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ABYC: Building a better industry

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The industry was about to catch fire in the 1950s — the war was over, the economy was growing, Americans were enjoying expanded leisure time and more discretionary income, wood was bowing to fiberglass. By the ’60s it was zoom-zoom for pleasure boats as the expanding middle class solidly embraced boating.

It was during the mid-1950s that the American Boat & Yacht Council was formed. The ABYC, as most of us know, is the non-profit organization that writes standards that govern everything from fuel tanks to steering systems to seacocks.

Compared with the some of the safety issues on the table today, those seem like simpler days, at least through the proverbial rear-view mirror.

“The problem is, it’s not the obvious things that we dealt with in the early days of boating safety,” ABYC president John Adey told me recently. In the early days, the problems were ignition protection, ventilation, capacity and flotation.

“The new problems need detailed research and careful analysis before coming up with a solution,” Adey continued. “Take electric-shock drowning and CO poisoning, for instance. 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. By peeling back the layers one by one and not accepting what appears to be the simple cause, we know that these were not just drownings but deaths related to electrocution and CO emissions, both of which we can address through standards and best practices.”

Adey is the subject of our monthly Q&A feature in the February issue of Soundings Trade Only. Associate editor Reagan Haynes interviewed Adey on a host of topics, from whether it’s technology that drives standards or standards that influence technology (an interesting discussion) to the well-publicized sinking of the 34-foot Silverton last summer that claimed the lives of three children.

I wrote a column in the March issue of Soundings magazine about how ABYC standards have led to better and safer boats. My goal with that consumer column and another story we have in the works is to raise the public’s awareness of the standards organization.

Adey is also working to expand consumer awareness through an outreach program that the organization may take nationally.

“We call it ABYC’s Boating Safety Clinic, with the goal of taking the standards to the water,” Adey said. “It occurred to us that we could broaden the awareness of ABYC and perform a valuable service at the same time. We solicit local volunteers who are ABYC members, surveyors or certified technicians. We find a location where there are a large amount of boats in slips [and] a good amount of transient dock space [that the marinas] are willing to dedicate for a Saturday. We advertise that anyone who signs up for a time slot can get a free 20- to 40-minute safety check on mission-critical systems.”

The checklist is composed of what Adey called the “mom and apple pie” of ABYC standards — critical safety areas such as ventilation, over-current protection, exhaust hoses, basic fuel system checks and so on.

“What results is a customer knowing more about his boat than he/she did before and usually a punch list of repairs the customer wants to make ASAP,” Adey said. “So it works for us in that a boater goes away with some knowledge about ABYC and what we do — and a safer boat. And it works for the location because they can schedule the resulting repairs.”

That’s the proverbial win-win, which we all need more of.

Adey says ABYC standards remain relevant because the organization stays away from passing trends and special interests. “What keeps people using our standards is that they are based on fact and data, and consider current technology,” he said. “We work hard to keep informed on the latest and greatest while keeping a finger on the accident trends and reporting.”

We also talked about why boats have gotten better and safer. Adey pointed to two main reasons. The first, he said, is consistency in manufacturing.

“A great deal of the guesswork is taken out of the manufacturing process with heavier use of computer-aided technology,” Adey said. “Software-designed boats, precision resin and foam delivery, more modern facilities with better controls all contribute to a better product.”

Also, he noted, the threat of large-scale recalls and crippling warranty claims provides an incentive to increase quality and product durability

The second reason is cooperation, Adey said. “When I came to ABYC in 2002, I was fortunate to be involved in the agreement with the NMMA’s certification program,” he recalled. “ ‘NMMA Certified Using ABYC Standards’ is the line that was used. Today the NMMA states that its 190 certified manufacturers make 85 percent of the boats sold in the U.S. in 2012. That is a huge number.

“If you are a boatbuilder member of NMMA, then you have to be in the certification program. That’s a big statement.”


“To sum it up,” Adey said, “I think the industry as a whole has built a better product, participated more in the safety aspects (such as standards writing) and embraced technology that has created a better, more reliable product.”

That’s a good story.



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