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Q&A with ABYC president John Adey

John Adey isn’t an engineer. But the president of the American Boat and Yacht Council “can speak engineer.”


Adey, 42, has been at ABYC for a decade, and he once was routinely “the youngest guy at the table.” He’s still often the youngest guy, but he’s no stranger to the standards process.

Adey worked in a neighbor’s small engine shop as a teenager and loved everything mechanical. His grandfather spoke engineer with employees at his shop, an engineering firm that designed and built conveyor-belt systems. Adey has an undergraduate business degree from Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts and an M.B.A. from Marylhurst University in Oregon.

He has worked in a boatyard doing repairs, although he credits his customer service experience with being every bit as helpful in his day-to-day work as the repair side.


His innate curiosity about how things work makes the creation of boat standards a fun job for him. “How things break is probably more interesting to me than anything else, and thinking of unique solutions,” Adey says.

That’s probably a good thing. The group goes through a lot of trial and error in writing its standards — both for compliance with federal regulations and keeping up with the rapidly changing technology in boats.

The bottom line is keeping boats safe and keeping standards tight to avoid government regulation.

“People like working with ABYC instead of the federal government.” Adey says. “We’re easier to work with — we’re a small organization, so we can change things a lot faster than the federal government.”

Q: Can you tell me how and why you’re trying to reach the public and what benefit ABYC has in that realm?

A: The first assumption everybody makes when buying a boat is that ‘somebody is in charge of making this boat safe for me,’ and it’s kind of a dangerous assumption. They just assume that everyone who builds a boat has some level of competence or some level of knowledge that makes this boat safe.

There are lots of builders that do and some that don’t. We want to make sure … that customers understand there is a standards organization that’s been around since 1954 that good builders use to ensure the product is going to be safe and have the longevity customers expect.

I think the next level is — after you’ve bought this animal — what do you do with it? And that’s where our certified technicians come in. We want the public to not even consider having a boat repaired without using an ABYC-certified tech.

Q: How does your outreach involve manufacturers and dealers?

A: We call it ‘Take the Standards to the Water.’

We started these boat checks this year, where we find a marina that’s a member and has a certified tech, and we invite the public to come out for a day. We have surveyors and certified techs go through the boat with a checklist and [inspect] it for free.

It’s something we want to go nationwide with. We had a nice little trial here in Annapolis at the end of this summer, and we’re going to do it here again this spring. [It’s] a great opportunity for certified techs and boatyards and dealers and it makes them money. If they find problems and those problems are backed up by a standard, then the marinas have a third party telling the customer, “This work has to be done or the boat isn’t safe.”

Q: Can you tell me about new regulations coming regarding electricity on boats?

A: Builders will have to install a device called an ELCI — equipment leakage circuit interrupter. There are several other options. But this particular device is similar to the ground fault circuit interrupter — the GFCI you have in your bathroom. This is just designed for larger amperage application.

Q: So this device can tell if the electricity is going where it’s supposed to go?

A: Correct: That’s the best way to put it. The circuit breaker will trip, and obviously the boat won’t be a problem anymore.

Q: There were a lot of high-profile electrocutions. Has there been an increase?

A: No, I think it’s been fairly steady. The accidents we saw [last] summer were land-based, meaning that a marina or somebody had wired their docks wrong, so I don’t know that the ELCI would’ve protected the boat in those instances. I don’t know if there are more accidents, but I do know there’s more awareness, so investigators are looking a little more deeply than they used to. Instead of just writing certain accidents off as drownings, they’re looking a little further.

Now the land-based guys, the [National Fire Protection Association], the National Electrical Code, have made an attempt to see that marinas are educated on wiring. [The Association of Marina Industries] sent me an email the other day saying they’re interested in getting an electrical fitness document for Clean Marina certification, and that would be huge. We’re going to help them work on that even though ABYC’s responsibility ends at the shore-power cord.

Q: Why were people angry over ELCI?


A: It was a rough implementation because the device didn’t exist before ABYC put it into the standard. It was not an American device. It was a bumpy process. But finally, as of December, it’s ready to go. Manufacturers have started building it, installers have started installing it, so it’s a viable device now.

Q: Isn’t that the case with several of these standards — there’s no solution identified, but it’s determined that something needs to change and the technologies will have to be developed?

