Talkin’ boats with John Adey

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President of the American Boat and Yacht Council

Rough conditions on Chesapeake Bay won’t keep John Adey and his family from a day of sailing their 1976 42-foot Irwin ketch. “There’s something about being able to bury the rail on a 42-footer,” says Adey, who has been president of the American Boat and Yacht Council for two years.

The Adey family aboard their Irwin ketch (from left): Abby, Lauri, John and Maggi

The 44-year-old grew up running small powerboats on New Jersey’s lakes and sailing with his grandparents on Long Island Sound. He worked in a boatyard right out of college and ran his own marine supply store with his wife before joining the ABYC in 2002.

Adey has an undergraduate business degree from Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts and an M.B.A. from Maryhurst University in Oregon. Adey and his wife, Lauri, and their 11- and 15-year-old daughters live just south of Annapolis, Maryland.

Q: What should the boating public know about the ABYC?

A: We work in the shadows and do things that nobody knows about. We came up with a tagline a few years ago, and I think it’s well-suited for the ABYC: “Boating Safety Built In.” When boaters look at product, they naturally think there is some over-arching group or set of regulations. They believe the product will not only service them well but is also safe. I don’t think they know why it is safe or who is responsible, but they know that someone is looking out for them — from the day it was made to the day they see it on the boat show floor to when they have it out on the water. I want them to know that ABYC is the organization that since 1954 continuously balances safety and cost to keep boating safe and affordable. I don’t want the public to worry about their safety. I want them to have time to think about how happy their family is about their next destination.

Q: What types of things does the ABYC do?

A: We are constantly working with hundreds of volunteers from all aspects of boating to make improvements to the standards. We are weighing safety versus expenses. We are on top of technology, making sure that every new idea on a boat has the inherent safety that must be present.

A great example is the fly-by-wire technology and components. When that concept emerged, ABYC had to get to work and establish baseline standards. It goes back to the building blocks that were laid down by my predecessors — industry icons like Lyle Gray, Dick Snyder, Kiko Villalon, Ralph Lambrecht and others. It goes back to those technical foundations that create the safe, reliable products we have today.

And this still applies. We have just addressed a broader set of innovations. The template has not really changed. Think of ignition protection. You have gasoline on a boat, so it still needs to be protected from ignition, and that’s a common theme with even the most advanced technology out there. We don’t want to be the ones standing in the way of convenience in boating. We just want to make sure it is done right. We want to make sure that every innovation in boating is grounded in safety standards.

Q: What is the most overlooked safety aspect in boating?

A: I don’t want to say the cliché answer, “training the boater,” but honestly, it is the human interface with the boat — studying the habits of today’s boaters and how they use the product. What are Coast Guard accident statistics telling us? What problems are we seeing? Are there automotive innovations we can consider that won’t increase cost significantly? Boatbuilders should be anticipating the use of the craft and the foreseeable use of the boat.

Adey installs new hydraulic steering line fittings while preparing a boat for this summer's ethanol-alternative fuel testing.

Brunswick has something called “Voice of the Customer.” They dedicate time and people to find out how new boaters are enjoying their boat. Are there problems? Are there conveniences that can be built in? How is the service? I think that is the next great step in boating. We can tell people to get training all we want. We need ways to consistently identify common activities and habits on boats to create innovation to correct or accept that behavior.

Q: In what areas can boat companies improve?

A: I think they can improve on customer awareness and integrating orientation and training into their dealer network. There should be a template that goes across all dealerships that says if you are going to sell my boat brand I want to see a pre-delivery inspection and documentation of your orientation with the customer. I think manufacturers should insist on qualified employees in the dealership and the training that needs to happen.

Q: Is there any reason a boater would join the ABYC?

A: Any boater who does their own work might want to join. Who else is going to tell you what size wire you need or when and where to install circuit protection?

Q: How does the industry perform, in terms of customer service, professionalism and business practices?

A: The recession thinned the herd down to companies, for the most part, doing it right. That said, there is still an air of old-school, dirty-shop, guy-only kind of behavior. Some people are attracted to that, and it works for their clientele. Have we gotten to the level of clean uniforms, clean shop floors, great customer service and doing anything to make the customer happy? Some have, but we need to shift the attitude from, “you, Mr. Customer, need me” to “I need you, Mr. Customer, so I am going to do things to attract you and keep you here and in this sport.”

Not to drop names, but Brewer Yacht Yards with 27 locations and around 80 ABYC certifications are doing it right. MarineMax, as well, is seeing the value of ABYC-certified technicians. My experience with both of these groups is they take pride in their customer experience.

Q: Is there anything that bothers you about new boats?

