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WHAT'S THE ANSWER TO BETTER BOAT DESIGN?

Boat owners are sometimes puzzled by the logic of how their boats are designed and built. If men are from Mars and women from Venus, to borrow the popular self-help concept, some wonder just what planet certain boatbuilders are from.

A recent discussion on the BoatU.S. message board (my.boatus.com/forum) focused on five specific areas that cause owners the most consternation: leaks and drainage problems, limited access to engines and other mechanical systems, poor quality or inadequate fittings and finish, non-ergonomic designs and the conflict between seaworthiness and style.

For expert reactions to these comments, BoatU.S. asked naval architect and marine surveyor Jack Hornor of Annapolis, MD, Mike McGlenn, a marine surveyor in Bellingham, WA, who formerly worked for Uniflite, and Pat Kearns of Naples, FL, a surveyor and former assistant technical director of the American Boat & Yacht Council, for their thoughts.

LEAKS & DRAINAGE ISSUES

Questions:
• Why is it almost every boat I have ever seen has leaky windows?
• Does it cost that much more to bond the rubrail joint more frequently, or at least use a couple more tubes of caulk?

What the experts have to say:
Jack Hornor (JH)
: This is typically a quality control issue rather than skimping on caulk for economy sake. Windows shouldn’t leak when they are new and if they do this is a quality control issue, but they can’t be expected to be leak-free forever. Every five to 10 years it should be normal maintenance to recaulk fittings, windows and hardware.

Mike McGlenn (MM): The rubrail is actually the hull-to-deck joint on most boats. It should not leak. Often the drilled holes are in the wrong place and don’t get filled. The gunwale guard needs to be sealed top, bottom and at the screw line. Often one or more of these steps is left out.

Pat Kearns (PK): Even entry-level boats are generally well built with watertight integrity of hull-to-deck joints. However, that integrity can be disturbed by repeated impact with docks, pilings, other boats and normal dynamics of sea action.

Question:
• Why doesn’t my boat have an automatic bilge switch and why does it have just one wimpy little pump that is so slow it could not keep up with anything above rain drizzle?

What the experts have to say:
JH:
Bilge pumps in recreational boats are only intended to remove normal accumulations of bilge water and sea spray. Even high-capacity systems are almost never designed to maintain a vessel afloat in the event of an emergency.

MM: The majority of pumps in smaller vessels are for what I call incidental water, like rain or a shaft log drip. They are not big enough to handle a serious leak. When real water is coming aboard, you need either a portable pump or an engine or generator driven one.

LIMITED ACCESS

Questions:
• Why is it that boats are constructed in a way that won’t allow you to fix or replace anything without having to cut a hole in the fiberglass to access it?
• I want to get to my water pumps, belts, spark plugs and batteries without having to crawl on exhausts. Do I have to hire a “vertically challenged person?”

What the experts have to say:
JH:
Production boat builders build what the public buys. If the buyers demand a 28 ft. express cruiser with galley, microwave oven, air conditioning, auxiliary generator and overnight accommodation for six, access to something has to be limited.

PK: These are the things that so often make my job as a surveyor so difficult. When changing the oil in two inboard engines and a generator requires a human being with the arms of an orangutan and the I.Q. of a genius, something is wrong.

POOR QUALITY FITTINGS & FINISH

Questions:
• Why do builders use foam-backed headliners in the cabin? With the heat the foam disintegrates and the headliner starts to come "unglued".
• Why put carpeting in storage lockers where wet gear will be stored or will be soaked if it rains?

What the experts have to say:
JH:
I too think it’s a dumb idea for lots of reasons, but put two boats side by side that are otherwise identical except one has carpeted lockers, and I’m willing to bet good money that the one with the carpeted lockers sells first.

MM: Carpet and padded liners make it very difficult to properly survey a vessel. You simply can’t access bulkhead tabbing, cabin sole to hull tabbing or locker tabbing [i.e., connecting reinforcement] with carpet and padded vinyl covers. But it gives the boat the “wow” factor.

