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The Case for the Simple Life

In the new reality, people are finding that fun on the water isn’t measured in boat size or amenities

Recently we had two couples, all avid cruising sailors, to our home for dinner. The conversation predictably focused on our respective boats and where we had cruised during the summer. By early evening, I was struck by the dissimilar experiences our friends had had.

A boat should provide a platform for fun and relaxation - mission accomplished aboard this Eastport 32.

One couple owns an older 46-foot catamaran. Besides the obvious two hulls, it seems to have at least two of everything: two engines, electronics at the helm and electronics at the nav station, two refrigeration boxes — each with its separate compressor — two heads, and lots of other systems that have been installed through the years to make life on board more comfortable and “home-like.” A generator, air conditioning, heating system, inverter and wide-screen television are just the beginning. In the case of this couple, some of these indulgences are understandable, considering that they’re living aboard while they build a new house.

My other friends own a 32-foot monohull of similar vintage. It’s a rather simple, older production boat that has been well-maintained. There’s no generator, freezer, inverter, television or air conditioning. A simple 12-volt refrigeration system keeps their beer cold, and a couple 12-volt fans keep their bodies cool during the hot Chesapeake Bay summers.

My friend with the smaller, simpler boat brought a stack of photos to show where they had sailed during the summer — picturesque harbors, happy guests in the cockpit, beautiful sunsets. My other buddy ran through a verbal list of boat projects he had been working on all summer, including unexpected repairs that not only altered his vacation plans, but put a dent in his cruising budget.

It was not until a day or two later that I began to appreciate how different the boating experiences of these two couples had been. One talked about all the fun he and his wife had on the water, while the other talked mostly about all the things he had fixed and replaced.

If you're considering a new boat, start with a list of what is absolutely necessary, without the 'wouldn't it be nice' stuff.

I was reminded of cruising couples my wife and I met during our one-year Great Loop adventure. The amount of fun people were having seemed inversely related to the size and complexity of their boats. Most of those with smaller, simpler boats were having a ball — exploring their surroundings, enjoying the company of fellow cruisers, and strengthening their own relationships. Many of those with larger, more complex boats were often busy getting things fixed or serviced — the very things designed to make them more comfortable. Instead of rejoicing in everything the trip had to offer, they frequently were delayed and distracted by boat problems.

In a few cases, boat issues seemed to overflow and become personal issues. “This is John’s dream and my nightmare,” one woman told me after dealing constantly with their motoryacht’s electrical gremlins.

Of course, all of us who own boats know that getting “marine” things fixed is seldom easy or cheap. Dealing with technicians and service people can be frustrating enough, but if equipment failure means you won’t be able go boating for the weekend, or that your vacation is spent on the hard waiting for parts, you can get pretty testy.

A time to rethink things

Eventually, the whole process of keeping a complex boat running and properly maintained can become too much of a burden, even for those who can afford it. I overheard a well-heeled fellow talking to a broker who was about to list his gorgeous 58-foot, twin-engine, gold-plated yacht. “You know I’m just tired of always having to pay someone to keep all this stuff working. We’re not having fun anymore. I need to take a break from boating.”

But instead of taking a break from boating, maybe some of us need to rethink boating. Why have boats become so complicated and expensive? Is it the fault of boatbuilders? I don’t think so. Every builder I talk with tells me the same thing: Customers want all this stuff. They demand all the comforts of home, and if we don’t offer all the bells and whistles, they won’t buy.

Sam Devlin designed this 33-foot lobster boat without an inverter, 110-volt shore power, or electric hot water heater.

Well, as we all know, not many new boats are selling right now — with or without the bells and whistles. Several marginal brands have disappeared, some big production builders are operating under Chapter 11, factories have been idled, and even the strongest brands are struggling to keep their workers busy.

Indeed, the boating industry has found itself in the perfect storm. On one hand, many boaters have been losing their enthusiasm and are turning to other recreational activities. Much of this problem started with the exorbitant fuel prices of 2008, and although those prices have returned to more reasonable levels, we all understand the volatility of the oil market. Add the uncertainty of fuel prices to the certainty of high maintenance costs and inconveniences, and even the most diehard mariners are re-evaluating the amount of time and money they invest in boating.