A: That’s an excellent point. The first thing your readers should know is that ABYC strives for what we call performance-based standards. I’m going to tell you all of the things an ELCI has to do and we may have a device in mind, but the bottom line is if you come up with a device that meets the criteria and it doesn’t look like the device we had in mind, that’s fine.

It’s the chicken-and-the-egg argument: Do standards drive technology or does technology drive standards? And depending on which standard you’re looking at, it’s both. I would say, in the refueling standard, it was 100 percent that standards drove technology.

When it comes to things like joystick steering and drive by wire and all the new electronic equipment, it’s technology driving standards. So it’s a good mix of both, and the nice thing about the standards process is it’s designed to handle both. Very rarely do we get surprised.

Q: What are some of the challenges with getting the boatbuilders and dealers on board?

A: I think budget and time. There are two distinct [types of] boatbuilders. You have the builders that have lot of experience with varied products and are used to liability issues. They’re used to being sued, so they understand how compliance standards protect them from the fault-finding consumer, which is a relatively new term. Therefore, they budget for standards activities.

Other builders budget for materials and innovation, but when it comes to having a full-time compliance guy on staff [who] can take the time to go to an ABYC meeting [they] don’t see the value in that and they learn too late, unfortunately.

If a boat company gets in a large accident (and there have been several lately), they get sued to the tune of millions of dollars. What they realize a little too late is, had they had a compliance guy on staff who was aware of the federal regulations and the ABYC standards, they would’ve saved a lot of money.

Q: Do high-profile accidents make government oversight and regulation more likely?

A: I know it sounds like a simple answer, but it’s not. ABYC exists to fend off government regulation. That’s why we’re here.

Our clients want less government and less federal interaction. So if we can fend off federal regulations by implementing standards, we’re all better off for it. Federal regulations were implemented in 1971 and remain largely unchanged. The reason you would get involved with ABYC as a manufacturer is to make sure the government doesn’t come and give you more [rules] that can’t change with technology, that become onerous, that become very expensive.

There is a process by which standards do become regulation. The engine cutoff lanyard is a perfect example. Every boatbuilder does it. They’re ready for the regulation. They’re accepting the regulation, and we have handed our standard over to the government to use as part of the regulation. But I’ve been following that one for six years now and it’s still no closer to being a regulation now than it was six years ago. It’s probably one of the easiest regulations possible to pass, and it’s just not passing.

Q: A common complaint is that mandates are written by people who don’t understand the industry they’re trying to regulate.

A: You’re absolutely correct. The EPA is a perfect example of that. They wrote a regulation to address evaporative emissions and we had to write standards to clean up the implementation of that regulation so people wouldn’t die. I don’t want to sound too strong, but if you read the EPA standard at face value and don’t combine it with ABYC standards that were created and/or modified because of that regulation, you wouldn’t have a safe product.

So there are two things. One, write the standard before there’s the possibility of being regulated. And two, in the event you are regulated, make sure you write a standard that makes the regulation a safe implementation.

Q: When the EPA suggests a regulation, I hear that companies involved in the process have a real benefit because they can consult their engineers and if there are issues they can present those to the EPA and work together to find a way that works.

A: They do. And NMMA and John McKnight in the Washington office do a phenomenal job of keeping everyone informed of pending regulation. Then there gets to be a certain point where he calls us and says, ‘We can live with these things, but we need to write a standard to make it palatable.’ That’s where we get involved.

We’re not around to lobby or fight regulatory issues. That’s what you join the NMMA for. You join us to make sure there’s a document that backs up the way you design and build the product. Sometimes boatbuilders get what they want out of a standard, sometimes they don’t, because sometimes the committee doesn’t see safety the same way that a boatbuilder does. It could be more stringent than what they wanted.

We have a good relationship with the EPA, and the nice thing is they know that we will write a standard that will make their regulation useful, and then they will go ahead and incorporate our standard by reference.

Fortunately we’ve had very good people in the regulatory process who’ve worked with us, and that includes the EPA as well as the Coast Guard. I could see how it could go south very quickly if you didn’t have guys like John McKnight and certain compliance folks from major companies involved. They’re all members of ours and all volunteers on our committees.

Q: How else does it benefit OEMs to participate in this process?

