The benefits of simple systems

Complex systems can bring all the comforts of home to your yacht- if, that is, you can afford to install and maintain them. For those of us with budgets to watch, simpler electrical and mechanical systems can- if properly designed- be a major cost and time saver aboard ship.

Fix-it-yourself may be a necessity

Among the many boaters whose exploits I follow are a couple of online friends who are currently fighting a recalcitrant outboard. Cranky outboards are a familiar situation to virtually all boaters, but for land-locked folks, there's usually a local mechanic we can turn to when things break. Cruising sailors usually have to do most of the work themselves.

One of the big advantages of simple systems like those small outboards is that you can do the work yourself. The lower unit removal and reinstallation that my friends down south are currently performing is rather fiddly until you get the hang of it, but it doesn't require any special tools, computers, engine-specific training, or prayers to Mecca under a full moon at solstice. Moderate mechanical background, standard hand tools, and the ability to read a shop manual without getting too frustrated are usually enough to (perhaps after a beer or three and a trip to the parts depot) finish the job.

The same cannot be said for many of the more complicated components of modern boats. An electronically controlled turbodiesel is a reliable, efficient beast, but troubleshooting and repairing it in an emergency can be a difficult procedure requiring intimate knowledge of the thing's computerized controls and the algorithmic decision-making process embedded in that little black box, not to mention specialized proprietary tools to communicate with it. Even a tech-savvy owner would likely not know where to start. As systems become more complex, the pool of talent that knows how to repair them grows smaller, and therefore more expensive.

Complexity in other systems can be a much more frustrating problem than it is with engines. An engine is a costly, critical component backed by a large worldwide company; the engineering and post-sale support resources that go into it are necessarily substantial. But there are other costly components aboard a complex modern yacht that don't have the same level of engineering support behind them, and whose manufacturers may not be available to help when things go wrong. I would hazard a guess that few, if any of my readers would be able to rebuild or replace more than half of the systems on this list without professional help:

  • Air conditioning compresser
  • Reverse osmosis watermaker
  • Forced-air diesel heater
  • 12V/120V synchronous inverter/charger
  • Stabilizer hydraulic pump
  • Two-station nav computer with several multi-function displays
  • Networked radar, fishfinder, speed/depth instruments, wind sensor, GPS receiver, AIS and VHF
  • Engine-to-network communications bridge
  • Windlass
  • Electric toilet
  • Shorepower isolation transformer
  • Autopilot drive

That's just a fraction of the stuff that is now standard equipment on many "simple" modern boats. A fully decked-out modern rig might have multiple refrigerators, a computerized distributed power bus, $100,000 of navigation electronics, eight complete plumbing systems (hot and cold fresh water, grey and black water, salt water, fuel, hydraulic and lube oil), dozens of networked sensors hidden throughout the boat, and hundreds of pages of (often incomplete) documentation on what's hooked up where.

If you're going to rely on it, you'd better be able to fix it. Buying something more complex than you can understand means you'll be perpetually paying other people to fix it for you.

Less to fix = more time (and money) to enjoy

It is certainly possible to design complex, high-luxury systems that don't take an inordinate amount of time to maintain. Dashew motor yachts are famous for this approach; while they offer all the technological conveniences of a nice home on land, each piece of equipment is selected as part of a carefully engineered system that's designed to operate efficiently and reliably. Steve D'Antonio recently wrote a lengthy piece in ProBoat (June '12 p34) illustrating how it's possible, if you carefully think it all through, to develop complex, elaborate and luxurious modern systems without sacrificing reliability.

More often than not, though, buyers' demands for more modern conveniences are met by builders simply adding equipment. This leads to the sort of amusing (to us, at least) stories Bill Bishop is always finding, where stuff simply doesn't fit and perfectly functional gear has to be dismantled to reach failed equipment behind it.

I'm pretty much convinced that this happens not because builders and installers are malevolent, but rather because they simply don't have the time and money to do it properly. Creating a properly engineered design for a complex, integrated network of systems is expensive. It takes time, it takes a lot of communication, and it racks up billable hours for highly qualified professionals who bill at professional rates. The client won't see the benefit of all that office work until a few years later when repair bills start showing up, but he'll see the fat figure on the builder's invoice right away.

If you, as a client, ease up on the demands for all those complex gadgets and are willing to settle for simpler systems, what happens?

  • The engineering time needed to make a good design is reduced. (Saves you money now.)
  • Less equipment needs to be purchased. (Saves you money now.)
  • More time, money and effort can be put into the most important systems, making them more reliable. (Saves you time and money later.)
  • There is more space to work around the systems that you do choose to have installed, making maintenance easier. (Saves you or your mechanic time later.)
  • There are fewer things on board that can break, therefore there are fewer things that do break. If it's not there to begin with, you can't lose two weeks in port waiting for its spare parts to be shipped in from overseas. (Saves you time and money later.)

Where my opinions fall this year

Consider four very general categories:

  1. Simple and poorly engineered (many low-end boats today)
  2. Complex and poorly engineered (many modern mid-size to large boats)
  3. Simple and robustly engineered (rare in production, but there are a few builders who take this path)
  4. Complex and robustly engineered (some custom / limited run builders)

My preference is for option 3 in my own use case and for most of the folks I correspond with who are out there on the water. Only if a client wanted all the luxuries of home, and were willing to pay for them (in both time and money) over the life of the boat, would I recommend option 4- and, to be fair, there are some people who fall in that category. Complex and poorly engineered, though, is a disaster that I believe clients and builders alike must strenuously avoid, while being a total cheapskate- option 1- usually bites you in the butt later.

To elaborate further: I do not believe a salesman, builder or designer should recommend, nor should a client purchase, a system that is more elaborate or complex than is necessary to meet the client's needs. A dual-voltage distributed power bus with multiple synchronous inverters, for example, would be expensive overkill on a boat whose crew are trying to cruise for as long as they can on a fixed amount of money. Similarly, it would be irresponsible to specify or install a system that is inadequate for the intended service- a cheap underpowered anchor windlass, for example, on a boat that relies on her anchor every day.

One size doesn't necessarily fit all

There are some folks, like the crew of s/v Easy Go, who are quite happy with minimal electrical or mechanical assistance. Other folks like their four air conditioners, three fridges, and 300-channel satellite feeds to their retractable plasma TVs.

If you fall in the second category and like the idea of paying for that kind of equipment, more power to you. Your expenditures keep many technicians, dockmasters, couriers, insurance agents and gadget salespeople gainfully employed along our lake and ocean coasts.

If you aren't swimming in investment income, though, the boat-buying process should include a harsh, honest look at just what you really need to be comfortable and what you hope to do when you're out on the water. For example:

  • Would you rather listen to a generator or to the evening birds?
  • Do you really need air conditioners, or would you be OK with more natural ventilation and less clothing?
  • Do you want that fancy nav computer for navigation, or for showing off to your buddies?
  • How much time are you willing to spend hanging around the customs dock waiting for spare parts to arrive, versus hanging around at anchor in the cove of your choice?
  • If you have a fixed purchase budget, would you rather have a lot of fragile chintzy equipment (some essential, some not), or fewer pieces of really high quality essential equipment?
  • How much longer could you cruise for if you spend $20,000 less on gadgets?
  • Which is more important- the time you spend out on the water, or the toys you play with while you're out there?



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