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Taking ‘tinker’ to the next level

Taking ‘tinker’ to the next level

It’s inevitable that anyone who spends time on the water will at some point wind up tinkering, improvising, improving or jury-rigging something or other on his or her boat. It might be a well-planned, well-executed project — or it could be a spur-of-the-moment repair involving duct tape, a couple of wire ties and a hose clamp.

Regardless, we’re always looking for ways to solve a problem, improve a system, make our boats function or behave a little bit better. It’s the never-ending search for the next mousetrap, the elegant solution, something that’s even better than new. Most of us do it because it’s enjoyable and challenging, because being a boater also means being an inveterate tinkerer, never satisfied, always looking for that incremental improvement, that “ah-ha” moment.

At its best, the marine industry also is driven by creativity, innovation and good engineering. It could be the proverbial long shot, the little guy who knows more about boats than business plans but still manages to come up with a great idea or product or boat design. Other times, the breakthrough comes from a large investment by a large company in good, old-fashioned R&D, the tried-and-true formula. (There are plenty of dreamers out there, too, considering the 3,600 boatbuilders in this country, from one-person shops to the Brunswicks and Genmars.)

This month we celebrate the spirit of innovation with a series of stories beginning on Page 32. Two of the companies we profile you likely will recognize immediately: Weems & Plath, which makes quality nautical instruments, and Harken, which is synonymous with performance sailing hardware and accessories. We also include a story on a traditional foundry in Mystic, Conn., that makes, among many things, difficult-to-find parts for classic yachts. Think of it as Bronze Age technology fused with 21st-century creativity. These stories also serve to kick off our new yearlong series on innovation.

So just where does this wellspring of innovation for all things nautical come from? “I think it’s innate in us,” says yacht designer David Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology. “People have been innovating on boats for 4,000 years — maybe longer. There’s something about the sea. I don’t know if anyone can put their finger on it. It’s both an inviting and a difficult environment.”

And, he notes, “It all comes back to a love of boats.”

As a student of marine history, Gerr is both blessed and cursed by his detailed knowledge of the design and function of the boats and ships of yesteryear. “People don’t know that roller furling was first used on French warships in the 1700s — continuous, chain-drive roller furling under the yard arms,” Gerr says. “Every time I come up with something new, I find someone has done it 50 years earlier.” Everything old is new again.

“Innovation,” says Will Keene, president of the Edson International, “really is nothing more than solution. Those two words are joined at the hip. If your innovation doesn’t solve anything, it’s really not going anywhere. It’s just another widget.”

Keene has had a number of those moments when the “light bulb just goes on.” He could be driving to work in his car, as he was one morning about 15 years ago when he wondered, Why can’t we make a boat’s steering wheel feel like a car’s steering wheel? That question started a process that led to a leather wheel covering kit and eventually a rubber finger grip insert on the wheel rim for better control and feel.

“With innovation, the idea is the easiest part,” says Keene, whose New Bedford, Mass., company makes an extensive line of marine steering systems, pumps and pumpout systems for sail- and powerboats. “The next-easiest part, typically, is how to make it. The hardest part is how to get it to market.” Keene, who is constantly on the hunt for the next great idea, quotes IBM founder Thomas Watson’s motto: “Think.”

Gerr subscribes to Thomas Edison’s adage that invention is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration. “Maybe 2 percent,” he adds. “You have to apply rigorous engineering analysis to your idea, and then it has to be practical.”

Even after completing 112 designs — from a canoe that comes apart and nests in three pieces to a 440-foot sail-assisted cruise ship — Gerr remains enamored by boats and the process by which they come to life. “I love the engineering part,” he says. “I love the creative part. I love finding something new.

“There’s not one eureka moment in designing a boat; there are several,” Gerr notes. “The grand one, of course, is the launching and the sea trials. The design process is truly satisfying. There’s so much that goes into it.”

Weems & Plath president Peter Trogdon says his company evaluates about two dozen ideas each year, of which maybe one out of 10 make it onto the firm’s short list of 40. “There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, from the idea to when it actually winds up in the marketplace,” he says. “Some people are really built and wired for creative ideas, but most people aren’t.

“In our case,” Trogdon continues, “it’s always been about solutions, about making things better. Innovation is really the future for us.”

"For to be on water is a comfort to the soul of man." Carlton Mitchell