Skip to main content

Back to basics: when less is the new more

With boats, as with many things in life, keeping it simple is the hard part.

It’s always easier to make something more complicated than it needs to be. Than it should be.

Image placeholder title

Poor design and engineering combined with sloppy execution still bedevil too many boats and systems, much to the frustration of everyone. Form following function has always been easier said than done.

“It takes a long time to keep these things simple,” says shipwright Thomas Townsend, of Mystic, Conn. “You can complicate things pretty quickly. I stay up late at night trying to make things simple.”

It’s not too difficult to tell which boats were designed by folks who don’t spend a lot of time on the water — at least not on the boats they had a hand in designing or building. Or boats they maintain themselves. Fishing boats should be designed by people who fish. Cruisers by folks who cruise. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Instead, you get boats where you have to be a contortionist to reach critical maintenance and replacement items: water and fuel pumps, fuel and oil filters, starters, spark plugs, and so on. Fuel tanks are buried so deep that you’ll never get them out if there’s a problem without cutting the deck and then some. You find batteries positioned under hatches that aren’t watertight. Deck hardware screwed in place rather than through-bolted. Bad wiring. Suspect installations. Undersized scuppers. Too much noise and vibration. You could go on and on.

You wonder what they were thinking — or if they even were thinking.

“They don’t think. And they don’t overbuild,” says veteran mechanic Erik Klockars, who is also a technical consultant for this magazine. “They overcomplicate.”

When Klockars and I replaced a water pump on my outboard this spring, it took one size socket and wrench to remove the lower unit and water pump. On another engine, it took five different sizes to do the same work. Not a big thing, perhaps, but one company clearly put more thought and engineering into designing the gear casing and water pump housing than did the other. That sort of thing is widespread.

“And the consumer is paying for all this,” Klockars points out, “through increased time and labor to do the job.”

Technology is great, but there’s a smart way to incorporate technology and innovation into a boat, and, well, there’s plenty of ways to make a mess of things. Developing and installing a proper system — fuel, electrical, plumbing — takes time and gray matter and experience.

Marine author and photographer Craig Milner says the boating industry could use an infusion of old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity. “There’s a need for practical thinking when it comes to boat design, layout and service,” says Milner, who wrote “Ralph Stanley: Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder.” “The boat has to be easy to build, easy to operate and easy to maintain.”

Klockars, who has more work than he can handle fixing boat problems day after day, says we’ve unnecessarily complicated our boats. “Not enough thought is given to good design and installation,” he says. “Technology is terrific, but you can’t do it with just that alone. We need more focus on quality. The industry is going to have to change.”

The tough economy has spurred something of a back-to-basics movement in boats. After a long period of bigger and faster being better, we’ve suddenly had to pull back on the throttles some. Less is the new more — at least for now.

Certain production boats will require a design and engineering sea change as significant as the one facing the U.S. auto industry, Milner says. “The challenge is to build a production boat that is innovative and that has a feature set appropriate for the new times,” he says. “These are new times. We need a new model that keeps the fun in boating, that inspires people to get on the water.”

Townsend, who builds and restores wooden boats, puts it this way: “People are cluttering up their boats with a lot of nonsense they don’t need,” he says. “TVs, granite countertops — it’s absolutely crazy. If you want to get out on the water, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”

Through good times and bad, that’s a perspective many of us, fortunately, have remained true to.

“I was at sea again, this time with a very lovable assembly of teak, oak, canvas and companions.”

— Chris Landery

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.