Building Logs

What went wrong?

Posted by Paul

First a warning to readers, the following blog post is not boat related in any way. But is boat build related. It may seem a bit of a ramble, bear with me.

A few people have asked what happened to us over the past year, and many emails of encouragement not to give up, that it deserves to be commented on in a blog post of its own for many reasons not least of which that we promised to blog “warts and all” about the entire process. But also to allay concerns for us. We are struggling a bit, but in a very modest way compared to people with real problems.

It was hard to know where to start with a post like this and I put it off for a few months, starting then trashing what I had written and starting again. Life is full of ups and downs. The trick is to make the most of the ups and minimise the downs. Unfortunately some issues are beyond our control. Over the past 12 months the downs lasted longer than I would have liked and the ups were not sufficient enough to feel I was making progress and I almost gave up on the build. Almost being the keyword there. I didn’t and haven’t. I am sure many builders that go on to complete may have almost given up too. And of course there are many unfinished projects for sale, so many for whatever reason, don’t make it to completion, at least not by the person that started. I am still building. So this story is not yet finished.

Having said all that, feeling like giving up, or not feeling like you can finish (for me, it was not seeing how I could afford to pay for the things still needed to finish and therefore if I was not going to be able to finish, I found it pointless for a while, doing anything on the build) is part of the emotional journey (Jo and I hate that word, “journey”, it is overused and an an emotive heartstring puller but I couldnt think of any other way to put it, and maybe that is why it is overused) and deserves its place in the descriptions if we are to be true to the “warts and all” promise. If you are thinking of embarking on a build that could and in many cases does take almost a decade to complete, then you ought to be aware that over what amounts to about 20% of your adult life, many many changes are going to occur, some of them are not going to be positive or at least they wont feel like they are at the time. And many will not be in your control.

When we first started building we believed we could finish in 5 years and that we had the income to cover the entire build requirements. We had some disillusion about some things (the cost to have someone fair a boat is one we still cannot get our head around, its probably why most fair their own despite the daunting nature of the task) but mostly our budgets were realistic and over the years we have managed to shave thousands off the build cost without skimping on quality of the fittings simply by being smarter shoppers. We were very early in the now common trend of self importing. We had to by necessity but even if our financial troubles had not beset us, the lessons learned in how to save would have been implemented anyway. I hate paying more than something ought to sell for or does in other places or does so just because it will be bought by boaters. In many cases, if you add the word marine to something it translates into double the cost for no other reason than they can.

Many others had done what we embarked upon, many with even less ability than I had, so why couldn’t we? What the glossy brochures don’t tell you is that some builders never finish and some that do took over a decade to do so. There is no shame in it. It is your project, it will take you as long or as short as you can or want to make it happen, there is no right or wrong amount of time it ought to take. But in our case, we felt 5 years was not unrealistic and that even if the time budget blew out a little we were prepared for it. We said very early on that we would not become obsessed by finishing in a certain time and in the process give up on other aspects of life. We did not want to stop living now so that we could live differently later.

But then we did something we promised ourselves we would never do as cruisers. We set a deadline. I actually gave my employer 5 years notice! I started planting the seeds that once the boat was finished and we had had a year or so getting to know the boat, I would quit to go to a cruising life. The deadline was April 2012. I would be turning 50 and for various other reasons we promised ourselves we would go cruising and “give up” working. About mid 2011 I realised that not only would I not finish the boat by then, I could not afford not to be working. So I started replanting the idea that I would stay on at work. Problem was, that original seed of me not working for them was what the company was now hoping for. They were not making the promised income (and nor did I over the years, also part of the story so I guess it needs telling too) and were looking forward to not having to carry my salary, modest though it was in the end. I certainly could not complain. Had things worked out, I wanted to leave the job with a clean conscience having given plenty of warning and strove for 5 years to make myself redundant so they would not try to convince me to stay, I could hardly complain when they needed to take me up on my deadline and could no longer justify paying me because I had been so effective in making sure everything I did for the business was covered by someone else that there was nothing left for me to do.

