Refit Work: An Insider’s Guide

As we come to the beginning of this year’s sailing season, vessels around the country are ending their refit periods and looking forward to enjoying their freshly painted boats for another year.

Have you ever helped refit a boat? It’s a fantastic process to get involved with – every year, boats are de-rigged and ‘put-to-bed’ in late autumn, until their crews return next year to put them back together again with fresh coats of paints and varnish ready to begin sailing around April.

If you’re looking for refit work, any existing sailing or practical experience will certainly be a huge benefit, especially if you have specific experience – in traditional boats, for example. But boat refit work is also a great way for beginners to learn about boats before setting off to sea in them, taking a knowledge of their vessels’ systems and a sense of pride not everybody gets to experience.

Refit hard can be absolutely exhausting – spending long days and weeks living away from home, spending hours doing physical work, often repetitive, living in dirty overalls… but the satisfaction when the ship is ready for sea, and she looks magnificent because of your contribution to the hard work, as part of a solid refit team, is a fantastic sense of achievement.

What kind of work does it involve?

If you already have specialist experience in a particular area, e.g. carpentry or engineering, you can find work on bigger refits where you can specifically use these skills. Otherwise, if you’re happy to volunteer or have a basic level of skills and experience, you might find yourself undertaking some common refit tasks including:

  • Sanding
  • Painting
  • Varnishing
  • Rigging
  • Bending on sails
  • Servicing machinery
  • Laundering canvas, upholstery and oilskins
  • Sorting & tidying
  • Cleaning interior & exterior
  • Domestic duties e.g. cooking, washing up if you’re living onboard during refit

What experience do you need?

Depending on the opportunity, different levels of experience might be required. For a privately owned vessel looking to refit to a high standard with a small team, paying well, you will likely need to have a strong background in practical work with previous refit experience under your belt. If you have special knowledge or skills in a particular area, e.g. engineering, sewing or carpentry, your skills could be very valuable to the refit team.

For other opportunities, helping out with refits are a great way to start out in the marine industry. Some sail training charities advertise voluntry refit positions, with accommodation and food provided in return for help maintaining their vessels over the winter. In return, it is often possible to sail aboard the vessels during the next season.

A labour of love: 1904 Bristol pilot cutter Mascotte’s punt being stripped & repainted by her crew during her annual refit at T. Nielsen & Co. in Gloucester, UK

Who are the employers?

Because of the range of refit work available in the industry, the possibilities for finding it are vast. Employers interested in recruiting people for refit work include:

  • Sail training charities and traditional wooden vessels are likely to offer voluntary positions, with food and accommodation provided, and the possibility of sailing with them during the next season
  • Private yachts with professional crew may need extra help during their refit periods
  • Superyachts are often looking for dayworkers, which could include this type of refit work
  • Shipyards and boatyards are likely to take on people during refit periods
  • Specialists e.g. shipwrights, marine electricians get involved with big refit jobs and might need to employ others

What are the hours of work like?

In the UK, boats are usually laid up in October/November and refit begins around January. This means that lots of refit work is seasonal, with the bulk of the work from January to April. However, it might lead to other opportunities for the rest of the season, or you might have a specialist skill you can find a demand for all year.

During refit and maintenance periods, ‘normal’ hours are usually worked. Many shipyards and tradespeople work from 7am until 4pm, Monday to Friday, and this can be a nice routine to get into if you’re used to longer and more irregular hours watch-keeping at sea. However, there’s usually a lot that has to happen during a short amount of time during refit, and you will have to expect a sense of ‘the ship comes first’ and be prepared to work a few longer evenings and the odd weekend.

What does it pay?

Levels of pay varies for refit work depending on the vessel you are working on, the organisation you’re working for, and your experience. As already mentioned, as a starting point, you can often volunteer to help with refit in return for your accommodation and food provided.

However, if you’ve already got some good experience with maintaining boats and can be a useful and productive member of a refit team, you can pick up paying refit work (albeit harder to find than voluntary work) and should expect to earn no less than £60-£80 a day. Food and accommodation may also be provided on top of this, if it involves working away on a boat.

If you’re even more experienced than that, you’ll be able to charge the going rate for whatever your particular trade attracts. For example, £300/day for joiners could be expected.

P.S. The photos in this article were taken during the annual refit of the 1904 Bristol pilot cutter ‘Mascotte’ at T. Nielsen & Co. in Gloucester, UK.


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