% over the base price and post-delivery items were 26% over the base price. (Note: We have updated these figures to use the 52 base price. When we bought the boat, the 52 pricing hadn’t yet been set so our contract pricing was based upon options on a 47 where the 52 package was just a big “option”.)

One of the difficulties we had in comparing prices of new boats across builders was the difference in base configurations, and option prices and types. With some builders, for example, the get-home option is a fully-independent wing engine with separate propeller and shaft, whereas with others it is a hydraulic system that simply powers the main shaft through a generator in the event of a main engine failure. To compare more accurately, we requested quotes of like configurations from several builders. This also helped in comparing prices between new and used boats. Initially we felt that used boats were not good value compared to the base cost of a new boat. But once we’d factored in the items above the base price, used boat prices appeared much more competitive. This is particularly true in a weak economy.

If you do plan to request price quotes, be aware that if you approach a company without choosing a salesperson, one is assigned to you and this can be difficult to change later. Get feedback from other owners and explicitly choose one to work with before approaching the builder. The salesperson can have a major impact on the project, particularly if you plan major customizations. Jeff Merrill was deeply involved with the 5263 project from start to finish. We incorporated many of his suggestions that we’d otherwise have overlooked, and he supplied us an extensive boat photo library that continues to be an incredibly useful resource.

In the deck, we list the major customizations, equipment changes and upgrades that contributed to the the factory option costs of 25% over base, but only those that are a little unusual. We didn’t include common factory options such as a wing engine, although those costs are reflected in the 25%. The post-delivery items listed in the deck is reasonably complete. Many we had anticipated, such as the life raft and kayaks. But some we hadn’t considered were blinds, floor covering, and custom stainless work.


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23 comments on “Lessons Learned Building a Semi-Custom Trawler Slide Deck
  1. Marco says:

    Thank you for your blog and informative advice. Siting here at the Anchorets Boat show 2018 I can see I need to wait and research more. Perspectively looking at the Nordhavn 35′ .

    • I hope things progress along quickly and you are able to get the boat you plan. The Anacortes area is certainly hard to beat from a boating perspective having near instant access to the San Juan Island and Gulf Islands on the Canadian side. And, for longer trips, Desolation Sound, the Broughtons, the Hakai Recreational Area, and Alaska are all easily accessible.

  2. Jeff Moore says:

    Hi James,
    I have been following your blog site really closely recently in part because Charlotte (my wife) and I are looking to purchase a N52 next year or I should say starting the contracting/build process. I have to first say thanks. I feel like I’m learning a ton through reading your entries. Please continue to share as I’m sure I’m not the only one who is learning and enjoying your adventures.

    I have so many questions that I feel I’m not sure where to start.

    The first question I suppose…we are struggling with new vs. used. Just wondering why you went the new route vs. finding a suitable boat in the broker market?

    Size of the boat…I’ve recently read a number of other posts having to do with picking a boat that is just big enough vs. buying a much larger boat that you can afford. Why is that? Typically most folks would want to buy the largest home or the most expensive home that they can afford. This feedback seems counterintuitive.

    Thanks in advance for shedding light on these questions. Apologies if they have been asked before. We are just trying to learn as much as we can before officially signing the contract.

    PS. I’m going to search your site some more to see if I can find details on the operational costs of boat ownership…boat cleaning, insurance, taxes, haul outs, engine/systems maintenance, etc. That’s the other area where I feel we need to become more aware.

    • Glad to hear you are planning to buy a long range cruiser. It’s a great way to see the world and, 5+ years later, we are glad we did.

      You asked why not go used? The advantage of new is you can get the boat customized exactly as you want but it might cost more and it will take longer. The relative value of the used market changes over time given that a small number of buyers are looking for a small number of brokerage boats. Sometimes the market is higher and sometimes lower. It really depends upon what is in the market at the time and how much of a rush they are in. Some boat for sale really aren’t seriously for sale and the prices are higher than make sense. Other times, there are great values available. I would look at both.

      Dirona is the first full 52 so there were none on the used market. We could have purchased a used 47 but there were none on the martket that apealed to us. We did look seriously at a 55 but ended up concluding that a 55 was more boat that we needed. In retrospect, the large cockpit of the 52 and all the time we spend outside in it has taught us that the 55 and the 47 wouldn’t be good choices for our lifestyle. I think the 60 would be great but they didn’t exist when we bought our 52 and, even if they were available in the used market, they are a lot more expensive than our 52. I’m not sure we would be wiliing to spend that much more.