When I started work for this business I was offered a number of payment options, straight salary, commission on sales or a profit share agreement. Many of my roles in the business were not directly linked to sales so I quickly dismissed commission. I already had another modest business and didnt want to give that up, nor did I want to be what I call “at their beck and call” by being on a salary, so I opted for profit share. The promise was of a wealthy future. I didnt want to be an “employee”, being self employed gave me the freedom to work when I wanted to work and the promise of a share in the fortune should there be one, the better the company did, the better I would do. In theory. The truth is, for the first 18 months the work was nearly non stop and 12 hour days were the norm, plus I had my own business to try to get up and running, and I already understood that, at first at least, there might not be any profits. But I also knew that it would eventually lead to me being able to work when I wanted, such as evenings and have days free to work on the boat, a freedom that is hard to put a price on (and even in retrospect I still would not change because of the happiness it has delivered to Jo and I). The previous business that my business partner (employer) had started ended up being sold for multi millions of dollars and the guy that was doing for that business what I was doing for this one ended up quite wealthy. So its fair to say I was bitten a bit by the greed bug for a while. I imagined for Jo and I, the ability to retire to a comfortable life as soon as the boat was finished. But when you take on a role like this, the promise is implied, not an actual promise. Nobody can predict how a business will end up. But we took our chances. And dreamt fairly large.

All of this was a couple of years before we decided we could afford to build this boat. Over the next couple of years the business started to rapidly grow as we got business from all the major retail chains in the country for our products. By the third or fourth year my percentage of the profit from the business was $125,000. How I was remunerated was that at the end of each financial year the accountant would tell us the past years profit and I would be paid 1/12 per month of that for the next 12 months. So in 2004 I was earning $10,000 per month plus the modest income of about $2000 per month from my own business. And in early 2005 the turnover of the business was on track to nearly double again. Most would say that $2000 a week was a lot of money, I certainly thought so. And from late 2005 promised to double again. So on the strength of this we decided that not only would I be able to afford to build the boat, I would also have the time freedom to build, and would be able to save lots of money so that once finished, we would have a sizeable cruising kitty that we could “retire” from that business and live off the savings and the modest earnings from my own business.

So in early 2005 we committed to the build and paid our deposit and received the shipment of flat packed boat in August. The accounts put off seeing us for some time and then in early 2006 we received the news that would change our future and make the next 6 years more of a struggle. At the next accountants meeting we were advised that although the business had doubled in size, the profits had vanished in the extra running costs of the business and that there were some errors in the previous years accounting and that I had in effect been overpaid. So not only was there no doubling in pay for me, there was now no pay for me. But now I had commitments. I had shed rent I had to meet. And we all thought (me, business partner, accountants) that this was a temporary growing blip and next year we would be back in profit and bobs your mothers brother. So much so that even though I started being paid from future earnings for the time being so I could still meet my new commitments, the boat was not going to need anything purchased for quite a while, so we didnt worry too much thinking by the time we needed to start pouring money into the build everything would have sorted itself out. To the contrary turnover peaked and started to fall away but the costs did not. So another year went by and no profit. The year after that 2 sizeable customers went broke owing us a lot of money, profits gone again. This went on for 5 years, each year something would happen to eat into modest profits which meant I was being paid more than I was entitled to, so in effect I was going into debt to the company. This continued until 2009 or 10 I forget now, and my debt had exceeded $150,00 (it peaked at $165,000) at which time I decided I could not go any further into debt and re-negotiated with my parter. My new deal was a salary paid part in cash each month, part in debt reduction, so that it would take until April 2012 to extinguish. And that would be it for me in that business, debt free, guilt free, and in return I would train everybody else so that I could leave (on my boat) and all would be well.

In the meantime, our (Jo and my) own business had started to decline. Technology was eating into our business until it eventually killed it off completely. We imported wedding and glamour albums that we sold to professional photographers. We imported container loads back in the day, but then it became half a container, then a quarter until it became a couple of pallets a couple of times a year. Our turnover went from $10,000 a month to a few hundred dollars a week, until finally we could not justify the minimum quantities we had to buy based on the rate of sale. Although Jo meticulously packed each order herself, I envisaged a time where we could use a 3PL (third party logistics) company to take in each of our orders, store it, pick pack and despatch each order and we could do that with pdf files and an exchange of emails and bank transfers from anywhere on our boat that we had internet coverage. At the time we were turning over $10000 a month I even started looking at satellite internet equipment at boat shows so we could even run our business from the middle of an ocean passage!

