Boats, horses and doubling down on innovation

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson

Bill SissonThe late Coast Guard captain and navigation expert Bill Brogdon used to say that if you want to stay dry, you should buy a horse, not a boat.

It was a decidedly old-school remark from an old-school boatman. I’ve used the good captain’s line more than once, mostly with passengers who were getting doused with spray on one of my not-so-dry center consoles. I would explain how it was “part of the experience, the charm” of being on the water. Not everyone considers a face full of chilly brine one of the pleasures of our lifestyle.

That was yesterday. Given the recent evolution in open outboard boats, there is little reason to cast today’s fleet in the light of yore. Boats used to do a lot of things they don’t do today. Some were wet as submarines; some would pound mercilessly; some would squat and struggle to get on plane. Most of you remember.

To be sure, the aging fleet still has plenty of wet boats and plenty more that will knock your fillings loose in a healthy chop. And they are priced and valued accordingly.

But the current generation of outboard-powered center consoles — one of the three fastest-growing segments in our industry — has left most negative stereotypes in their wake. They are fast, dry, smooth-running and stacked with amenities once reserved for what the public calls “yachts.”

And it’s not just center consoles, of course, that have moved to a new level. Ski boats, pontoons, motoryachts, trawlers, express cruisers and the latest iteration of sailboats have happily left their former clunky, cumbrous selves behind. (There are, of course, exceptions.)

There was a time when comparing boats with cars made me wince, but that, too, is passing. Boats today have become more like automobiles in terms of features and comfort.

Sure, highways and waterways remain vastly different worlds. Boats operate in a more dynamic environment — our “road” moves, traffic comes at you from all directions, the boat pitches, yaws and crabs, and fewer people follow the rules of the road on the water than on the highway.

But there’s no denying that the boat itself has become more car-like in terms of features, quality, performance, connectivity, fit and finish, longevity and so on.

After a long fallow period, innovation is transforming boating. You see it in everything from gyro-stabilization on smaller boats to cleaner, more skipper-friendly helms, more intuitive electronics, more efficient propulsion, more innovative seating. The list goes on. Across production boat categories, the industry has doubled down on performance and luxury. And consumers, so far, have shown a willingness to pay the price.

We used to talk about technology “trickling down” to everyday boats from racing powerboats, offshore sailboats and America’s Cup competition. Trickle? Technology moves more like a torrent today than seepage. And more and more, change is coming from outside industries.

The consumer is driving these changes, voting by how they choose to spend discretionary dollars. We live in connected homes, drive connected cars and expect more of the same from our boats, including the ability to monitor and interact with our pride and joy via an app on our cellphones; that technology is here.

“Yeah, but who’s going to fix this stuff when something goes wrong?” That’s what one of my boat mechanic friends asks whenever we start talking about anything really new on boats.

He has a point. As boats, engines and systems grow in sophistication and complexity, troubleshooting, repairs and quick turnarounds will need to keep pace with consumer expectations.

Work force issues are a current and future challenge for our industry. We will need a legion of skilled techs and then some to keep folks smiling and boats purring.

Between the skins, boats are also improving. Materials, resins, adhesives and techniques such as resin infusion and vacuum bagging are producing stronger, lighter and tighter boats.

Many of the boats built today will outlast even the oldest tubs currently on the water. The average powerboat and sailboat today is roughly 25 years old. It’s not clear what even greater longevity will mean for the industry. That’s a discussion for another day.

The future?

“Nobody knows what the world is going to look like,” Ole Harms, CEO of the Volkswagen Group’s new mobility services company, recently told The New York Times.

With self-driving cars making headlines and new competition from Silicon Valley, automakers are grappling with seismic change.

“The biggest skill you have to have,” Harms says, “is the ability to change.”

Innovation means change, and change does not come easily — nor is it cheap. But what’s the alternative? Buying a horse?

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.

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