      That last point flows into your next question, why buy only the boat you need. The shortest answer is cost. Many costs scale with boat size or boat purchase price, moorage, bottom cleaning, yard time and work, insurance, taxes, washing, waxing and detailing all scale with size and inital cost which also scales with boat size. The two most important things to us are: 1) we would rather have a smaller boat very well equiped than a larger boat where we can’t afford to finish off as well, and 2) we want to have the financial capability to comfortably be able to repair the boat and to be able to afford to use it. Buying smaller leaves more money for trips, fuel, bigger trips, and more exploring. We wanted to have the money to be able to deal with surprise repairs without stress and to pay for the adventure without feeling like we were sacrificing our future.

      And, continuing on the size point, each time we clean the bottom on Dirona, I always say “shoot me if I ever even propose a larger boat” — it’s amazing how much bottom we alreadY have. It’s a periodic reminder that we really don’t “need” a larger boat.

      Another advantage of a smaller boat is that we get Marina space more easily. At Port Denerau Fiji, we got space where friends in a 57 didn’t and friends in a 62 had to wait to get space. We are currently in the new marina closer to downtown in Reunion where larger boats have to use the more remote old marina.

      The biggest advantages of a larger boat is bigger boats, when looking at displacement craft, are faster (more water line), usually carry more fuel, might be a small amount safer in dangerous weather, and bigger brings more flexibility and you don’t have to be as creative to make it do what you want.

      I’m pretty sure we could get used to handling a well equipped Nordhavn of any size. To me the limitations are you want to get a boat big enough to do all you want, to hold all the gear you think you need, and to feel comfortable. After that, small saves money, opens up moore marina space, and reduces some forms of maintainance. If we were to do it again, we would look at the 52, 60, and 63 with both the 60 and 63 being bigger than we need but the water line length brings more speed and the additional tankage makes the range we get now easier. But, considering all those factors, we could very easily end up deciding to go with a 52 again. I find it amazing we still have unused storage space after having lived aboard for 6 years and 6,400 main engine hours.

      On maintainance costs, most people under estimate them. Few keep detailed records of abasolutely every spend, some costs are only made vary rarely (e.g. main engine overhaul), and some costs are statistical. In the statistical class are things like transmission overhaul or replacement. Most boat will never need it done but there are a few that will. You can avoid some issues through careful maintenance but not all. Sometimes you just get unlucky so, in my opinion, you need to have some money effectively “spent” every year to pay for your share of unexpected and unlikely repairs. And, if you end up winding on 10k to 15k hours larger engine service items start to get more likely.

      The number I see bandied around for maintenance is 10% of boat value. We are still learning and gaining experince but I suspect we will end up with boat maintainence, fuel, repairs, and new rigging running around 8 to 10% per year and we do most of our own work which reduces costs but we travel a lot which increases them.

      All the best on your planed boat purchase.

      • Charlie says:

        Hi James,

        Great to follow your Blog – very informative.

        My family and I have been chartering mainly Grand Banks over the past 10years from NW Exploration in Belingham WA. The last boat was a 52Europa and this year we are trying out a 55 Fleming. We are starting to look at buying a full displacement trawler and I’m trying to get my arms around annual maintenance cost. If you had to guess what have you experienced on your 52N for just annual maintenance cost (no fuel)? We really appreciate the look of a Nordhavn and their durability. I agree the 55 cockpit is too small for the way we use the boat that’s why we are looking at a 60. We also like the mid range 55 – 60 Selene layout and cockpit but hear they may have quality issues – any thoughts on Selene’s

        Congratulations on your adventure and thanks again for the help.


        If you were to guess what would be your annual maintenance cost without fuel? Thanks for the help and Congratualtions

        • Your plans sound good. The general rule for maintenance costs is about 10% of the cost of the boat but many argue that it is lower than that. In our case, it seems lower but there are many confounding factors and, if you consider them all, it could easily stretch up to 10%.

          Some very expensive equipment has a very long life so you won’t see it in the “annual” maintenence costs until the boat is more than 10 years old. For example, in 6 years our generator has 4,200 hours on it. It won’t last forever so we need to allocate a small portion of the replacment cost each year. Most people don’t include these longer term unusual costs.

