The Virtual Boatbuilder

You can put together a car on the Web, so why not a yacht?

Like many passionate yachtsmen, I am also something of a car nut. When I am not dreaming of new recreational marine transportation, my mind often drifts to fun on four wheels. As a yacht designer who has fussed for thousands of hours over a single arrangement plan, taking a few moments to "build a car" online, as some manufacturers allow, is something of a perverted pleasure. So why can't we do the same with boats?

In these competitive times, yacht manufacturers are thinking outside the box, conceiving new, more effective ways to bring boats and boaters together. Given their efforts, yachtsmen surely are on the cusp of benefiting from recent leaps in consumer technology. That's right: Get your password, make your selections, click the shopping basket and prepare to check out.

Squeezing profit out of a new boat can be as challenging as making three cents on a roll of toilet paper. With material and labor costs on the rise and a busy brokerage market to compete with, the marine industry would be remiss if it did not consider a more efficient distribution system. Think about it: You would no longer waste time haggling with a salesperson over a sunburned rag left over on the lot. You could simply build your boat online and buy her factory-direct.

Performance and entertainment systems could be bundled into signature packages (the Coyle edition?). Specifying the important stuff, such as the number of berths, could be as simple as choosing between a two-door and a hatchback. Why tangle with a moody decorator? Interior and exterior trim packages could be reconstituted into pleasant, easy-to-digest flavors. Project management would be left in the hands of the builder-where it belongs-and captains would not have command until the keys were in the ignition.

After you've built your boat and finalized your selections, your order would be transmitted seamlessly to Boulder, Colorado, for processing, and you would receive a confirmation by e-mail: "Your order will ship in three business days." The bits and pieces needed to assemble your dream would come together efficiently, at a factory positioned strategically in a distant economic-development zone. Delivery to your nearest certified retail outlet by FedEx or UPS would follow.

Tear open the shrink-wrap, pop the cork on the christening kit, and take a few moments to read the detailed owner's manual online. Need extra help? No need to wait for service; just log on to the product-support forums to get the advice of specialists. If you're lazy, pick up the phone. After a few minutes of pushing buttons to music, a charming fellow will read the manual for you.

Sounds crazy, huh? Well, so did boats built of glass thread and resin. In fact, some of these ideas are already becoming reality in the marine marketplace. Even so, wise manufacturers know that for most people, boating-unlike driving-is an unnecessary passion that requires commitment. Delivering superior customer care is high on their agenda.

I may someday build a boat on the Web, but I won't double-click until I know that the manufacturer and dealer will support me not just online, but on water.