Seeking Reliable Service

You don't need a computer chip to unclog a filter.

Steve Haefele illustration
Yachtsmen would simply push a button, and a satellite-sourced voice would promise a free tow and a late-model loaner until your ride was returned. Steve Haefele

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My damn phone never stops ringing. I’m going undercover,” my pal Ed grumbled. Ed has earned a reputation as one of the marine industry’s best yacht-systems experts. He stopped advertising years ago and now drives a plain, unmarked van.

“If I’m within sight of a marina, they hail me like a taxicab,” Ed groused.

Ed’s experience made me think about a scolding I’d endured from a visionary industry pal in the 1990s. He hadn’t been keen on a column I’d written promoting self-reliance at sea. It had included an image of me toiling in my steaming-hot engine room. He insisted that boats would soon be as reliable as subcompact cars, and that white-glove marine service would be the industry standard.

“Well, the guy had a vision problem,” Ed grunted. “I’d like whatever they’re pumping through the ventilation ducts at corporate headquarters.”

My industry pal’s vision was that if there were a mechanical problem, there’d be no more need to look under the hood. Yachtsmen would simply push a button, and a satellite-sourced voice would promise a free tow and a late-model loaner until your ride was returned, fit as a fiddle and detailed to perfection. During rare boatyard visits, you could relax in the customer lounge, sipping lattes and nibbling on scones.

The marine industry has worked hard to fulfill my pal’s vision and has had some success. Boatbuilders and equipment manufacturers have chased reliability with computer chips, and a new generation of plug-and-play shoppers is touching screens, reading glass cockpits and wiggling joysticks. In many cases, boatyards are far more approachable; they no longer look like Superfund sites. The problem is the boating environment and lifestyle: Electronic devices prefer salt-free chips, and mechanical devices need regular exercise.

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Given the complexity of new boats, some people believe that even if an owner were willing to read a manual, modern marine systems are too much for hands-on types to tangle with; that those who are qualified to sort out today’s high-tech systems no longer wear grease-stained boiler suits and turn wrenches; and that modern marine technicians rely on a computer and carry a tool bag stuffed with data port adapters.

Ed has a different take: “BS. There should be a witness-protection program for the dumb ‘smart systems’ I’ve seen. You don’t need a computer to find a leak or a clogged filter.”

He arms customers with spare parts and tools that can often save a cruise by keeping the air-conditioning and beer cold, the head empty, and the generator and engine running.

If you’re interested in white-glove service, don’t call Ed. It’ll be three months before he can get to you in shorts and a T-shirt, and there’s no loaner.

Years back, my industry pal moved to another industry, and I’ve heard he’s done well. Obviously, his vision has improved.

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