          Another factor is optional equipment. We are heavily invested in satelite gear and it will be on a 5 to 10 year replacment cycle with the more expensive equpiment running more than than $30,000. Not everyone will decide to use the same communicaitons gear. We also spend a very large amount on satelite connectivity. Again, this is not needed by all and in some ways is like fuel. It’s a consumable that gets used in different amounts depending upon your usage goals.

          We have a very large number of spares on the boat and the reality of a large number of spares is most will never get used. So, it’s hard to call them maintenance costs but, if you are operating remote and want the trip to go on without innterupption or having to change routing or wait for parts, then you need these spares. If you do have them, you get to pay for the parts, pay for the fuel to move them, and give up storage space. It’s a personal taste and usage pattern issue. For boats running up and down the inside passage, far fewer parts would work perfectly well.

          Some wear is related to calendar years and some is related to hours and there is great variability in the latter. Some mainenance costs are labor and some fly people in to do all the work whereas others like us do most of the work ourselves. This also has a big impact on the overall costs.

          Overall, with our high hour usage and other choices some of which increase costs and some of which reduce them, I suspect we are comming in right around 10% a year not including fuel and marinas.

          You asked about Salene’s. When we bought Dirona we narrowed the seatch down fairly early to Nordhavn, Kady Krogen, and Salene. The Krogen’s are well built boats but we prefer the Nordhavn layout and even the styling and, comparing similar sized boats, the Nordhavn seemed to us to be better value. That had us down to two candidates: Selene and Nordhavn. When we were shopping the Selene’s were less expensive but also slightly less well equipped for long distance cruising. I was convinced that either boat can be set up for the same overall mission but, when you add in the changes we would want on the Selene, it no longer looked like a less expensive boat.

          The Nordhavn was closer to what we want and has more owners operating in the way we were interested in operating. It wasn’t a head and shoulders advantage for Nordhavn but we ended up concluding the Nordhavn was a better fit than Selene for our planned usage and, equipped the way we wanted, was very similar in cost.

          • Jamie Bush says:

            Interesting post James. I had wondered what the number 2 choice had been. Would you mind mentioning what a couple of the more expensive items where that would have been added to the Selene to make one more Nordhavn comparable? I’m also interested very much which Selene or Kadey Krogen you were considering if you don’t mind sharing.

            I enjoyed your comments too comparing used boats to new. The thought had crossed my mind already that a lot of the reason that ‘newer’ used boats are so expensive was they often have well into the 6 figures of options onboard…

            • Hi Jamie, we didn’t dig deeply on Krogen. They are nice boat but the combination of them appearing to not be as good value as the Nordhavn and us not liking the interior layout and styling as much led us to not consider them in depth. There were no fundamental issues with the Krogen and I don’t worry about build quality. We just found the boat a bit more expensive and the difference was big enough that we decided against that option fairly early.

              Selene was less expensive for a given size boat and, for us, this was a big enough purchase that we were very focused on how to get the best value. We were looking at the 48. We felt the Selene was not nearly as well equiped as the Nordhav but I was willing to make those changes to get it up to the same equpment level. We dug fairly deeply on this one believing that it’s a bit more of a hassle to have to do so many post purchase changes but, if the time investment saved a couple of hundred thousand, we were completely willing to do it.

              We dig this excercise in a lot of detail and eventually concluded that a like rigged boat could perhaps be as much as $50k to $100k less enspensive. This just felt too close for all the addition work and the possibility that some of the changes might not work out as well as we might like. First time engineering always carry some risk of needing to be done twice. All solvable problems but a lot of work.

              Big issues for us are we don’t want a single engine boat without a wing engine. A hydraulic system run off the generator is an option but the hydraulics get home systems require a 20kw generator and I wasn’t convinced we even needed a 12kw. We also were very focused on fuel carrying capacity and the Selenes were at the time always slightly lighter tanked. I’m not sure if that is still true.

              A friend of mine was planning to put a wing engine in a Selene after the fact and the quote was eye openingly large.

              Generally we think we could have happily made any of the three boats work but are glad we ended up able to do the Nordhavn. It’s closer to what we want out of the box, it’s pretty good value, and we have been able to go cruising rather than invest in making changes.

              • Jamie Bush says:

                Thanks for the reply James.

