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Boats: what you see might not be what you get

When they said that a picture is worth a thousand words, they hadn’t heard of Adobe Photoshop. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get, and this is sometimes true in fancy ads for boats. I enjoy playing the guessing game over whether it’s really the way the boat looks. In the process, I’ve learned that a builder puffing its product doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a poor product. It’s just the way of our world. Let’s look at a few examples.

Simple jobs such as replacing an impeller might require impossible contortions in poorly planned engine spaces.

Some boats have head compartments in which, no matter what you do or how you do it, you turn on the shower. It may be with your elbow or with your head or with your butt, but you do it. And it’s not that you wanted to take a shower just then — you probably went in there for some other reason. But the head space doubles as a shower, and you’re going to take one no matter what.

Also, the toilet paper is going to share your shower because it’s sitting out fully exposed to the spraying water. Sometimes there’s a protective cover over the roll, but its main job seems to be to hide the fact that the roll is empty until you lift said cover. You’d never imagine these issues when you look at a fisheye image of that head area in an ad. They can make these spaces appear ballroom-big, with no problems except that it looks as if you may not be able to reach the toilet paper from the location from which you might want to use it. And it appears you would have to stand on your tiptoes to turn on the shower.

We’re seeing more and more center consoles with heads or cabins under that console. This is a great idea, and if I can ever afford to get another center console boat I’ll want one of those. So far, I haven’t noticed any blown-up pictures of center console cabins, but I’m looking forward to the experience.

And then there are some boats with galleys that have the sinks under the deck overhang so that you bump your head every time you lean forward to see what you just lost down the drain. Of course, if you’re not very tall there’s less of a problem, except that you can’t see out the port light that the promo picture featured as one of the pleasures of washing the dishes. But never mind — these sinks are often so small that about all you can do in them is wash a moderately sized radish.

In these boats, of course, the stove is also under the deck overhang, which means that if you badly burn the beans you can get the double delight of bean and boat flambé. But the photos seldom include people and never include burnt beans and boat.

These are often the same boats that have luxurious faux leather lounge sofas. The pictures make you dream of leaning back and relaxing while entertaining a dozen or so friends. But when you actually sit in them you slip off the seat because it’s far too narrow to accommodate the average ordinary human backside. Some yachts resolve this issue by having the interior deck hang over the sofa so far that it catches your neck when you try to lean back. When you’re forced to lean forward, it’s hard to slip out of the seat.

Boat shows provide a good opportunity to assess a variety of models, but focus on the details that matter. It’s all too easy to be distracted by that new-boat smell.

Yacht design affects more than posture and creature comfort. It can also affect lifestyle. For example, some scientific studies say that we all like to be nude. (No, I don’t know who the scientists are, but I think they’re from San Francisco.) This must be true because there seem to be a lot of boats designed for nudists. You don’t really get this from the ads. All you see is wide open spaces and pretty models wearing evening dress or high-fashion lounge apparel. And you don’t get it when you first come aboard. You walk down into the boats and get the wow! effect from the wide open spaces, which make you feel as if you’re in the home of a billionaire. Eventually, after catching your breath from the rush, you begin to look for the spaces where one would do such mundane things as hang clothes and store undies. You don’t really find any, except maybe a tiny little drawer or locker here or there … about G-string size. The space for clothes storage has been consumed by the vast luxurious open areas. And I’ve yet to see a photo of an open drawer with a G-string lying inside to indicate scale.

What’s perhaps more revealing are the areas that the ads don’t show. These often involve naked practicality. You seldom see the shoestring cleats on the boat that costs several hundred thousand dollars. I guess they figure you won’t have any money left after buying the boat to buy good dock lines. And speaking of lines, the anchor lockers on some of these boats have room for enough rode to get 5-to-1 scope only if you’re aground. But you don’t see photos of that tiny anchor with a foot or two of rode down in the hole.

Pump placement seems to be a particular problem on some boats, but photos don’t show it. No wonder! The raw-water pump on the engine is where you can hardly see it, much less get to it to change the impeller — or take a photo. And pumps for the head, such as macerator and vacuum pumps, are generally heard (but not seen) under a bed. Nothing is more conducive to a good night’s sleep aboard than the thump-thump-thump of a pump moving you-know-what from your guests. It puts the pleasures of the proverbial pitter-patter of rain on the deck to shame.

