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The balancing act

The balancing act between complexity and simplicity

When it comes to boats, we seem to go out of our way to make things more complicated than they need to be.

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And the more convoluted and unsystematic our attempts at stuffing ever more gadgetry into our boats become, the less reliable (not to mention more costly) the finished product that emerges. So why is simplicity more difficult than complexity?

It's a subject I've kicked around in several columns during the last two years in both Soundings and our monthly marine business magazine, Soundings Trade Only - the idea that less can be more, simple boats for complicated times, strategies for making boats more efficient and less costly, the downsizing trend, innovation vs. smoke and mirrors, and so on.

I recently had lengthy discussions on technology, reliability, functionality and their antonyms with several people who have a lifetime of experience in troubleshooting, rigging boats, repairing engines and coming up with solutions to seemingly complicated problems. For the next two issues, my column will draw from those interviews.

The goal should be developing boats that are seaworthy, reliable, efficient and as affordable as possible, whether we're discussing a center console, an express cruiser or an offshore sailboat. On that front, there's room for plenty of improvement.

A few thoughts on simplicity: For this discussion, when we talk about 'simple,' we're not referring to cruising boats without engines or stripped-down skiffs. Rather, it's the idea of a clean installation, reliable equipment, sensible redundancy, a proven hull - the elegant simplicity of a Joel White design, a BKF chair, an iPad. A smart, well-executed solution or a bulletproof piece of gear. Making the complex simple is where the magic - the hard work - comes in. From a distance, it may appear easy, but it's usually anything but.

"Making something simple is harder than it appears," says Frank Kehr, an experienced boat project guy from Long Island, N.Y., who maintains a fleet of vintage race cars for his day job. "To make something simple as opposed to complex requires a clearly defined goal and adhering to that goal, which is not always easy. It means exercising control and putting that big ego aside that says, I can do it bigger and better."

Whether it's a boat that will see its share of steep chop or a vintage Ferrari designed to burn up the track, it doesn't pay to get too fancy, notes Kehr, the founder of Port Technical Services and a Soundings technical writer. Fancy usually just winds up breaking.

"We tend to complicate things by adding bells and whistles that are not necessary, often forgetting the initial design parameters," says Kehr, citing overly cluttered navigation programs as an example. "A software engineer who doesn't understand navigation may be trapped in today's world of more-is-better thinking."

Longtime bluewater cruiser John Harries says buying a product because it has the most "features" is almost always a mistake (see story on Page 28). Instead, Harries says, always seek out functionality. It's the old theory of less is more.

"People are putting too much stuff on their boats," says Harries, who with Phyllis Nickel received the Cruising Club of America's Far Horizons award in 2008 for their far-flung northern voyaging. "I just really balk at every additional piece of new equipment I put on the boat. It's a juggling act."

It's important to be able to distinguish between technology that brings value, safety and performance to a boat and features that are driven by hype and are short on benefits. Until the recession, it seemed there was no end to the amount of gear we squeezed onto our boats.

There are several stories in this issue that focus on technologies you certainly will hear more about in the future: a solar-powered cat circumnavigating the globe, a single-engine pod-driven center console, thermal-imaging cameras that see in the dark, and the resin infusion method used to build yachts. They all nudge the dial on the boats of tomorrow. They come with a price, and their utility and value will ultimately determine their acceptance in the market.

Harries and Nickel frequently cruise the northern latitudes, remote areas of the world that demand self-sufficiency, reliable equipment and a seaworthy boat. Reliable equipment is so important in this couple's world that Harries has a section on his website ( devoted to stuff that doesn't work ("Gear Failures & Fixes") and equipment that does ("Stuff that works"). It's worth a read.

"We are more and more fixated on gadgets," says Harries, who estimates that less than half the equipment he has installed in his 35 years of sailing offshore has operated reliably without substantial work on his part. "I also think people are trying to buy safety in the wrong places, through complexity."

A sophisticated navigation system, for example, doesn't replace the need for proper reefing and anchoring systems or knowing how to heave-to or deploy a storm drogue, Harries says. In other words, technology is not a shortcut for seamanship; it's a false comfort. At some point, he says, "You're going to get caught out, so you better be ready."

A good boat, time-tested skills and reliable equipment truly are the right stuff. It's that simple.

"At such time, alone upon the sea, gazing ... I often pondered at the smallness of man."

- Alain Gerbault

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.