Is the party finally over? Will the “bigger (and faster) is better” mantra of the last 25 years continue to resonate now that gasoline and diesel prices have sped north? (Gasoline at the fuel dock closest to my marina was $4.80 a gallon and diesel $5.35 as I write this in mid-June.) Or are all of us — boaters and boatbuilders alike — in the early stages of a shift that will fundamentally change how we get out on the water in the decades to come?
The prediction business is fraught with casualties. Spend enough time gazing at a crystal ball, as the expression goes, and you’ll wind up eating a bit of ground glass. That being said, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say something is going to have to change if fuel prices settle out where they are today — or track even higher.
The auto industry is in the midst of retooling itself to produce more energy-efficient cars and trucks. Some boatbuilders will need to do the same. The result could be a new generation of hulls both lighter and “slipperier” (more on that in a moment).
But changes in hull design and technology are only part of the story. More significant, perhaps, are the changes we’re going to have to make regarding our expectations about speed, performance and, in some cases, ride. I suspect we will need to readjust our priorities about what we expect out of our boats.
If you still want to be able to slice smoothly through a steep 2- to 3-foot chop at 30 knots, you’ll have to pay significantly more for that ride than you once did if fuel prices remain high. The reality is that a smooth-riding deep-vee hull, for instance, will never be as frugal or stingy in terms of the amount of horsepower (and, therefore, fuel) it takes to push it through the water as the alternatives, with their flatter aft sections and harder rides.
These are the tradeoffs all of us may have to consider. Can we get used to slowing down when it breezes up and seas build? Do we need 50-knot top-end speeds from our center consoles? Can you live with 0.3 nautical miles per gallon from your 50-plus-foot twin-engine convertible? Some can and will, but I suspect we’re closing in on a tipping point.
Not all of the news is gloomy. Much work has already been done on the propulsion side of the efficiency equation, initiated in part by EPA emission standards. Four-stroke and direct injection 2-stroke outboards are cleaner and quieter, run smoother and may be as much as 30 percent more fuel efficient than the old carbureted 2-strokes.
The new electronically controlled diesels also have improved efficiency, noise levels, low-load performance, and smoke and exhaust emissions. And the IPS and Zeus pod drive systems (along with Axius for sterndrives) have bettered the efficiency and handling parameters of the hulls in which they are installed.
All good stuff.
What does the future hold? For starters, don’t bet the ranch that a “business as usual” philosophy will be returning en masse, even after the oil markets come back down to earth a bit, which they will do. Change is in the air. The days when many of us bought more boat, more horsepower, more speed — and less efficiency — than we needed, simply because we could, are probably dwindling.
Proactive builders will develop more efficient hulls that reflect the realities of higher energy costs. Soundings technical writer Eric Sorensen expects the successful planing boats of the future will be lighter, with flatter sections aft (less deadrise, or vee, at the transom), and run on longer/narrower hulls. As a result, they can be powered by smaller, lighter engines, requiring less fuel capacity, which saves even more weight, further adding to efficiency. That’s a positive design spiral. The boat won’t run as fast or smoothly in rough water even though the length/beam change will help, but it will burn less fuel. Your choice.
And Sorensen says you may see a new generation of light, keel-less (reduced drag) semidisplacement hulls that will cruise at 12 to 14 knots, getting 3 or 4 nautical miles per gallon.
“It’s not a time to sit on your hands,” says Sorensen, author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats” and the founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice. “Boatbuilders have to recognize times are changing. If you kept breeding horses after Henry Ford came out with the Model T, you were going to be left behind.”
No one has to wait until tomorrow, of course, for a boat that doesn’t guzzle fuel. There are plenty of displacement and semidisplacement boats available today, along with planing hulls with modest deadrise. And what has happened at the fuel docks this spring and summer probably ensures more are on the way.
Whether or not you view getting by with less horsepower and slower speeds as settling for less is a matter of perspective. When it comes to burning $4.80 a gallon for gasoline, count me in the less-is-more camp, but there are others, no doubt, who may feel otherwise.
I understand. It’s been a helluva run. The party may not be quite over yet, but the cost of admission for those who believe bigger and faster is the only way to travel is going up.
“… the gasoline breeze.” — William Snaith
A 1981 Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate, Bill has been writing about boats for more than two decades. His boating travels have taken him from the Persian Gulf to the Baltic Sea, and always back home to Little Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. As editor, Bill is responsible for planning and executing the publication's boating coverage each month, and his Under Way column starts each issue. Bill has been with Soundings for 20 years and in 1997 won the Moulton H. "Monk" Farnham Award for Excellence in Editorial Commentary.