Dan is the worst person with whom to go to a boat show. While I’m dreaming and scheming, he’s pointing out what’s hidden under those well-waxed gelcoats. But that’s his job; he’s a certified marine surveyor. To him it’s not about whether the proverbial glass is half full or half empty. He sees that the glass has a tiny blister and may delaminate.
Dan’s so good at what he does that he’s not exactly popular among boatbuilders. He’s faced off with them in courts as an expert witness and come off on top. In fact, Dan isn’t his real name; we’ll just call him that because he’s not all that eager about letting the other side know what he’s doing for us — which is walking me through this boat show and pointing out what builders don’t want us to see.
Good Builders, Bad Boats
“The encouraging thing,” says Dan as we begin our stroll, “is that fiberglass boats have been around for so long that we know how to make good ones.”
“OK, that’s the good news. What’s the bad?” I ask.
“Nothing, really,” says Dan with a wry smile, “if the builder does what it’s supposed to do. But that’s not always the case, or its fault.”
As Dan describes it, the problem is that most boats are not built in numbers that can benefit from high-volume production. For example, if a builder is going to make a lot of one model, it can amortize the cost of a pre-engineered electrical system that is designed to be easily duplicated and capable of being assembled on a bench and then dropped into a boat as one continuous package with a minimum of connections and waste. You get a better product for less money. But if you’re building only a few boats, it doesn’t pay, and the wiring is done piece by piece, lacking uniformity and sometimes quality.
“That’s not to say low-volume production can’t produce great boats,” Dan continues. “The Italian builder Riva takes its time building the magnificent 33-foot Aquariva Super runabout. But prices start at $945,000.” I’m not spending that kind of money, and neither are you, so builders of the boats we buy are forced to compromise.
“So I’m compromising too?” I ask, disheartened.
“Don’t think of it like that,” says Dan, trying to lighten the mood. “These days it’s hard to find what you’d call a ‘bad boat.’ Now it’s just the small stuff we have to look out for. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Hull of a Job
Walking along, we stare up at mountains of curvaceous glossy hulls. Dan picks a boat and starts whacking away at it. He puts the palm of one hand on the hull and pounds with his fist about three feet away. “The trend is toward ever-lighter hulls to save money and, if it’s built right, to make the boat more efficient. I didn’t feel any vibrations, so this one’s nice and solid.”
Next, he’s back at the transom sighting forward along the rub rail, explaining that it should appear to be one long, smooth line. Any waves mean that the hull and deck probably didn’t fit well and had to be forced together, creating potential stress points for future leaks.
“This one’s not bad,” says Dan, mumbling happily as he warms to his work, putting his cheek near the hull while bobbing up and down to look for problems in the gelcoat. Shows are a great place to do this because the hull is clean, shined and well-lighted, producing reflections that highlight every defect.
On this boat, there’s a barely perceptible vertical ridge. “Must be where a bulkhead is putting pressure on the hull,” Dan says, predicting a series of hairline cracks in the near future due to this “hard spot,” as such anomalies are called. “Problems like this really stand out on dark hulls, which is one reason white is so popular,” he adds with a conspiratorial grin.
The salesmen are beginning to eye us suspiciously, so I grab Dan and drag him down the aisle to our next victim.