Someone told me a long time ago that the formula for a long, happy life in boats is to buy the smallest boat that will comfortably get the job done, rather than the biggest boat you can afford. That could mean a 15-footer — or a 50-footer.
I also remember the systems expert who told me privately that the best way to ensure the most time on the water with the wind on your back and the sun on your face is to buy the simplest boat possible. And this veteran knew how to install and maintain the most complicated marine systems you could imagine.
We all would do well, I think, to strive for boats that are simple, reliable, seakindly and handsome. That, to me, is the winning combination. And by simple I don’t mean to suggest a stripped-down skiff with tiller steering, a bench seat and a wet dog, although I have spent many pleasant hours knocking around in such small craft.
Simple also means making overly complicated systems less so. It is finding elegant solutions to all manner of rigging and installation challenges. It is making the most confounding aspects of technology disappear until we are left with the most intuitive user experience possible.
What is richer than a clean, uncluttered helm where your hands fall naturally to wheel, throttle and switches; your eyes easily scan gauges and displays; and your view of the water is unimpeded?
Modest power, modest costs, modest speeds — as philosophers and thinkers from Aristotle to Ben Franklin have extolled: “moderation in all things.” Simplicity and functionality are their own form of luxury. And simple, in this context, is anything but easy. Intelligently designing and installing equipment and systems takes thought and experience to get it right.
Neat, clean wire runs. Easy access with enough space to work comfortably on machinery without becoming a contortionist. Handholds in the right places. Smooth edges on all of the corners. Deck hardware that is properly sized, positioned and bedded. Redundancy where it makes sense.
Boats need to be viewed “holistically,” rather than as a series of piecemeal systems cobbled together as time, space and money allow, hidden beneath decks and behind panels and bulkheads, out of sight and out of mind until a problem arises.
That’s when you find out the hard way that the only way to replace a bad sensor on the water tank stuffed beneath the cabin sole is to not only cut through the sole, but also to remove a piece of the stringer. That’s just bad design and it comes, in part, from trying to cram 20 pounds of gee-whiz into a 10-pound bag. Sometimes less is more.
The world of boats is fascinating in the way it bridges and melds traditional practices and thinking with modern technology, materials and methods. Done well, it’s a beautiful thing: an old classic design built of modern materials. But tradition can be as much a double-edged sword as blind faith in technology.
You can still find plenty of practices done a certain way simply because “we’ve always done them that way.” Beware of inertia masquerading as convention and established protocol.
The trick is to find the right balance between the best contemporary designs, materials and beliefs and those practices, operations and philosophies that have proved themselves on the water for generations. Innovation that brings value is a no-brainer, but gadgetry for gadgetry’s sake is a fool’s errand.
I kicked around this concept of modern vs. traditional not too long ago with designer Mark Ellis and powerboat authority Eric Sorensen (our technical writer). The subject turned to weight and how, despite the advantages of lighter, stronger materials and build methods, you still hear people crow: “Heavier is better.”
On that point, Ellis, who has designed boats for nearly 50 years with everyone from C. Raymond Hunt Associates to Ted Hood, quoted Uffa Fox, the late English sailboat designer and dinghy-sailing pioneer. “You know what Uffa used to say,” Ellis recalled. “The only good place for weight is in a steamroller.”
Simple, reliable, seaworthy — all good. But looks matter, too. As the former Hinckley Co. co-owner Shep McKenney once observed: “The first duty of a boat is to be beautiful.” McKenney was referring to the first Hinckley Picnic Boat in 1994, and he was right.
Your boat should make you stop when you walk away and turn around to gaze at her. At least once.
“The desire to build
a house is the tired
wish of a man content
thenceforward with a
single anchorage. The
desire to build a boat is
the desire of youth,
unwilling yet to
accept the idea of a
final resting place.”
— Arthur Ransome
March 2014 issue