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Q&A with John Adey

President, American Boat and Yacht Council
ABYC president John Adey emphasizes that environmental standards in boating must be balanced with operational safety.

ABYC president John Adey emphasizes that environmental standards in boating must be balanced with operational safety.

Since 1954, the nonprofit American Boat and Yacht Council has developed safety standards for boat design, construction, equipage, repair and maintenance. Soundings Trade Only caught up with longtime ABYC president John Adey to discuss how the council’s standards have evolved with regard to sustainability, environmental protection in recreational boating, and the supply chain. We spoke with Adey just after Memorial Day, a time of year when boaters get on the water and certified marine technicians need clarifications from ABYC about challenges they are encountering.

ABYC was also preparing to publish its Standards and Technical Information with Supplement No. 62, which Adey described as “gigantic.” It is due out in July.

What forces are making sustainability and environmental concerns a priority, and how much are stakeholders emphasizing those things?

When it comes to writing engineering standards, one thing that I think ABYC does really well through our technical department is we try not to add constraints. Constraints to new technology, constraints to innovation, constraints to what customers want on a boat. What we try to do is create a floor of safety. And that might sound negative, but it’s not. We want to make sure that there is a baseline level of safety for everyone that gets into the recreational boat market, whether it be a boat manufacturer and accessory manufacturer, or a repair technician.

You can always adhere to the ABYC standards, but then also far exceed them. When it comes to the sustainability environmental considerations, we have to be the gatekeepers for safety. ABYC has to be top of mind when it comes to actually trying to get those initiatives onto the water or in the hands of the boaters.

Really good examples are early on in my career here, working with the Environmental Protection Agency, coming up with things like permeation rating for fuel hoses. The EPA has an idea that they want to reduce emissions from hydrocarbon fuels. How are they going to do that? They’re going to try to capture more of the emissions in the boat’s fuel system itself, so, major changes to the fuel systems came a number of years ago. What the EPA proposed was going to create an unsafe product, and they just didn’t know enough about the boat itself.

How do you balance the needs for safety and innovation?

On the tech side, we really work with our volunteers. We have over 700 volunteers that work on our various committees, and we get all aspects of what the problem might be and how it can be solved. ABYC isn’t necessarily on the forefront, driving the environmental changes. That’s not what we do. We want to make sure that when the environmental change is proposed, that all of our partners work together to make sure that we have a very safe proposal. And it’s worked successfully over ABYC’s history since 1954. Balancing that need for change or environmental conservancy or whatever the topic may be, and the need for safety and reliability on board the boat. That’s kind of the groundwork that ABYC does.

And then you get all sorts of different innovators that come out and they say, “Hey, we want to create this particular product or the customer wants the radio controls on the transom of the boat where carbon monoxide may accumulate, is that a good idea?” Absolutely not! And how can a standard not be so specific that it says, “Thou shall not have radio controls on the back of the boat”? But how can a standard be general enough where if someone tries to innovate, the standard doesn’t handcuff them and not allow them to create a new product or create something that’s really going to change boating and increase that customer satisfaction?

It seems as if a lot of times, people may not even realize ABYC had an impact on the way something works.

It’s tough to see what we’ve done. I’ll give you a quick example: We just bought a new sailboat. It’s a 2000 Catalina 320. We’ve been out of sailing for a number of years, when I sold my last boat. And my daughter comes popping out of the companionway and she trips over the sill. The sill height from the companionway of the cockpit’s not that big. And she goes, “Why is that thing so big?”

Well, it’s large because it’s an ISO category A boat, and it needs a sill height high enough to keep a bunch of water in the cockpit without having a stability issue. So she looks right at me, she goes, “So this is your fault.” I said, “No. I’m not necessarily on that committee, but that’s why it is what it is.”

Every time you go ahead and you pull a neutral safety lever to go into forward on a boat, that’s because of ABYC, and there’s documented reasons behind that. So from my line of work, it’s actually fascinating. To the boater, they don’t care at all. They just deal with it. The builder is really the one that’s kind of caught in the middle, because they’re the ones that want to get product out there.

They want to be safe and reliable. But when it comes to making sure that they source the proper things, companies that are familiar with ABYC, companies that know that their build pump meets our build pump standards, or their water tank meets our water tank standards, there’s a lot of looking that has to be done by the builder.

How has classroom training for technicians changed based on sustainability priorities?

I think the perfect example for that is the EPA fuel systems. If you remember the old-school way of filling a boat, you would wait till the gasoline spit out the vent, right? And you saw the rainbow on the water, and that’s when you knew 100 percent that your fuel tank was full and it was time to move on and close it up and stop putting fuel in it. Not acceptable, obviously. We don’t want that for the environment. The boater doesn’t want the embarrassment of having a big rainbow around their boat. And then, obviously, the EPA would like to make it so it’s just like a car, when you fill it, it clicks the automatic shutoff on the pump, and it leaves a safe level of fuel in the tank.