A: What bothers me is the cost. I hear more people turned off by the initial cost and the upkeep, storage, launch fees, etc. We need to get the Ford Focus or Honda Civic of boats, and I think we need to get it quick. It also has to be a quality product, something that will last and be reliable. We need to get that $12,995 boat-motor-trailer package back on the water. As much as I love the innovations and all the conveniences, there is still room for a Ford Focus, even though people are building a Mercedes.

As boatbuilders strap on more horsepower, steering loads must be studied to determine if the ABYC has to update its standards.

The accessory side of things irks me a bit. Anything on a boat costs more than the same product sold outside the boating world. (Don’t get me wrong — in many instances there is a substantial reason for it, and we do a poor job of communicating that.) A perfect example is a GFCI outlet for a boat with shore power. Go to any marine retailer, and that same GFCI at Home Depot is 65 percent less. This is why people use the acronym “bust out another thousand” for BOAT. Families are struggling to keep their boats on the water, and they are paying a premium for accessories.

Q: How did you get into boating?

A: It was really through my grandparents. My grandfather as a young boy suffered a hip injury, and he couldn’t golf or play tennis, so he took some sailing lessons and really got hooked. Before I was born, he bought what is now a Stone Horse by Edey & Duff and then moved up to a ’68 Morgan 34, which is the boat I grew up on. I just absolutely — 100 percent — didn’t want to be anywhere else. I didn’t care if I was working on it or sailing on it or sleeping on it. It was the best thing in the world to me. As a kid waiting for my grandparents to pick me up, I remember sitting there waiting for the rain to stop because we were in New Jersey and the boat was in the Long Island Sound area. I couldn’t wait. I was shaking. I was so excited to get in the car.

Q: How old were you?

A: When I went with them by myself I was probably 10. As a little kid, as soon as my parents could take me on the boat, they did — my little brother, as well. But I really got into it on those trips with my grandmother and grandfather and being with them for long weekends. Granddad let me help change the oil and climb the mast and take the dinghy out with a 2-hp, and I felt grown up. I had a little bit of freedom.

Q: Do you get out on the water with your daughters?

A: With all of the other activities our kids are involved in — swim team, horseback riding, lacrosse, field hockey, school plays — we generally don’t go cruising but opt for day sails. As much as we want to get kids into boating, I think as parents we have to make time to do it — to introduce kids to boating. I find myself in the same time trap. One day last fall, I said, “Let’s forget about everything else we need to do and get on the water.” It was a beautiful day. I took the girls out. [ABYC] had to log 90 hours on a 19-foot center console. We put nine hours on the boat that day. I watched the girls feel the same way I did as a kid — the freedom. I let them drive and go where they wanted. I watched them with some regret because I had allowed everything to get in the way. Skip a practice or game and get out there. That Saturday really taught me a lesson that I needed to make more time for that.

Q: Sounds like your daughters enjoy boating.

A: Yes, in fact we are working on a 1992 18-foot Sea Ray bowrider — in a lovely 1990s teal — with a 4-cylinder sterndrive. They have expressed an interest in tubing and wakeboarding. I had the girls work on it a bit last summer and winter and hope to put it in the water this summer. We still have a bit of bottom painting and cleaning to do, and, of course, they have asked for a stereo.

Q: What are some of the boats you’ve owned?

A: It started with a canoe, then a 12-foot rowboat and then a little fiberglass sailboat that had a main and jib and was fun to take care of. We had a Hobie Cat — that was the first boat I personally owned. I borrowed $300 from my now wife and then girlfriend to buy the boat. I had that while I was in college. Then we went to a Balboa 20 and then a Hunter 22 after that — all boats we found in salvage or at auction. Now we have the Irwin 42 — that one found us. It is kind of my treehouse. I get to work on it, and my wife and kids enjoy it. It is a lot of work, but it is almost a spiritual thing when you get into it.

Q: What kind of cruising do you do?

A: My wife tells everyone we own the biggest daysailer on the Chesapeake. We love sailing on the Chesapeake, and my family really enjoys going home at the end of a perfect day on the Bay. It’s great to be able to have our boat so close to us, so we tend to invite a lot of friends to go boating. It’s even better when you can introduce them to sailing. Yankee Girl is a big part of the family, and every time there is a thought of selling her, the kids get a bit teary-eyed.

Q: Which of the boats you’ve owned is your favorite?

A: At 7 or 8 years old, I woke up on Christmas morning, and there was a 17-foot canoe in my living room. I had to take care of it. I could use it as a commuter boat to get to swim team practices across the lake. I love the Irwin, but my favorite boat and memories were on that canoe. I don’t know if it was the boat or the experience and the way it came to me.

July 2014 issue