In Praise Of The Wrong Stuff
We strive at Practical Sailor to identify the right stuff for our readers, but of course we're always aware that, in addition to the difficulties of balancing quality versus price, there are trade-offs in features and ergonomics, and that the apple of one person's eye can be a lemon in the eyes of another.
Sometimes the most important thing we can do is identify the features of competing products in ways that let readers see the more important differences clearly. In most cases we then take the extra step and say which product we would pick ourselves, along with our rationale, even if there's not much of a qualitative difference in the choice. One example might be the auto-inflating PFD—very handy if you're knocked overboard by a blow to the head, but not so hot if a boat turns over on top of you, and you need to swim out from underneath it. There's no "correct" answer here—the success of such a PFD depends on circumstances.
The choices of gear we make in the magazine aren't always what we use ourselves. We end up, very often, with the "wrong" stuff. The reasons have to do with the constant flow of gear moving in and out of boxes, over and under work benches. A fair amount of the cast-off gear seems to stack up in the corners and against the walls, like jetsam waylaid by a current, and we end up with odd bits of electronics, bottles and cans of goop and paint, each with just a little removed for testing; a lifetime supply of suntan lotion; a box of cold-weather gloves, some unpartnered, some covered with old mud. The list could go on, but the point is, it's like the Island of Misfit Toys around here, and this is the stuff we end up using ourselves as we dash out the door—the wrong foul-weather jacket, the wrong binoculars, the wrong cooler, the wrong dry bag, the wrong wax, the wrong tools. Often, even the wrong stuff gets the job done well enough—it depends on what we demand of it.
Bottom paint is another example. We've just finished applying 54 bottom paints to fiberglass test panels for next year's evaluation. Why on earth do there have to be so many paints? It's more baffling than the cereal shelf or the shampoo shelf at the grocery store. Some of it has to be the wrong stuff. But as we've seen year after year, paints perform differently according to the conditions they're placed in and the ways they're used and maintained. Over time we've been able to identify a few outstanding paints, but you never know when those top paints, which are usually top-priced as well, will be matched in performance by half a dozen of the cheaper paints in a certain locale and time. And those same paints can drop back down the scale the next year, when conditions change. This is what keeps the competition alive. (It'll be interesting to see next year's results for the Connecticut panels. It's the end of June now. The water is still about 62°, and after about nine months of heavy precipitation, we could be getting run-off from Santa's workshop by now.)
The 13' Boston Whaler we use as a test boat has gone into the water every summer for 35 years. For at least a decade I've used the same paint—Fiberglass Bottomkote. Sometimes it's been slimy by July. Sometimes it lasts until late in the season. It depends.
This year I put Regatta Baltoplate on the Beneteau test boat, because it's a slick paint, and I just assume I'll be going overboard to scrub it a few times this summer. On the other hand, Chris Landry over at Powerboat Reports is running with the remains of Pettit Unepoxy that was put on several years ago. He never touches it. He just runs the boat often.
Part of the joy of messing about in boats is about jury-rigging, making do, adapting. At a certain point it's not worth agonizing about getting everything just so. It's worth casting off and runnin' what ya brung. Meanwhile we'll be here banging things around and suggesting what to bring.