The GFC hit at a time the business was first starting to decline. It was almost imperceptible pre GFC but it seemed to crash just after. We had a couple of pretty major financial hits before the decline in turnover that disguised the troubles ahead. Firstly in about 2007 (again I forget the year now) we had supplier/quality issues that led to a supplier shipping us $35000 worth of faulty stock. Its a long story but suffice to say we lost a lot of business as a result and were only just recovering financially when Jo had to move to Qld for a year to help her son complete the last year of high school, another big financial imposition of about $20,000. For that year we were paying out more than $6000 a month in rent (the shed where the boat is, a shop where we ran the businesses from, our Gosford home and the Qld home Jo set up for the year). So when that was all finally over we didnt quite notice how the decline so much because it was a relative financial relief compared to the previous 2 (all the while I was racking up debt in advance on future earnings in my other role and the calamity and financial drain made recieving the advances all the more necessary).

What happened in the wake of the GFC as the economy turned down, is many photographers changed to “shoot n burn” giving out their images to their customers on DVD rather than printing and putting into albums (no doubt as a result of consumers opting to save money). So our album sales declined but we made up for some it by selling a lot of DVD folders. But technology marches on, and more and more image delivery became either on usb stick or cloud based (on line). We searched for presentation options for usb sticks but they come in so many different sizes and shapes that it became almost impossible. All of the while another subtle change occurred. In the past, getting coffee table books printed cost many hundreds of dollars, but with broadband and large file size transfers it became possible to send images offshore for printing. What is more, software became available that made it possible for consumers themselves at image kiosks to create entire book layouts, so now you can go into just about any big box retailer (Harvey Norman or Kmart) and order a printed hard cover book of your event or images for less than $100 or even as little as $20. Our $200 albums became obsolete. Our business was dying and we knew it. We got out just in time we feel. We didnt have any debt, we didnt have warehouses full of stock. But we also no longer had any income.

Then another set of issues befell us, not so much financial but certainly emotionally draining. First Jo’s oldest son came within minutes of death and spent a month in hospital on life support after falling down a 40mt cliff and breaking just about everything including spine and skull fractures. Jo was at the hospital, an hour and half drive from home every day and made the round trip spending money on petrol we couldnt really afford with never a thought, it just had to be. And almost a year later to the day, Jo’s youngest boy was crashed into on his motorcycle and had both his lower leg bones broken. Jo flew up to be with him then flew him down to convalesce with us. Both will have lifelong complications from their injuries but thankfully both are now (relatively) healthy albeit with the associated pain and minor permanent disability that resulted.

Through all of that upheaval, calamity and challenge we maintained our happy and positive disposition. We looked forward to the reward that the hard work would provide. And when, last year it got its most bleak we couldnt help feel a little sorry for ourselves. And that made us feel ashamed. We have wonderful lives and our troubles are nothing when compared to the kinds of problems the vast majority of the world’s population face on a daily basis. Instead of worry where the money for an outboard motor is going to come from, many people worry about how they are going to get a meal this week or if they can get the medicine needed to keep their child alive. So we would quickly return to our senses, count our blessings and see if there was any other way we could help others (whilst having a secret worry for ourselves).

We made, or more accurately I, made a fatal error. I counted on money I had not earned yet, and a future we could not predict. But in our defence look at it another way. Every day people buy houses they cannot afford by borrowing money for them based on their current employment circumstances, that can and often do just as easily change. The difference is a house is usually delivered finished and in dire circumstances can usually be sold to extinguish the debt and leave a little left over should the homeowner lose their job. If we walked away from our boat build we would barely get half the money (including rent paid) we had invested in it back. That is if we could even sell it. We know of at least one other person that cannot finish their project and that has been on the market for over 2 years.

So last year we closed our business, sold the last of the stock at fire sale prices and my regular pay cheques from the consultancy ended. No income, means no ability to pay rent. And no savings except for superannuation which I cant access for another 15 years, not that it is a kings ransom either. Over the course of the build I also started another business, importing hatches (and one shipment of flexible solar panels). That business was only ever a pocket money business, not run at normal profit margins, as originally all I wanted from them was to get my requirements at wholesale and in fact we only really intended to do one shipment. But people kept buying my hatches (and by that I mean “my” hatches, the ones I put aside for my own build) so I kept importing shipment after shipment. But when the money ran out, so too did my ability to forward fund the shipments, importers dont get credit terms! I asked for advance payment from customers but because of minimum order sizes I often would cover the balance and then recoup those costs when the hatches sold. With no income or savings even that ended.

I applied for roles in sales management, the job I had been doing for the past 20 years. With no success. Why would an employer employ a 50 year old who may only stay a couple of years and who had learned his skills in a fairly specific industry when they could employ a university graduate 20 something that might stay a decade or more? I understand that. Its not an ageist thing, its better applicants getting to interview.