PK: There are lots of options for cabin liners and it’s all about dollars. I don’t see droopy liners in top end boats.

Question:
• Why are plastic through hulls used on boats that cost more than $150,000?

What the experts have to say:
JH:
Actually there is nothing wrong with plastic through hull fittings if they are good quality and designed for their intended use. It could be argued they are better below the water because they are not subject to galvanic or stray current corrosion that often causes failure of metal fittings. Still, UV deterioration is a major concern for plastic fittings above the waterline.

Question:
• Why is it that fittings that are under or at the waterline do not have two hose clamps?

What the experts have to say:
JH: Actually it’s an old wives’ tale that there is any standard or practice that requires two hose clamps on all fittings below the waterline. It may be good practice for hoses that are fit onto smooth pipe but it is not necessary for barbed fittings.

MM: Back in the early days, most hose clamps were steel and corroded readily. Having two then made more sense. Today with the good quality stainless steel clamps, the second clamp is not as critical as in days of old.

PK: Another myth to be busted. There are only two places where double clamps are required on boats: the fill pipe on a gasoline fuel tank and the hose connections for a marine wet exhaust system.

ERGONOMICS

Questions:
• Who decided to locate the battery on/off switch underneath the rear cockpit seat so you have to get down on your knees to turn the switch on or off?
• Why is it that consoles are made to be comfortable ONLY when you're standing up? When you sit on the helm seat your back is bent over at a 45° angle, which is not comfortable.
• The forward stateroom in my boat is so small that you cannot get to the sides of the berth. Did the designer really intend for me to jump up on the foot of the berth and crawl forward?

What the experts have to say:
PK:
Easy fix for the console seating problem. Tell ‘em you won’t buy a boat that doesn’t fit your “seat” or whatever it is that doesn’t fit. Vote with your dollar. It’s an amazing power.
There is a tendency to want to put that battery switch as close to the batteries as possible, so we feel that “compromise” word creeping in. Long runs of heavy battery cables are expensive and dangerous unless provided with the appropriate overcurrent protection. We also want to avoid putting those switches in the engine space because, if there is a suspicion of fire and you want to shut down the 12V system, you don’t want to be opening the engine space, possibly providing a huge does of oxygen that fire needs to flash, to get to those switches.

MM: The builder should get out of the office, take a 3 or 4 day cruise and really use the whole boat, then come back with his punch list. The new crop of boats appears to be designed and built by committee, the accountants and people with no practical experience. A one-hour photo-op won’t do it.

Question:
• Why is it that boats have unsturdy or undersized bow railings or railings that don't leave you with enough support to actually hold onto them, or offer little protection from actually going over the side of the boat?

What the experts have to say:
JH:
ABYC Standard H-41 establishes some good standards for deck rail height and a minimum of 400 lb. static load test, at any point and in any direction. I suspect that a good percentage of production builders products would fail if actually put to the test.

PK: This one is a no-brainer. Any boat touted as NMMA certified should have complying railings.

SEAWORTHY VS. STYLISH

Questions:
• Are boat engineers/designers really boaters? Do they ever use the boats they design?
• Minor feature overload is my pet peeve. Do they really believe that 28 cup holders will sell a boat?
• Who comes up with the backwards “standard” features? For example, the VHF, engine sync and trim tabs are optional but the blender, 6-disk changer and cooler are standard!

What the experts have to say:
JH:
I really like this last comment and I hope no one will mind if I use it some time in the future.

PK: As for the cup holders, they think that’s what you want because it’s a popular feature in cars. Most of this kind of design excess (sacrificing good design input) is market driven. You are the “market.” Change horses. Product that doesn’t sell speaks volumes.

Marine industry is silent…

BoatU.S. was curious to know how major boat manufacturers would react to these comments, coming as they were, from their customer base. To our surprise, not one boat builder was willing to respond.

As the industry’s “Grow Boating” campaign gets under way, acknowledging concerns such as the ones our boaters shared would be an important sign that someone is listening. 

(c) Copyright BoatU.S. Magazine, March 2005

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