Ghostbusters in the Machine

As the yachting world expands, surveyors are being asked to act like medicine men.

You've all heard the stories: the used boat deal that turned out to be too good to be true; a new yacht rushed to completion just before the holidays, with unpleasant surprises that kept on giving long past Christmas. Then there are the hauntings: unlikely breakdowns, enigmatic electrical problems, inexplicable sounds or odors

For at least a century, most yacht purchasers have guarded against these gremlins with thorough pre-purchase surveys. But lately other kinds of issues have come up: In Ft. Lauderdale recently, a respected marine surveyor was asked to co-survey a large motoryacht with a guru. The issue? The boat's karma.

This is no isolated instance. As the yachting world expands, members of different cultures bring different customs to the drafting table. Just asking around the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, I heard stories of yachts being checked out by Vedic, feng shui, Taoist and Reiki practitioners. Sure, the more Socratic of us are likely to trust an accredited surveyor rather than the local shaman, but in a way I'm sympathetic. It's easy for the average yachtsman to feel intimidated by the systems needed to run the average large yacht.

Maybe that's where the mysticism comes in. As new boats become more complex and used boats are layered with modifications and revisions, marine surveyors have become increasingly important. Like a high priest, a surveyor must often manage multiple experts-think of them as oracles-in order to check engines, electrical circuits, electronics and air-conditioning. Frequently he's the only judge of how and where systems overlap. He's… a guru.

Surveys aren't just pre-purchase inspections, either. They're useful during new construction or refits, to assess repairs from collisions or hurricane damage, or even to resolve annoying vibrations or unwanted noises. When you consider the entire skill set required, maybe we shouldn't dismiss out of hand the idea that there might be a place for seagoing higher powers, psychic energies or soothsaying tea leaves.

So that's reason enough to take a look at karma. Basically the concept that "what goes around, comes around, karma seems the core issue when choosing a surveyor. Typically you seek recommendations from fellow yachtsmen, yacht brokers or insurance and loan agents. A boater you know well whose yacht is similar to the one you want surveyed may indeed give you the best lead or warn you off a bad apple. But a good surveyor for a seller may be bad for a buyer-and vice versa. "Don't use that S.O.B. surveyor so-and-so, might really mean, "I'd been letting the maintenance slide on my boat while it was for sale, and that guy caught every last thing.

The same holds true with brokers, who may know the issues common to a certain boat, or a particular engine brand, and be able to recommend just the right experts. Many strive to build longtime relationships and can be valuable resources. But there's also a possible conflict of interest-the surveyor may feel beholden to the broker for work, may see his job as promoting sales-and that is certainly one recipe for bad karma.

But karma can cut both ways. If you've been shopping the Internet to save a few bucks and jumping from broker to broker, don't be too surprised if you get burned. What comes around, goes around. That's why, in the end, I would ask for recommendations from insurance agents or loan officers. They have less at stake if the deal goes south, and read enough surveys to know which are thorough.

Once you have a list of surveyors, ask pertinent questions: Does the surveyor regularly inspect similar boats? Possess the ultrasound equipment and expertise necessary for aluminum or steel hulls? Have experience with cold-molded sportfishing boats? Check credentials too. Surveyors aren't licensed, but if they're serious about their chosen profession they should be accredited by the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS), the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) or one of the newer societies.

Having made a case for karma, it's easier to turn to feng shui, which draws from Taoist beliefs that the universe is controlled by interactions of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The feng shui expert balances the yin and yang of these elements by arranging living space to allow free movement of energy. Feng shui experts are regularly consulted, and not just in China.

With so many yachts being built in Asia, it's not surprising that feng shui would catch on at sea, too. Removing clutter, a feng shui tenet, is a basic rule of seamanship. And while surveyors don't ordinarily check energy flow, they do check to see if emergency exits are blocked by furniture, carpet or sunpads. Because in feng shui water represents money, leaks are considered wasted money, which certainly holds true with yachts.

So far, so good. Dare we try Reiki?

Like feng shui, Reiki places great importance on energy flow. Scientists and surveyors do not disagree. Airborne pressure waves caused by vibrations will travel freely on boats, and sometimes resonate-i.e., produce sound-in objects far from their source. A vibration in a noisy engineroom may not be noticeable but can emerge through a fighting chair, a flying bridge sole or even a refrigerator door.

Whether the ghost is an annoying rattle or makes the whole boat shake, Seaworthy Services in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., can find and eliminate it, measuring a vibration's frequency with sensors. A damaged five-bladed propeller, for example, will produce a vibration at five times the shaft speed, while a bent shaft will vibrate exactly at shaft speed. Engine or exhaust vibrations also have signatures, varying on the number of cylinders, and whether the engine is two-stroke or four. After a sleepless night on the hook aboard a 48-foot express cruiser, I discovered that generator exhaust out the stern caused the master bed to quiver in the bow. Moving the exhaust a few feet eliminated the problem.

Reiki practitioners believe that the life energy that flows through everything must be aligned periodically or its power will be reduced. To do so, they work on clearing "chakras, focal points or bottlenecks in the body. This is close enough to what a specialist like Maine Diagnostics in Ft. Lauderdale will do for a boat that is underperforming, only it uses aerospace technology to find the missing energy. Postage stamp-sized strain gauges (chakras, in other words) are glued to propeller shafts to measure twist, calculate horsepower and analyze shaft compression, which measures thrust, which takes into account propeller design.

In the end, of course, I am not going to recommend that anyone substitute any mystical system for a good surveying job. After all, few people turn toward religion, traditional or otherwise, to prepare their taxes. Whatever the cause of a boat's ills, a good surveyor applies basic principles to identify and help resolve them. Still, I'd like to think that most religions and spiritual practices, traditional or otherwise, come back to simple understandings about treating people with respect and living in harmony. Can they really help with yachts? Who knows? Maybe sacrificing a chicken is the answer to that persistent squawk on the radio. If it is, and if that makes me a New Age guru, hey, I'll take it. The beads are kinda groovy.

When to Call a Surveyor

New boats should be surveyed either at delivery or during construction, and again just before the warranty expires. But those shouldn't be the only times you call in an expert.

A thorough survey may uncover problems even the most experienced yachtsman isn't aware of. In one example, an engine with barely 300 hours was running fine, but the surveyor found the beginnings of a crack in a piston liner, which was repaired. Several months later, a follow-up inspection showed the same crack; the surveyor deduced a latent defect in the engine block that required a new engine.

Survey if you are contemplating adding audio-visual, air-conditioning or other electrical equipment. Recently, a custom stereo installer without marine experience improperly drew power from the same circuit as a boat's engine controls. A few weeks later the skipper cranked up the tunes while docking and the subsequent voltage drop disabled the engines. The resulting crash provided much more thump than the new subwoofers. Make sure that lifestyle and entertainment choices don't impinge on seaworthiness. The right expert can find the flaw in the air-conditioning long before it ruins your vacation, and in improperly installed inverters, which can lay low in "sleep mode with no perceivable current until an unsuspecting repairman touches the wrong wire.

Survey as you plan any interior renovations or additions. It's no simple thing to replace carpeting, knock out walls or enclose spaces on board a yacht. It's a good idea to involve marine contractors from the get-go. You don't want to install heavy furniture or appliances without giving thought to access, balance and motion in a seaway. Even the installation of fine art must be thought through: Tales of flying sculptures threatening decapitation during storms are not all apocryphal.