A: We did touch on it a little bit when it comes to the liability issue — to protect them from what we’re calling the fault-finding consumer. When money gets tight they get really stingy with their recreation, so when they find a problem with a boat or there’s a small accident, the chances of suing go up. I think from a product liability and safety standpoint, that’s a major reason for an OEM to be involved.

The next one is engineering and design. If you sit in on a meeting you know long before a standard gets implemented that something is going to happen. So you have the opportunity to go back to your engineers and designers to see if you can comply. If you can comply, you can see how much it’s going to cost you; if you can’t comply, you can form your argument so that section of the standard doesn’t get implemented.

Q: After the Fourth of July Silverton accident there were calls for new laws or rules about occupancy. Where does all that stand?

A: Even though I told you we don’t lobby, we can educate. So when [New York Sen. Chuck] Schumer’s office gives us a call, we will educate him on existing standards, educate him on what we’ve done in the past and on the fact that if we did write a stability standard right now, we’re 99.9 percent sure Silverton would’ve passed it.

We try to tell him what we think the cause of the accident is, based on reports we have read, or we may even have someone investigate the accident for us. In that particular case, one thing we’re talking about is whether there should be a capacity on a flybridge. It could say, ‘This flybridge is only designed for six occupants.’

The first thing the Coast Guard did was call us and ask for help. They said, “We can’t do anything about this right away, but maybe you can, and if you do we can take what ABYC says to Congress and tell them we have a trusted source working on this. And once ABYC takes care of it, the boating industry will follow.”

We have one of the largest amounts of compliance among any product line. When we make a standard and the NMMA decides to do the certification to that particular standard, about 85 percent of boats on the water have to comply with that standard. There’s not another industry that I know of that can state that.

That’s one of the things the NMMA uses when it goes to Capitol Hill and talks to the EPA. They report on the fact that standards could affect 85 percent of the boats on the water when the NMMA decides to inspect to it.

So we like to look at things from several angles, not just what the public outcry is.

Do you remember that high-profile accident in Florida with the football player? One senator’s solution was that ‘Help’ should be gelcoated into the bottom of every boat and the bottom should be orange. I asked him, ‘Why don’t we just prevent the boat from flipping over in the first place?’

So we can’t really go with what the public outcry is. We try to walk in and be the voice of reason for when something should be done. We try to offer a viable, engineering-minded solution.

Q: Do you suspect there were too many people on that Silverton flybridge?

A: We don’t know. That accident is still under investigation. When you take a look at boats like that, a common problem is overloading above the center of gravity. I think it was the sea conditions, the inexperience of the skipper. I don’t know what the flybridge capacity was. I don’t think we’ll ever know, but some of the discussions have said maybe we should consider it.

The Europeans have a stability standard. It’s in an ISO document, and it’s very complicated. It seems to change with every accident, and we don’t want to get into that kind of a game. It’s a bad use of resources. We have watched our European neighbors and we’ve learned quite a bit. So we are cautiously researching the issue.

Q: Can you tell me more about ABYC’s educational outreach and certifications?

A: We’ve talked a lot about OEMs, but a big portion of our members are either independent marine mechanics or boatyards that have mechanics. The big thing here is, if you’re a member of ABYC [and have] certified techs, your membership will make you money and will drive people to your location.

ABYC is not something the average boater looks for, but we’re trying to change that. Our certifications are up to the minute and work in concert with OEM certification, so if you’re a Mercury Marine-certified technician, our certification is still valid for you.

We have lots of educational programs for our members. We try to do a good webinar once a month, where people can dial in and learn about various topics. We try to run about 30 physical classes a year to get people certified in our eight different certifications.

Certifications are taught by qualified professionals and it’s third party-recognized. We would like to get it to the level of an ASE-certified mechanic that you would take your car to. When you take your car to an independent guy, you look for certification. We want to get that way.

We’re also looking at regionalizing ABYC to have chapters. What happens in Seattle is applicable in Seattle. And how great would it be if we had a network where members could help out other members?

What’s really unique about our organization is we have OEMs as members as well as certified techs. I had a tech with a question, and I knew the guy who designed the electrical system for Sea Ray. He was able to email his question to the designer, and the technician cut his work time by hours. So it’s a really good resource.

Driving membership is an underlying part of this. We are all about boating safety. We have a great community of volunteers, but we can’t do any of this without our members.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue.



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