So, the systems went from very simple — a vent and a fill hose — to incredibly complicated. They had a carbon canister in some aspects. They had a number of valves that would ensure the shutoff at the proper level in the tank. When these weren’t working properly, we had lots of people calling in, and they were drilling holes in different parts of the components, because it would let some air in and it would allow it to fill more. From our perspective, when things like that happen, you have to get that information in the hands of the technician that’s going to go work on it.

Because this isn’t necessarily specific to one brand of boat, right? This is a wholesale change to the entire industry. And ABYC can teach it through our certification classes and make sure that people aren’t drilling holes in critical components. Also, we have the ability now with our work with high schools and post-secondary schools, basically tech schools, to get that in the hands of the young people that are going to come in and help us sustain our industry from this point forward.

More training might be needed after that, right?

We give the standard to boat company A, boat company B and boat company C. Because of the way our standards are written, they can interpret it different ways. They can choose to skin the cat any number of ways, as long as they comply with the standard. So that’s when you might need to go to a specific manufacturer to get trained, but for our training, it’s all generic. This is basically how an automatic shutoff’s going to work on a fuel tank. And then each manufacturer will take it and add their stamp to it and do it the way that it fits their manufacturing process.

Do you perceive a cultural change in the ways boatbuilders, engineers and surveyors approach their work around sustainability and pollution prevention?

One of the biggest things we’re seeing now is cooperation. In the old days, you had a boat company, and on the loading dock would arrive 10 different boxes. And those boxes were from 10 different manufacturers. One could be an engine, one could be a fuel tank, one could be a head, one could be a box of navigation lights. And at that point, basically you’re on your own. You assemble these components, and you put them where they need to be. But in the last, I’d say six, eight years, the shift is toward a lot of cooperation, where you actually have an engine representative in some of the larger boatbuilders, because they have to be there to make sure that everything’s installed properly.

So you have a lot of partnership especially with the electrification of products, where it’s really an integrator type of deal. There’s a lot of collaboration in the marine industry, which we didn’t have before.

How is industry consolidation playing into this change?

Large companies are buying up all these smaller companies. When they see innovations that are really going to make their product shine, or it’s going to add some serious clout to what they’re doing, they just buy the company. From our standpoint, that’s tough, right? Really tough. Because we go from having six members to now having two, but it’s still the same amount of work that we do, and the same amount of standards development that we do.

But I think from a boater perspective, from the end user, it creates a really great cohesive product that is under control of one company instead of saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, that particular product, you have to go to another company to get the warranty taken care of, or you have to do this to get the warranty taken care of.” Now, you have a company that can really enhance the repairability and the responsibility of that particular product, so that the owner doesn’t have to go to 10 different people and try to get it done.

Now from the repair side, it’s tough, because I used to be able to go and price shop. Now, three or four are owned by the same company. So really, what am I getting, and what am I allowed to do, and what are my choices here? So there’s good and bad to the consolidation of the industry. I think from a boater perspective, it’s probably a good thing. From an ABYC perspective, depending on how we can negotiate memberships, it could be good or bad.

What did ABYC have to do with the new standard coming out this summer for lithium-ion batteries?

Electrification of the industry was something that was kind of a hobby maybe eight, 10 years ago, where you had these small electrification experts that would take different boat styles, and they would create different methods of getting electric propulsion in them to people who didn’t mind spending the money. But now, you’re talking about mainstream, you’re following the cars. And each manufacturer is tackling things separately. The one common denominator right now is lithium is the power of choice for today. But it’s changing so rapidly that in five years, I don’t know that we’ll be talking lithium anymore. We might be talking about something else. We’ll be talking about something that’s got greater capacity with less weight. But for lithium, it was abundantly important that ABYC got a standard out there that would preclude manufacturers from putting something that was going to cause a really big problem on boats.

How challenging was it to create that standard?

We are now confident that the lithium technology has leveled out enough that we have enough information to be able to say, “You must do these certain things in order to create a safe lithium product.” Lithium is in the news. Every several months, you’ll get something on it. The hoverboard that blew up or somebody’s vape pen caught on fire in their pocket. And we don’t want to be a headline. So we have some bare minimum things that you need to do with lithium. And again, they don’t handcuff the manufacturers when it comes to being able to innovate a little bit. You need a battery management system. You need a way to make sure that the cells never get to the point where they’re in what they call thermal runaway and catch on fire. That management system is critical.

The unknowing boat owner can definitely still hurt themselves, but if it’s a quality product and it’s made from a known manufacturer and follows the ABYC standard, then I don’t think lithium is an issue in recreational boating. But again, you’re always going to find somebody that wants to do something on the cheap, or is not well-informed, and they’ll do something, and then lithium becomes a headline.