Things were bad enough, but then along came the financial meltdown. Suddenly, many owners found themselves upside down in their boat loans or unable to make their monthly payments. The more affluent saw their portfolios decimated and questioned the financial wisdom of owning a luxurious yacht. Consequently, the market became flooded with used boats being sold by desperate owners at ridiculously low prices. Those who were in a position to buy a new boat couldn’t sell their older boat — at least not at a price they thought was reasonable. If you were lucky enough not to own a boat during the worst of these times, you were in an incredibly advantageous position to purchase your dream boat at a bargain price.

While the boating market seems to have bottomed out and shows signs of stabilizing, it is doubtful it will return to its glory days of prerecession prosperity and low fuel prices any time soon. All of us have had to swallow big doses of the new reality and rethink our financial situations, including whether or not boating can remain an integral part of our lives. If we love being out on the water, I believe we need to re-examine the kind of boats we own and how we use them.

“The days where you got on your boat at 8 in the morning and you got off of it at 8 at night may be past, and we need to adapt as an industry to smaller bits of time on the water,” says Susan Zellers, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland.


A good way to start is to apply zero-based thinking to boat ownership. Begin with a clean sheet of paper and think of what you and your family like most about boating. Then list the features and characteristics of a boat that are absolutely necessary. Forget the “wouldn’t it be nice” stuff. Keep telling yourself, This is a boat, not a house.

As you add to your list of “necessary” items, be sure to consider the consequences of each. If you need a bow thruster, you’ll probably need a separate battery installed in the bow, which means you may need a more robust charger. A thruster’s props also become fouled with marine growth quickly, so you’ll need to haul out more often or get a diver to keep them clean. If you have to have air conditioning, you’ll definitely need a generator. But a generator adds weight, takes up room, burns fuel, and requires another hole in the hull and a separate starting battery. An inverter is great, too. But you’ll need a larger house battery bank and most likely a heavy-duty alternator and smart charging system.

The Mirage 32 places an emphasis on efficiency and performance while minimizing maintenance.

Modern, electric heads are popular, but most models use fresh water and require enough pumps, vacuums, valves, tanks, electronic controls and plumbing to turn a simple clogged head into a daylong project. Clothes washers are wonderful, but they use a lot of fresh water, and while a watermaker will supply all the water you need, even the newest, most dependable units require maintenance. And a dryer may require 240-volt service, adding to the complexity of your boat’s electrical system.

Dishwashers, large-screen televisions, garbage disposals, Internet connectivity, glass bridges, hydraulically operated swim platforms and more have become standard on many of today’s yachts, but at a stiff price.

Mike Kaufman, the Annapolis, Md., naval architect who designs the Thomas Point series of small- and medium-size power cruisers, tells a story about a PT boat fleet commander during World War II who was challenged to improve the performance of his fleet. He ordered all the gear and equipment that wasn’t bolted down to be taken off the boats and put in a pile. He then instructed his skippers to make a list, without looking at the pile, of what they absolutely needed to accomplish their next mission. Only a few things were put back. The boats were faster, had a longer range and were more maneuverable. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps we need to rethink our missions by asking ourselves if we really need all these things to enjoy being out on the water. Some of my fondest memories are of being aboard my grandfather’s wooden Richardson 32 and cruising on Long Island’s Peconic Bay. His boat had none of today’s conveniences, but our summers were filled with fishing, swimming, anchoring out and hanging out with other boating families. At night, my grandparents and parents played cards, and my brother and I read adventure stories and comic books. (I also learned to play poker.) I honestly don’t know how any of today’s modern conveniences could have made our summers more memorable.

Part of our zero-based thinking should also focus on size. It’s a known fact that as a boat’s length increases, its cost and complexity increase in geometric proportions. The bigger the boat, the more stuff we tend to put on it. And bigger boats cost more for haulouts, slip rentals, bottom paint, winter covers and more. Could a smaller boat satisfy 80 or 90 percent of our needs and, when we need something larger, could we simply charter?

Caught in the perfect storm, most boatbuilders have few options to survive. But perhaps one option, at least for a limited number of builders, is to promote a niche of simpler, more affordable boats that offer more boat for the dollar by including far fewer “household” luxuries and complicated marine systems. Boats that get us out on the water safely and comfortably don’t have to be complicated or expensive.