I got a job working in retail for JB Hifi. It was a job I had coveted for some time as I enjoy technology and the outward attitude that JB seem to portray mirrors that of my own, casual professionalism, and I had always thought I would like to work for them. It was the most miserable 3 months I have spent for the past 20 years. Jo and I were very sad. That was from December last year until the end of Feb. I couldnt take that any longer. Jo and I walked on the beach a lot and tried to figure out what our way out was. Jo was also sad, she is a or should I say was a nurse. She did that for 10 years or more before she met me. Then we ran our business together and she stopped nursing. She didnt want to go back to nursing but the pay is pretty good if you do shift work. But because she had been out of nursing for some time, she now needs to do a refresher course for 6 months before she is qualified again. That course costs $9000 and there would be no pay for 6 months. We really were in a hole and the way out looked bleak. Blow our life savings and walk away?

We were really in a bit of a mess by March. But we fought on together. You know, I tell Jo all the time how much I admire her, and spouses of solo boat builders sacrifice a lot for their partners dreams, they even put their own dreams on hold for them. They deserve to be acknowledged for that. And let this be a timely warning, as I had read of this before I started, if you dont have the support of your parter, dont start. You risk either not finishing, or finishing one or the other. There are many single cruisers out there. I would walk away from my build in a heart beat if Jo insisted that I do. I can always find something else to do, but I could never find a woman as good (insert so many adjectives here) as her. And Jo is fundamentally the main reason I am still building and blogging. Her strength shames mine. Her patients shames mine. Her beauty reflects on me and gives me what beauty I have. So if you meet up with us after we launch, congratulate her on the launch, not me.

We have absolutely no regrets about decisions we have made. Jo and I built what I used to call a lifestyle business. We worked a few hours each day (after years of working much much harder) earning the money we needed to get by. We could have worked harder and made more money but we used to say we are not greedy, we can always make more money, but our time together is more valuable to us. We dont resile from that one bit. Every now and then when I dont have the cash for something I wish for a moment I had been a bit greedier, then I quickly recover my values and realise again how happy I really am. We also used to say, that most people that marry in their 20’s and go off to work each day and see each other each evening (when they are tired and grumpy) and really only have weekends together, have spent less time together than we have after marrying in our 30’s/40’s (I was 40 when we met). We loved every minute of each day together and being able to work from home gave us so much more than the money we earned. Besides the time together, it gave me the time to start the boat. While I worked at JB hifi, by the time I got home there was no time left for boat work. And I was barely making enough to pay the shed rent.

I now have a job packing shelves at the local supermarket at night and so does Jo. It provides enough money to cover the rent and the free time during the day to work on the boat, albeit slower than I used to when I earned 3-4 times what I earn now. At first I felt a little ashamed to be “a lowly shelf packer”. But it reminded me of something I have always believed. You are not defined by what work you do. We forget that sometimes in our self importance. Jo and I are awfully proud of the fact we honoured and still honour all our commitments and the boat (and the readers relying on me to finish) will be no different. Although this could yet take a little while longer and plans change, for the time being, we battle on and we spend many hours each day together happy. Its not a life or death struggle like those faced by people all over the world less fortunate that we are. Our problems are first world problems. I still cant see how I am going to be able to pay for the mast posts and masts but that is a problem that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime I am still working away at getting the boat as ready for launch as I can. The next big task is finishing all constructions so that fairing can commence. I am told that fairing could take up to 6 months, so I will have a lot of thinking time. I will break some of that work up with some internal work still needed to be finished. Then I will worry about launch. My immediate task ahead is fitting the steering system and the back steps in. That will pretty much finish the construction phase, with the exception of the mast posts and sheet points. Hopefully I will have that done in the next couple of months.

This post is not a feel sorry post. It is a count your blessings post. We wake up each day happy we are together for another day. Happy we still have hopes and dreams. Happy we can pursue them.

Jo’s dream is to have a caravan. A retro 60’s van. My gift to her is to help her get that van sooner rather than later and to help her renovate it utilising the few skills I have learned building the boat. I hope I can help her achieve that dream, she is helping me achieve mine.

I hope this helps a little, the readers that contemplate building but are not quite sure. And I hope it helps in a positive way, that is, despite the downs, you can do this. Despite our downs we will do this. Good luck, you will need a bit of it, but go for it. Believe me, long after we launch I will have forgotten the past year. I will try hard to remember it, but what with, snorkelling, fishing, swimming, barbecuing, sundowners, socialising in marina’s talking about boats…….where am I going to find the time?


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