Another big challenge is aquatic invasive species. What is ABYC’s thinking about that issue?

The genesis of us dealing with aquatic invasive species goes right back to our vision, which is we want to maximize customer satisfaction with the boating experience. And in talking to some of the fish and wildlife [agencies] and looking at some photos and videos of 100 trucks and trailers waiting to get into a beautiful waterway because they had to be inspected for aquatic invasive species, or they had to decontaminate when they came out. A lot of pressure was put on ABYC to get involved. What really got us interested was we started hearing claims from various engine manufacturers that the flushing process that was happening at the launch ramps was actually damaging some of the engines.

Because we went to onboard computers, we now have a very similar onboard diagnostic [OBD] to what a car has. You could plug in a scanner, and you can look at a few things. And a lot of warranting claims were happening on some of the lakes where they were doing a really hot flush of an engine. And the temperature may have been higher than what the engine is used to seeing, so you end up with a red flag in the OBD system, and it has to go back to the dealer. We started realizing that the people that were doing the decontamination were not ever speaking to the people that were building the engines or the boats.

We decided at that point that using Fish and Wildlife Service funds and their resources, we could actually make those two groups meet. And it was a really, really good meeting out in Las Vegas. Biologists had never spoken to an engine manufacturer. And manufacturers had never spoken to biologists. So you start talking to biologists who are saying, “Oh, all you have to do is use this particular chemical, and that’s going to kill everything that’s in the cooling system.” And then you have the engineer that comes forward and says, “Well, if you do that, you’re going to deteriorate the impellers and we’re going to have boat failures all over the place.”

It resulted in the boatbuilder, for the first time, looking at things like, maybe I ought to make my freshwater intake accessible. Or maybe I should color code it so that everybody will know that this is where fresh water goes in. Maybe I should make it easier to hook up to some kind of flush. Maybe I should put on there that the temperature shouldn’t exceed 185 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a number of things that started to happen. Maybe the bilge plug should actually be at the lowest point of the boat, and it shouldn’t leave that teacup of water in there that can harbor thousands of aquatic invasive species.

What are the next steps with engines, emissions and recreational boating?

Catalytic converters have been in cars since the 1970s. Why did it take till 2011 or so to get them on boats? Again, it’s a safety issue. If you park a car over a pile of dead leaves, you might have a fire with a catalytic converter because it’s so hot. Imagine trying to manage that in a small engine compartment on a boat. A lot of work was done trying to figure out all of the things surrounding a catalytic converter. It was finally done.

From just a fuel standpoint, taking a look at E15 and E85 and all of the strides that have been made in trying to get more ethanol in fuel: Can the engines handle it? And how are the engine manufacturers going to design the longevity with traditional fuels for the new blended fuels? That’s always going to be an issue until we actually figure out what’s going to end up in the fuel.

And you just hope in the next five years, there isn’t some other chemical that’s going to come out. Which is again driving people toward electrification, right? Because we don’t have to worry about this. I don’t have to worry about sludge and fuel tanks from too much alcohol. I don’t have to worry about water and fuel tanks. But can our infrastructure support the amount of electrification we may end up having?

We’re the ones that clean up on aisle five when the EPA or somebody proposes something that just isn’t going to work. We do it based on science, and we do it based on accidents, and we do it based on engineering. That’s really our role, and we’ve done it really, really well.

When you look out toward the next few years, what excites you?

Recycling, changes in resins, changes in construction types. Even though ABYC doesn’t have much to do with that, there is a groundswell of changing the actual base materials of the boat, so that they’re easier to recycle and can be disposed of properly. If you’ve driven around South Florida at all, you see derelict boats all over the place. You see them in the marshes here in Maryland. People don’t know what to do with them, so they just untie them off the trailer and step on the gas and there it sits on the side of the road.

Can the initial construction process be more friendly to the recycling market afterwards? Of course. That’s going to be a long ways off till we see that.

The other thing is, the customer wants to feel like they’re environmentally friendly when they’re boating. They don’t want to see the smoke coming out of their engines. They don’t want any of that. I do think there is a certain market, a certain boat type and a certain boater’s activities that will absolutely thrive under the electrification process. And our job in that is just again to make sure it’s safe.

I also want to see a little bit more integration between the RV side and the boating side. We’re basically looking at similar product, right? We’re using similar manufacturers. We’re using the same products in a number of places. Can we make it so that the RV numbers, which are huge, can benefit from the work that ABYC is doing so that it ends up being cheaper in the long run for the boating side as well? 

John Adey, President, American Boat and Yacht Council

John Adey, President, American Boat and Yacht Council

This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.

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