Rhumb Lines May 2011 Issue

Small Boats in the New Economy

Norseboat 21.5
Norseboat’s Kevin Jeffrey (at tiller) takes a few moments to enjoy a sail on his latest project, the Norseboat 21.5.

I’m not sure whether boatbuilder and businessman Kevin Jeffrey had British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 collection of essays “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” in mind when he began developing his line of Norseboats. But given my experience aboard the Norseboat 21.5, a charming micro-cruiser based on the New Jersey beach skiff, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

For more than 30 years, Jeffrey’s other business, Avalon House, has tackled everything from solar home design to organic foods. He and his first wife, Nan, collaborated on a wide range of books that adhere to the small-is-beautiful concept. Their topics range from renewable energy afloat to a guide on cruising multihulls. The couple gained much of their insight into the art of living small while cruising with their twin boys.

A critique of conventional Western economics, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” argues for a simpler, decentralized economy that puts the focus on individual productivity and general well-being, rather than gross domestic product. Although Schumacher’s critics associate some of his proposals to the radical back-to-nature movement of the 1960s, many of his ideas are as relevant today as they were when “Small is Beautiful” was published. Prime Minister David Cameron is among several contemporary leaders whose economic vision has been influenced by Schumacher’s work.

What does an economic theory have to do with sailboats? Boatbuilding is one form of production that has, to some degree, remained fairly consistent with Schumacher’s ideas. Schumacher famously encouraged the development of intermediate (now called “appropriate”) technologies: new technologies with relatively low capital requirements. The aim of such technology, wrote Schumacher, is to foster small-scale, labor intensive, and energy-efficient production that meets local needs. Certainly, high-volume builders like Beneteau, Hunter, and Catalina account for the bulk of sailboat sales in the U.S., but smaller boatbuilders with more targeted local customers still succeed. I’m not calling for a return to one-off wooden boats (although Schumacher might), but I frequently marvel at how tenaciously independent boatbuilders have fought off extinction.

While the age of fiberglass is often lamented as bringing an end to diversity, innovation, and craftsmanship, that doesn’t seem to be the case. At every boat show I attend, I find at least one new boat, usually a small boat, that delivers something new and different. These boats often come from humble beginnings—backyards, garages, or small rented workshops.

Small boatbuilding companies play a vital role in the industry. They ensure that beauty and utility won’t be lost in the blind pursuit of gross productivity. Although very few of these endemic boats ever gain a global following, that’s not the point. Some of the best sailboats are those shaped by their environment and the people who sail them—not by a marketing plan for the next best one-design.

So here’s a toast to the independent boatbuilders: May they always be at least one boat ahead of the bank.

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