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An elegant solution for unwinding complexity

Veteran offshore sailor and boatyard owner Phin Sprague Jr. sees a close relationship between solving geometry problems and well-designed, properly installed boat systems.

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"I always draw the analogy with systems and boats that in geometry the proof with the fewest steps is known as an 'elegant proof,' " says Sprague, 61, owner of Portland Yacht Services, a full-service yard in Portland, Maine. "It might be a bitch of a problem, but ultimately there is an elegant solution. It might take a few tries to finally get there."

Sounds a lot like boats.

The Harvard-educated circumnavigator understands the difficulties involved in solving mathematical problems and boat problems: making the complex simple, reliable and functional. Elegant even.

Founder of the Maine Boatbuilders Show (March 18-20), Sprague recently reflected in his show newsletter on the challenges today's builders face as boats become increasingly complex.

"Frankly, I smile when I see the simpler boats at the Boatbuilders Show," Sprague told his readers. "They have been able to maintain some vestige of the elegance of function. The second the builder adds to his offering the EPA-compliant mechanical propulsion device to the stern and the NMEA 2000-compliant informational network, the furnace, the freezer, the watermaker, the air conditioner, hydraulic system, roller furling, bow thruster and autopilot, all bets are off."

If you're leaning toward a lot of gear and a lot of systems, Sprague says you'd do well to understand the necessity of properly installing the best equipment available and in such a way that it can be easily accessed and regularly maintained. Remember, if you're somewhere south of Timbuktu and one of your complex systems gives up the ghost, Sprague says there is little the builder can realistically do to support you except direct you to a competent service company and have the necessary serial numbers and warranty information available.

"God help you if you fall into the hands of someone who has never seen one before, has no warranty or parts relationship with the manufacturer and is 'learning' on your nickel," he says.

Sprague is anything but anti-technology, but he's also not a so-called early adopter when it comes to boats that occasionally venture offshore, where the margin for error is much narrower than elsewhere.

He told me a story that nicely illustrates the thin threads trying to tie together technology, reliability and the real world in which we use our boats. A few years back, Sprague and a good friend were headed to Bermuda in separate boats. "It was the first time I left Maine with a weather window so short that I knew I was going to get hammered," he recalls. A front was approaching. The two boats were about 20 miles apart as they dashed across the Gulf Stream.

"When the time came I hove-to to take a short, intense frontal passage on the south side," Sprague says. His friend was double-handing and had a problem rolling in his roller-furling main.

"Somehow a gust twisted the roller furler off just below the head of the sail," he continues. "It was fully up and wouldn't roll in and wouldn't come down. To balance the boat, he had to roll out his genoa. This was in 60 knots of wind and 9- to 15-foot Gulf Stream chop. It was at night, and the boat was screaming out of control, dropping off waves in a mass of foam."

The sailors' experience and seamanship ameliorated that gear snafu. The story gets better. Sprague's yard had installed the fanciest chart plotter money could buy on a pod above his friend's binnacle, with all the functions (radar, autopilot and so on) integrated.

The weak link proved to be the little door on the face of the "super machine," where the owner inserts the chart module. It was supposed to be waterproof and meant for outside mounting, but the device did not hold up to the sea's standard, which is waterproof "when all hell is breaking loose," Sprague says. Being hit by boarding seas is different from a timed soaking in a lab.

"This cute chart plotter, wonder gizmo should not be allowed outside of Casco Bay," Sprague says. "The little door opened, the ocean entered, and the brains and all of the wonderful technology fried and fizzled out. This was happening to a very good sailor who didn't have the technology growing up, and he could keep his composure because he didn't need all of that nice stuff.

"But they lost the autopilot, too," Sprague continues. "Autopilots are a great crutch and like losing a third crewmember when the chips were down. [That loss] seriously compromised the condition and sense of humor of the remaining human crew as they limped several days into Bermuda. The chart plotter had a point of potential water access designed into the exposed face, and the standard of waterproofness was not good enough for conditions that a boat making a passage in the winter North Atlantic should be prepared to experience."

The elegance of being bulletproof.

"Good work in the building of my vessel stood me always in good stead."

- Joshua Slocum

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.