A View from Here

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When it comes to boats, simple is better … or is it?

I talked to a retired marine systems guy some time back who offered me this bit of wisdom: If you want to have the most fun on your boat, if you want to keep the wind in your face and the sun on your back, keep your boat as simple as possible.

Simple is better, right?

Well, that depends on your definition. In the feature-rich world of boats that can crab across the surface with the flick of a joystick and cars that can park themselves, we are not going back to a cedar bucket and a pair of oars. That kind of simple is not realistic, nor is there much demand for it.

But simple as a synonym for elegant — as in a well thought-out, well-executed design or installation, one that is so “simple” that it seems intuitive and easy to use to the consumer — is something else again. Achieving that kind of simplicity, making the complex seemingly disappear, is hard but well worth the effort.

I agree with marine consultant Steve D’Antonio that simple — as in stripped-down — is not a cure for what ails the marine industry. We are not going to sell the public on boat camping circa 1950. Consumers today expect the same sort of creature comforts in their boats that they have in their homes, and it’s our job to deliver that in a package that is as efficient, seaworthy and reliable as possible.

In an article in the June/July issue of Professional BoatBuilder magazine titled “A Case for Complexity,” D’Antonio makes the argument that complexity and reliability are not mutually exclusive. A self-described fan of anything that makes boating more affordable and efficient, D’Antonio, the technical editor for ProBoat and PassageMaker magazines, writes that he doesn’t view “simplicity” as a remedy for the problems of boatbuilding in 2012.

“In many cases, I feel it is a knee-jerk reaction to say ‘simple is a solution’ when really what we should be doing is designing and installing systems that work properly and are reliable,” D’Antonio told me in an interview yesterday. “Complexity has gotten a bad name, but I’m not accepting it. We shouldn’t be presenting simple as a solution to reliability problems.”

He doesn’t believe the answer to quality or reliability issues is to strip out systems or make boats as bare bones as possible. That, he maintains, is a cop-out. Fix the problems, don’t run from them.

“We don’t have to sacrifice comfort in the pursuit of simplicity,” said D’Antonio, who has more than 25 years of experience as a boatyard manager, marine mechanic, electrician and consultant. “I don’t think something’s unreliable because it’s complex. I think it’s unreliable because it wasn’t well thought-out in many cases. We can still have an element of simplicity with systems that are relatively complex.”

As a corollary, I would add: Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be.

What needs to change? For starters, designers, builders and installers need to do a better job of integrating systems into a boat, rather than taking the more typical piecemeal approach to design and installation. “It all has to live together if not work together,” he said.

Systems need to be easily accessible for repairs and regular maintenance. And no matter what piece of equipment is put into a boat, D’Antonio said, it is critical that the installer follow the manufacturer’s installation guidelines.

Also, the builder or installer should provide the owner with schematics, documentation and sometimes instructions on each system, especially with custom setups. “Documentation is critically important, and it simplifies the complex,” he said.

Overall, D’Antonio said he’s optimistic that greater reliability can be achieved in an increasingly complex marine world. “I hear more of the right questions being asked,” he said. “I’m encouraged. Part of that is the pressure put on us by the economy. We have to be sharper if we want to be around. It’s self-preservation.”

It’s that simple.

Click here to read Steve D’Antonio’s Marine Systems Excellence blog.


3 comments on “When it comes to boats, simple is better … or is it?

  1. John Strong

    As a three-decade veteran with a similar background to Steve’s (marine service and marine electric business owner, marine surveyor), I agree with his conclusions. I’ve always said that my “Rule of three C’s” – Convenience Compounds Complexity – holds true in recreational boating. And, as Steve says, there’s no turning back to the days of “camping” – boaters want their comforts. But complexity doesn’t have to mean a lack of reliability, if quality components are installed thoughtfully and correctly. The best equipment will fail, or won’t be serviceable, if the installation is substandard, and that’s why ABYC’s Certification program is so important. Proper training, attention to detail, and proper communication with the customer are all essential.

    The responsibility of the boat owner to know and understand his boat’s systems is certainly part of the formula for successful boating as well.

  2. Rod

    Well ,I still think today’s boats are getting so easy to use that they are too complicated. The problem with all these gadgets that make docking easier is that people depend on them, them when they break, the “boater” can’t dock the boat. A proper skipper can always dock their boat even without those flashy gadgets. The GPS has caused more people to get lost than ever did back i nthe days of paper charts and compasses. The problem is usually not the electronic GPS, but the internal navigation of the boater…… they “KNOW” home is that way…..and so, if the GPS disagrees, it must be broken! The proliferation of marine towing firms has also led to dependance, people never bother to learn proper engine troubleshooting, since all they have to do is call a towboat to bring them home, where an expensive mechanic can fix that $5 item for $150.00 (boaters used to live for being independant, and self-sufficient….not anymore!) Boating used to be for “getting away from it all”, now how many boats don’t have at least one TV? All the comforts of home do not mix well with the reality of boating, electronics corrode, constant vibration and bangs from wave action cause things to break. Expensive to replace, but “We can’t live without them!!”
    At one time, all one needed to keep a boat clean during the season was a mop and a bucket, along with maybe a small broom to sweep up the sand. Now one needs a vacuum cleaner and a rug shampoo machine for even the smallest fishing boat. Some builders (SEA RAY is one) at least make the carpets removeable so one can have a nice, easy to clean gel-coated cockpit, that can be just hoded out. Funny though, few owners ever remove the carpets! Cocpits are al lpadded with upolstery that does not last long in the sun….looks good in the showroom, but not on hte water! Simplify, sinplify, bring back boats that don’t spend so much time in the repair shop, bring back boats that can be cleaned wirth a hose, bring back owners that are not helpless when an easy to repair system stops working! BTW, I’m not being critical of Towboat companies, just the dependance people place on those companies, instead of at least trying to fix thengs themselves to at least get to the nearest safe port.
    Simpler boats and more knowledgeable boaters, those are what we need!!

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