Editorial June 1, 1999 Issue

All That ‘Stuff’

It’s crazy. All the “stuff” you can put on a boat these days. GPS chartplotters, tactical computers, propane barbecues, automatic anchor light switches, tank gauges, watermakers, electric winch handles, radar detectors, alarms for high water, full holding tanks, freighters and thieves. Gizmos galore. The 1999 West Marine Master Catalog is 888 pages, and they’re fairly selective in what they carry.

Where does it stop?

The fact is, you can’t have everything, though a lot of sailors seem to be trying their darnedest to.

I look out the window of my office in the Ted Hood Marine Complex in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and see a lot of blue, tin buildings. Within range of a monkey’s fist are riggers, sailmakers, refrigeration experts, electronics whizzes, liferaft and survival pros, gas and diesel mechanics, plumbing specialists. When the light grows dim, I can almost imagine them as soldiers bivouacked in large tents, support personnel for the grunts on the front line of a great war.

In reality, it’s the war against equipment failure.

All of these people are here to fix things that you and I can’t.

With labor rates of $60 per hour, they aren’t working on many boats like mine. Mostly, it seems, they work on big or at least expensive yachts that have all “the stuff.” Their livings come not just from selling and installing “the stuff,” but from repairing it when the inevitable failures occur. Load the boat with $50,000 of new “stuff” in the spring, take the summer cruise to Maine where the interface between the laptop, autopilot and wind instrument breaks down in a small wire, transistor, chip or because of some arcane incompatibility that no one can diagnose, bring the boat back to Portsmouth, and have it fixed in time for the delivery skipper to move the boat south for the winter.

Chi-ching.

In this issue, Editor at Large Nick Nicholson laments the failure of his 12-volt watermaker. Practically every boat he has met in the Pacific Ocean has one, he says. They run three to five grand. Gotta have one. And when it quits, beat feet to the nearest island with bountiful springs, no matter how far away it may be. Then his mini-M craps out. No e-mail for six weeks.

Is this what modern cruising has come to? If it exists, we have to have it?

‘Fraid so, folks.

Fifteen years ago, when Dale Nouse and I were at Cruising World, we published an article by a fellow who explained why he chose not to have a single-sideband radio (SSB). It was not that he didn’t appreciate the safety aspects of being able to contact help in an emergency, rather he just didn’t like the idea of being in touch all the time. He went to sea so he wouldn’t be in touch. With an SSB, he said, “it’s just not the same experience.”

I’ve always remembered that line; often during the seven years I lived aboard. Never had one phone call soliciting credit cards, my alma mater’s annual fund or the fraternal order of police charity softball game. In fact, not one phone call period. I loved it!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with anyone designing and making all “the stuff.” If you can conceive it, someone will make it. And they will come and buy it. Fine. It makes me feel good to see all the gainfully employed minions out in those blue tin buildings. They like what they do and I’m glad there are people who can afford to pay them.

At the same time it worries me that “the rest of us” are being seduced into believing we need things for our boats that we really don’t. Because once you have the “stuff” you insist upon it working. That’s man’s nature. So when it fails you get anxious and bitchy until it’s fixed. If that means altering your plans to have repairs made, that’s what you’ll do. Which hardly seems like the freedom that sailing is supposed to be about.

—Dan Spurr

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