Editorial May 1, 2001 Issue

Hey, It’s Your Old Pal

When you’re an editor with one of the glossy sailing magazines, marine manufacturers are always glad to see you. You’re working for the readers, but rarely at the expense of an advertiser or a potential advertiser. It’s not the same when you work exclusively for the readers. When I went to the Miami boat show this year I was a bit taken aback to find that my Practical Sailor name tag brought some ill will as well as praise — bitter ill will in a couple of cases, even from old friends.

When the marine manufacturers win, they like us. They post copies of our articles in conspicuous places. When they don’t win, it can be tough on both their pride and their business, and they, in turn, can be tough on us. Sometimes they take a second- or third-place finish in stride. Sometimes they thank us for pointing out deficiencies and head back to the drawing board. But sometimes they tell us we’ve tested wrong, or didn’t ask the right questions, and we don’t know what we’re talking about.

The readers almost never suffer as a result of this love-hate relationship. The readers (aka “the customers”) almost always benefit, and that’s the main point of the exercise.

A couple of other points: First, the boatbuilding and gear manufacturing industries have been in and out of a crucible in the last 15 years, and may be headed into another one. As a result of economic heat, manufacturers of truly lousy products don’t last long. Most of the major systems of larger sailboats — hull and appendages, steering, standing and running rigging, deck hardware, engines — are of respectable quality today. Structurally, most modern boats are up to the worst that 95% of the sailors on the water will ever put them through. The devil, however, is in the details — electronics, plumbing, finish work, materials, and the host of odds and ends that can make sailing pleasant or unpleasant, safe or dangerous.

The choices that Practical Sailor makes are, we hope, clearly defined in a framework of utility, cost, adaptability, features and functions, and, when we can manage it, longevity. We often choose a “Best Buy,” when a product performs well relative to the dollars invested. We also regularly say things like “this is the best, but it’ll cost you,” or “we can’t recommend this one because...” You readers are smart; you know your own boats, budgets, needs, and preferences well enough to separate your logic from ours. This is why you often buy products we don’t rate at the top.

Second, I try to point out to manufacturers, not too defensively, that the triangle between them, us, and you, the reader, is a continuum. In Miami one manufacturer told me that we’d left an important product out of a test. Another, whose product hadn’t fared well in one of our tests, said the test method had been misleading. Another, whose competitor had done better in a test, said that if we’d investigated further we’d have found out that his competitor’s device generated seriously flawed data.

When I asked each of these people whether they’d written us a letter to share this information, they all said no, they hadn’t gotten around to it.

When a manufacturer thinks we’ve treated them unfairly, we expect to hear about it, and if it’s not obviously sour grapes we’ll pass it along to you. Similarly, when you think we’ve made a bad call, you should write. A letter in Mailport from a well-informed reader — someone, for example, who’s lived in the real world with a product we’ve only bench-tested — carries more weight in the long run than any headline we write. Word gets around. Mistakes and omissions get corrected in the continuum — but only when everyone contributes.

Occasional squalls aside, our relations with marine manufacturers are good. Most of them know that we’re here to help inform decision-making among people who are already pretty careful and discerning buyers.

-D.L.

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