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Better boats, smart standards and the one that got away

In our watery world, the pièce de résistance of a happy boating lifestyle is a well-built, well-maintained, safe and reliable boat.

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That’s the coin of the realm; it’s what makes the sun come out on cloudy days. Everything else is, well, flotsam and jetsam.

Alas, poor workmanship and service, combined with poorly thought-out systems, is the flip side of that bright penny. A shoddy execution or repair is maddeningly frustrating; in the most egregious cases the mistake can leave the boat downright unsafe.

This is a very condensed story of how boats over the last 20-plus years have gotten better and safer, and how the people working on them are better-trained. In short, it’s the story of the American Boat & Yacht Council, the non-profit organization that writes standards that govern the correct way to build and install everything from bilge pumps and fuel tanks to seacocks and steering systems. ABYC may not be a household or dockside term yet, but it should be. (Go to for more information.)

As more builders and manufacturers adhere to ABYC standards and more boatyard workers become ABYC-certified, quality and safety are gaining traction, even if there still is a fair way to go.

More on ABYC shortly, but first a digression. Early in my career I interviewed a single-handed sailor in Maine who was about to embark on his first solo ocean race. I asked him his biggest worry. It was, the sailor told me, that he hadn’t seen enough things “break” in his sailing career and, therefore, questioned his ability to fix them in real time at sea with no help. The school of hard knocks.

The wisdom and value of learning by having parts, gear and systems fail has stayed with me ever since. It comes with the territory. That said, when you’re out with your family for a day on the water, do you really want to learn everything the hard way? It’s much nicer when all cylinders are firing in the proper order, when the boat is purring, the kids are laughing and your significant other is smiling. Safe and reliable.

Watching stuff fail — and then figuring why and how to correct it? That’s where ABYC comes in. Interestingly, it was something the head of this organization said recently that brought me back to that cold boat shed in Maine so many years ago and the sailor who was looking into the future with justifiable trepidation, wondering whether he and the boat he had built would measure up.

“How things break is probably more interesting to me than anything else,” says John Adey, president of ABYC, which is based in Annapolis, Md. “And thinking of unique solutions.” Perfect philosophy for the job.

ABYC was formed in 1954, and a lot has certainly changed since those early go-go growth years of pleasure boating. Builders were transitioning from wood to glass, and the problems, at least in retrospect, seem easy to solve by comparison with today. Back then it was ignition protection, ventilation, capacity and flotation.

“The new problems need detailed research and careful analysis before coming up with a solution,” Adey told me recently. “Take electric-shock drowning and CO poisoning, for instance. [In the past] if someone died in the water it was labeled a drowning, full stop, case closed. It took dedicated people — some related to the victims — to question the real reason behind these tragedies.”

Adey says staying away from passing trends and special interests is a big part of why the standards stay relevant. “What keeps people using our standards is that they are based on fact and data, and consider current technology,” he says. “We work hard to keep informed on the latest and greatest while keeping a finger on the accident trends and reporting.”

Lastly, maintaining a boat built to ABYC standards should be done by someone who has been trained in the standards, Adey says. The organization has eight certification programs to train yards. “In my opinion, if a yard isn’t at the very least an ABYC member, then how can you expect they know how your boat is put together?”

Bottom line, a boat built to ABYC standards is safe, Adey stresses. There are quality benchmarks that far exceed the organization’s standards, he notes, “But from a platform of safety, you can’t do much better.”

The solo sailor I mentioned struck a large object in the Atlantic at night and lost the boat. He survived, but I have not heard his name since. Careful skipper and able boat notwithstanding, stuff happens.

"An old, old scene, this - the violinist playing on the capstan head to the crew, while the anchor was tripped and the ship turned her graceful head to the seas." - Alan Villiers

March 2013 issue