Builders who walk the walk know their boats best

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

Samuel Zemurray was known as “Sam the Banana Man,” and one of the business tenets of this Russian immigrant who would become a mogul in that tropical fruit trade was: “Go see for yourself.”

In other words, nothing beats boots on the ground and assessing a situation with your own two eyes, which in Zemurray’s case meant living and working in the jungles of Honduras in the early 20th century.

“He planted stems, walked the fields and loaded banana boats,” wrote Rich Cohen, author of “The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King.”

“He believed that was his great advantage over the executives of United Fruit, the market-leading behemoth that he battled for over a decade.”

There’s a lesson here for us, too, I believe. I thought of Zemurray and Cohen’s smart Wall Street Journal essay, “Five Lessons From the Banana Man,” after reading something that Rhode Island boatbuilder Walt Schulz of Shannon Yachts recently wrote in one of his newsletters.

“Today we have a marine industry where designers, engineers and people who run boat companies rarely use their own products, and then only on sunny days close to shore,” says Schulz, founder and president of the Schulz Boat Co., which builds power- and sailboats in Bristol, R.I. “The people that actually build the boats almost never get to go out for a boat ride, let alone an offshore passage.”

Trying to avoid the phrase “the good old days,” Schulz nonetheless laments that period when the “industry had giants like Olin Stephens, Henry Hinckley, Charlie Morgan and Dick Bertram, who boated — and boated hard out in the ocean — on what they designed and built.” Schulz says logging about 1,000 miles a year in all kinds of weather gives him a better idea of the “real-world issues” that boat owners face.

There is a different feel, I believe, to a company where the principals are active boaters. And I am willing to bet that more practical, seaman-like engineering and innovation takes place there, too. Changing the upholstery color is nice, but I’d rather have cleaner sight lines or easier access to filters or the fuel tank. That comes from spending time on the water, occasionally on your knees with a wrench in your hands.

Although there are many ways to stay close to your customers, rafting up alongside them in an anchorage or shooting the breeze with a bunch of salts on the docks is one of the best ways I know of. That’s where you hear what owners really think of their boats and equipment — the good and the not so good.

It’s also the best way to see how boats are used in the real world and to garner critical feedback. And isn’t it hard to effectively sell the virtues of boating if you don’t boat? Besides, it’s fun and a good reminder of why we got into this business in the first place. For many of us, it was about boats before it was about making a living.

“I don’t have a boat because I run a boating-related company,” says Jack Ellis, managing director of Info-Link, the Miami-based market research and analytics firm. “I have a boating company because I love to boat.” And that makes a difference.

I ran the notion past Bill Prince, president of Bill Prince Yacht Design in Port Washington, Wis., with whom I’d had a long conversation at the Miami show this winter.

“I agree wholeheartedly that designers and builders ought to spend as much time on the water in their own product as practical, living with the consequences of their many decisions,” Prince says in an email. “A designer should have long experience as a builder and a boat owner in order to fully process all of the decisions that must be made in the course of the development of a complex product like a boat.”

The reality, however, is that it’s not easy for most people involved in the development of a yacht to use the 40-, 80- or 150-foot vessels they design, he says. “How many boatbuilders, craftsmen, designers and engineers behind the scenes get to use their own 70-foot express yacht on the weekends?” Prince asks. “Not many. This limits their practical experience and their exposure to the customer.”

In 1996, Prince won an NMMA design award for the development of a 49-foot pilothouse cruiser. “The award was given in large part due to several innovative design features, not the least of which was the ability to remove the main engines and all other machinery through the boat’s cabin doors without any trouble,” Prince recalls. “These ideas resulted from my thousands of miles of cruising in the years prior to designing the boat.”

It’s that kind of practical, hands-on approach that the Banana Man undoubtedly would have approved of.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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