We mustn’t forget the starter for the engine on well-designed boats. You will have to change or work on your starter if you keep the boat. I was inspecting a rather expensive new sailboat some time ago. It had been built by a well-known and respected company. I looked at the engine, as I usually do, because over the years I’ve found my engines to be more reliable than wind at getting me from the Point A to the Point B of my choice at the time of my choice. I couldn’t find the starter. Finally I saw it, completely encased by the surrounding wood and glass framing and partitions. The only way you could remove that starter would be with a Sawzall.

The builder was aboard, and I asked him how one would replace the starter. He looked at it, frowned and called someone at his yard, I suppose the designer or engineer. There was an interesting conversation replete with a few very pregnant pauses. Finally, after he clicked off, he admitted that you’d have to saw out part of the boat but that this really didn’t matter because the boat sailed so well you could do without the engine. I couldn’t find this discussed in the brochure.

Pretty photos won’t tell you if a boat rides hard or wet.

In my opinion, not being able to easily replace a starter would only be OK if I expected my boat to sink in a few years. Maybe that’s the plan. Boats do sink, and you can even find some with design features that help them do so. One of these is that unimpressive part lurking down in the bilge somewhere abaft the engine, just forward of a big hole in the boat. It’s a part that must be adjusted, repacked or otherwise maintained at regular intervals; that’s held on with hose clamps that eventually rust from the spraying salt water, even though the labels say that said clamps are stainless; and is connected to that hole in the hull with hose that eventually rots, tears or otherwise deteriorates and floods in large volumes of water. I’m talking about the stuffing box.

Even if it’s one of the so-called “dripless” types, it can fail suddenly, with the potential for cataclysmic flooding. On some boats, you can hardly see the stuffing box, much less work on it. I’ve seen plenty of boats with stuffing boxes in wide open, easily accessed spaces. Photos happily show this. But I’ve seen others with buried stuffing boxes, and for some reason I don’t see photos of these. I guess the photos don’t show these features and some of the others I’ve discussed here because most photographers don’t want to do with their bodies what would be necessary to get the pictures. But you and I have to do it with our bodies if we want to keep the stuffing boxes maintained, unless we’ve already given up on the boat because of the inaccessible starter.

Speaking of sinking, I can’t help but wonder about the increasingly popular boats with bathtub bows. These are wide open up front, and in all fairness, the photos do show this feature well, usually filled with beautiful people sitting on a curvy bench at the bow, wind blowing blond hair, drinks in hand and delighted smiles on faces. They don’t show what happens when you meet an oncoming sea with the wrong trim. At the very least it’s a bad hair day, and I guess bad hair days don’t sell boats.

Remember, what you see may not be what you get, but there’s an opposite to this axiom with some boats. In these boats, what you do see when you look through the hull is a strong indicator of what you are getting. I’ve been on boats and found an unpainted hull section (usually behind a section of built-in structure) where you can see the light of day outside streaming in through the hull.

Boat ads don’t show how close and cuddly with metal objects you may have to get just to replace a solenoid.

This isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. It is fiberglass, right? Light should be able to shine through a glass hull, right? Sure. But I don’t know enough — I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now — to say how much light shining through is too much light, meaning the hull is far too thin. However, I think it is safe to say that when you’re looking through the hull and see not only light but also the legs, arms and bodies of people walking by on the dock, there’s a problem. And I’ve been on various boats at shows and actually seen this. But I’ve never seen photos of this phenomenon in the ads.

So I’ve been ranting about a few of my pet peeves with the design and portrayal of some boats. But my peeves don’t mean there aren’t great boats out there — new and used. I know. I’ve bought a few over the years. I’m just pointing out the obvious — that marketing boats, like marketing anything else, involves … well, marketing. And the caveat “buyer beware” applies to boat buying just as it does anything else. One huge difference is that with boat buying it can be fun becoming aware. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s fun to look. If you don’t, there are qualified surveyors who can help you.

We’re moving into one of the best times of the year to look and see what is and isn’t good. It’s boat show season. Go to as many as you can. Enjoy the search. Look beyond the fancy pictures. See what’s really there. Buy a good boat. And have fun on the water.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.