                A quote from something you previously wrote on your site from, “Another Nordhavn 52 is born” is awesome advice too for anyone considering a trawler;

                “The 52 model is selling well right now, and after having put over 4,400 ours on ours, we think it should. Dirona is the perfect size for travelling the world, and matches our goal well of being the smallest boat we could comfortably do that in. ”

                Good advice on so many levels.

                • We are at 7,660 hours now and still feel the same way. We’re currently putting along slowly from Barbados so St. Lucia. We normally run on the faster side but we’re aiming to not arrive until daylight tomorrow so we are only doing 5.0 kts at just under 2 gallons per hour.

                  Fuel economy is far from being our first focus — we look first for heavily built and safe — but it’s fun to see it doing well even if part of the gain has to be a favorable ocean current.

                  • jj hunt says:

                    Hi James,

                    Thanks for your informative blog and hope you are well in “isolation”

                    I wonder if you’ve ever shared updated figures on maintenance costs now that you’ve had your boat for a long time … I’m always a bit confused by the 10% rule of thumb since I would assume a newer (more expensive) boat has less maintenance than an older one. I guess particularly when I’m looking at used Nordhavns its hard to get an estimate of the maintenance costs involved.

                    A related topic: did you ever consider a steel hull? They seem to much more common here in Europe?


                    • Generally a new boat isn’t much cheaper to maintain than an well maintained “old” boat. We’ve had our boat for 10 years and during that time, we have done all sorts of maintenance work but never changed or rebuilt engines or done anything big. But there is lots of year to year work. Some items like servicing stabilizer actuators are fairly far apart at 2,600 hours. Same with thruster service at 6 years. But, neither is very expensive. All the big gear like engines lasts very well so what you pay for every year is mostly the required maintenance. Our experience is that new boats costs more because getting them the way you want costs more than keeping them there. New boats need upgrades and new boats need spares. In our experience the first two years of a boats life is more expensive than the last two years has been (the boats 9th and 10th years). We always have some money tucked away for an unexpected surprise. An engine could fail. It’s highly unlikely, it won’t have worn out, but it’s possible that something big will go wrong. Fortunately, if you buy a good boat, most years nothing big will go wrong. The following is from a year back but it’s still true today.

                      The often quoted number you mentioned is 10% of the current value of the boat and use that to cover all boat related and boating expenses. Most people I know feel this is much higher than it should be and use a lower number. For us the number might be slightly higher only because I work full time so maintain a lot of expensive communications options that work doesn’t pay for and I’m also responsible for all travel (which we view as a boating expense) which some years can run up quite a bit some years. The boat it’s self is reliable and the components are remarkably durable. We use our boat a ton and have 10,400 hours on the main, 5,800 hours on the gen, and 960 hours on the wing. All are in great shape. The boat is structurally super strong and it’ll never wear out. Major components are good quality and wear very well. The boat is servicable so, when parts do need changing, it can be done at reasonable effort. We value our time fairly highly so we have a lot of spares on board and one of the reasons why we run so many hours a year is we never are waiting for service, waiting for parts, or trying to fix something that is blocking the trip.

                    • I forgot to address the steel hull component of your question. Steel hulls are much more common in Europe and it’s close to standard in big ships and many of the really large yachts. Steel works very well. It’s not ideal for small planing hull boats or for boats optimizing for light weight. But, trawlers aren’t normally weight optimized. Dirona is a 55 ton boat which is notably heavy and we like it that way. It safe and very comfortable in anchorage with a bit of swell. Steel would work well for our applications. The often mentioned negative of steel is corrosion. But, well maintained, Corrosion is controllable they can last many decades. Fiberglass boats don’t rust but there are some fault modes unique to fiberglass hulls like osmotic blistering. Again, this isn’t a problem in well built and well maintained boats so, again, not much different from steel.

                      For small production boats where 10s to even a 100 will be built, fiberglass can yield a less expensive product than a hand wielded and faired hull. Perhaps as a consequence of this, all the production boats we considered that had ocean crossing capability, were fiberglass. We would be fine with a steel or aluminum vessel but the the best value production boats we found with the capabilities we liked, were all composite hulls so we went that route. We don’t have a strong preference on any hull building material and we’ve seen boats we would love in steel, aluminum, and fiberglass. All can last well and be used to build good boats.

          • Charlie says:

            Thanks James for your insight it’s very much appreciated.