Maverick builders

There are a number of smaller companies that are building such boats today, run by individuals who may be considered mavericks by the mainstream industry. But they may be among the few who can weather the economy’s perfect storm.

Ken Fickett, who builds the Great Harbour trawlers in Gainesville, Fla., and used to build a line of small sportfishing boats under the Mirage name, is introducing a new Mirage 32-footer that can be set up as a sportfishing boat or cruising boat. Either way, it represents his philosophy of keeping things simple.

“Less boat equals more boating,” says Fickett. “It should withstand the owner’s ‘cycle of interest,’ meaning that if it’s less of a burden, he can go fishing or cruising for six months, and then put it away without anxiety while he goes golfing or skiing for six months.”

Fickett’s approach is to minimize maintenance and worrisome problems while emphasizing efficiency and performance. “Even 35-footers can be built with no through-hulls and ‘shoot-thru’ transducers, which eliminate potential problems,” he says. He also advocates keeping electrical systems simple. “An inexpensive solar panel can keep the batteries charged instead of complicated charging systems.”

Challenging conventional wisdom, he also suggests owners would keep their boats longer if they were smaller and simpler. “People need to get back to having a ‘marriage’ with their boat as opposed to having an ‘affair,’ ” he says.

Fickett’s first new 32 will be powered by Volvo’s IPS pod drive system, and he is predicting the efficient, lightweight boat will run between 2 and 3 mpg at 25 knots. “I am also offering it with Volvo’s new sterndrives, which will save a considerable amount of money and deliver comparable performance,” he says.

Sam Devlin, who designs and builds traditional-looking power- and sailboats in the Pacific Northwest, is especially sensitive to owners loading up their boats with troublesome systems and equipment. “You practically have to be an ABYC-certified electrician to understand how to operate some of these newer, bigger boats, much less troubleshoot them,” he says. “Why would anyone really want to own one of these things? They run counter to the idea of getting out on the water.”

Devlin recently launched a new 33-foot lobster boat he designed for a woman who will depend on it for commuting to her home in the San Juan Islands. The more the project progressed, the more Devlin realized this would be the perfect boat for him and his wife to go cruising on.

“We’ve found that we like cruising in the company of others, but on separate boats,” he says. “So we don’t need anything larger. This boat has everything my wife and I need to cruise to Alaska, and it will run and continue to run for years and years without a lot of fuss. There’s no 110-volt shore power, no inverter, no electric hot water heater, and none of those layers of stuff that don’t work.”

Still, the boat is not without comfort. It has a simple, engine-driven hot water system, a propane heater and a nifty little solid-fuel fireplace — perfect for the Pacific Northwest climate.

Preliminary estimates show the boat cruising at 17 knots while burning just 5 gallons an hour total with her twin 110-hp Yanmar diesels. “We’re using conventional shafts and props, including conventional stuffing boxes,” says Devlin. “Simple. No monkey business.”

Joe Reid, of Mast and Mallet Boatworks in Edgewater, Md., builds the cold-molded Thomas Point series of 25- to 45-foot power cruisers designed by Mike Kaufman. Lately, he’s been getting orders for the smaller models, and he says more of his customers are downsizing. Buyers, attracted to the traditional workboat-inspired designs, like the idea that he can customize each boat to their particular needs.

“It’s funny, though,” says Reid. “A customer will start out saying he wants to keep things very simple, and then as the project progresses he keeps adding stuff. Sometimes I have to control him and remind him why he came to us in the first place.”

Back to the future?

Downsizing and doing without the amenities certainly are not for everyone. There will always be those fortunate enough to own large, luxurious yachts and who have no problem paying others to keep them shipshape. The boating industry depends on these affluent yachtsmen to provide employment and to help push the envelop of technical advancements, which eventually find their way to the mass market.

But if you have been questioning the amount of time and money you have invested in boating and are wondering if it’s all worth it, don’t give up the ship entirely. Instead, think about what you really enjoy about boating and consider choosing a boat that will simply get you out on the water with little effort and cost. A smaller, simpler, “back-to-basics” boat may be in your future. And it may be the future of the boating industry.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.



Clean & Simple

This year, consider a summer cruise to Lake Champlain, where the air is clear, the water is fresh, line-of-sight piloting is the norm, and the waterfront towns in Upstate New York and Vermont are mostly free of crushing crowds.