            If I’m realistic about our cruising goals, at least in the near term, we would be focusing on inside passage cursing and down into Mexico once we get the experience – so mainly coastal cursing. My guess is we won’t need the boat set up you required on your global tour. From the initial investment a used Selene look less expensive and their layout might be a better fit for our family. We have seen a lot come onto the market in the PNW over the last 12months. – I’m encouraged to look more closely at a used Selene given your comment.

            Safe travels.


            • Sounds good Charlie. The only recommendations and observations I would add are:

              1) don’t underestimate how rough the west coast of the US can be. It worth having a very strong well equipped boat for that run. Nobody wants bad weather but there will be a time when a weather report isn’t accurate and bad weather finds you. The Pacific North West and especially the west coast of the US will eventually deliver a weather surprise so you want a boat you can be confident in. I agree it’s easy to get parts over nighted everywhere you are going so don’t certainly don’t need the spares load. Arguably we don’t need the spares load either but I really value our time and having spares on board allows us to “just continue” rather than diverting and waiting for parts. 7,500 hours later we have never had to divert or wait for parts and that’s the way we like it although admittedly most of the parts we have will never get installed on Dirona.

              2) There is great value in the Nordhavn owners community. It’s really useful to have many people that have done what you are doing and more to offer some help. Selene may have the came level of community support but it’s useful enough that I would check on it.

              3) When it comes to alternative layouts and changes, you will find that if the ideas are good and fit the boat well, Nordhavn will be willing to make those changes for you. We ended entire day head in Dirona and the work was done well and it was priced very reasonably. If you are considering new boats, you should ask for what you want. It’s often possible to get the changes you need.

              All the best on your decision.

          • Garrett says:

            Hi James, you mention satellite connectivity. Can you give us a sense of what internet usage costs and how the quality is in remote areas?

            • Satelite communications are expensive but the bandwidth is going up fairly fast and the cost is falling fairly slowly. And with both Amazon and SpaceX launching fleets of low earth orbiting satelites, bandwidth is expected to grow somewhat and costs are expected to fall rapidly.

              We currently use a KVH V7hts (https://www.kvh.com/admin/products/mobile-communications/minivsat-broadband/tracphone-v7-hts/leisure-tracphone-v7-hts) system and really like it. The plan costs are here: https://www.kvh.com/airtime-and-content/commercial-mini-vsat-broadband-airtime/hts-dual-channel-plans. We currently are on a plan that costs $1,000/month which comes with 5GB/month with an overage charge of $350/GB.

              The quality is excellent and you can comfortably surf, watch video or do anything, you can do on cellular. In fact, that’s part of the risk. The system performs very well and you can use a lot of data if you aren’t thoughtful. Overall, quality is excellent. The only issue is that obstruction can be a problem when far norther or far south since the satellites are all at the equator. Other than that issue, the quality is great, the speed is excellent, quality is good, but price is fairly high. Because the system allows me to work in remote locations, we feel it’s a bargain in that it allows a great adventure. We really like the system.

  3. Its was good meeting you at Trawlerfest Jackie and fun to talk through boat options and features with you.

    I think you are right that Sptifire is happy to have fewer visitors on the boat now that we are back in Seattle.


  4. Jackie Schmidt says:

    Hi James!

    It was wonderful meeting you two at Trawlerfest. Thanks for giving me the tour! I finally got around to looking over your PDF and reading this post. Very interesting, but just makes me wish I saw you live! Please let me know if you plan on doing the talk again.

    Perhaps like some guitar companies have the, for example, Eddie VanHalen guitar, maybe Nordhavn will have the Hamilton model. :-)

    I bet Spitfire was happy to get out of the shower, poor kitty… but can’t feel too sorry for him given what his life normally is like. :-)

    Jackie Schmidt

  5. Thanks for the feedback Bob.


  6. Bob Stobart says:

    Thank you both for the time and effort you have put in to allow others to follow your progress and the extra effort to put this on your site. I wish it were possible to have attended your talk but this is a good alternative. I am looking forward to reading/seeing more of your adventures in the future!



  7. Thanks for the feedback Yair. The talk actually formed a good checkpoint for us. In many ways, it still feels like we’re in the middle of the commissioning process. Stopping and reflecting on the entire build shows us that we’re actually getting pretty close to the goal.

    Its time to start stocking spares for the first big trip this summer.


  8. Yair says:

    Thank you both so much for the blog update and pdf. I’ve read it once and will do so again. Very informative. Cheers,

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