Monday, October 21, 2013

The Production Boat Designer

I thought it was an inspired idea. If I wanted to know why so many boats are so difficult to maintain, and so installation unfriendly, I should talk to some boat designers. Go to the horses mouth so to speak, and get the facts. I look online and find some firms whose sites aver they do production boat design, and pick some likely ones to communicate with. There aren't really very many of them. I pick one and send an email that goes somewhat like...

Dear Production Boat Design Professional, I'm a writer, and own a small company that installs marine electronics. My blog is built in part around the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments I encounter working on boats both large and small. These stories typically have one of three themes.

Inappropriate application of technology on boats, design/construction doesn't anticipate the customers future basic equipment installation needs, and boats which are extraordinarily difficult to maintain due to assembly/access issues or lack of documentation.

I have rules about these stories. The manufacturers are never mentioned, and the pictures are all close ups to make it impossible to identify the specific boat. My intent is to have builders improve upon these issues, not to point a finger, or hurt someone.  If you had some time to talk with me about the designers role in this, I would very much appreciate it. My suspicion is the designer largely plays little role in these issues, and the fault mostly falls with the manufacturer. If you would rather not, I understand, I have scared a couple designers away already, even with the opportunity to have some control over the content. Anyway, thanks for any consideration. Tnx Bill

The silence was deafening. I was in space, and you couldn't hear me scream. A mote of dust settling on a feather, the tree that fell in the forest. You get the picture. I know one firm read one of the story links I included, and the others not so much. In retrospect I shouldn't have expected any of them to want to assist me. What, help the guy who's always disparaging boat design and construction? He's a witch, burn him! I suspect the truth is whether they are in some way responsible for the problems I write about, or not, they may have been involved with boats that I have had less than kind words about. They are numerous to say the least.

I spent many years working for high tech engineering and design firms. I'm going to apply my experience to a fictitious production boat design scenario. Here is the screen play I have in mind.

Das Boot Designer
(Working title)


OMINOUS SOUNDING JIMMY BUFFET MUSIC SLOWLY BUILDING. The captain is watching satellite TV on the navigation display. Two blonde women dressed in skimpy bikinis are drinking margaritas and prancing around. None see the life raft full of orphans directly in their path.


MUSIC BUILDS FASTER. Cut to life raft full of horrified orphans screaming with sharks circling as the bow quickly looms. MUSIC SWELLS TO CRESCENDO. The bow comes straight towards CAMERA. TITLE SLASHES ACROSS SCREEN, "DAS BOOT DESIGNER" Cut to black just before impact.

CREDITS and MUSIC continue over the following


Three men are sitting at a round conference table. MUSIC FADES.

Well gentlemen what can I do for you?

Dave, we need a new boat design, ASAP, a 26 foot center console fishing boat.

And it got to be real sexy looking! I mean it has to give Joe six pack a styrene and naugahyde boating chubby when he sees it. You know what I mean, a design that will look great in the boating magazines. Oh yeah coolers for beers, and lots of drink holders. We also have to fit a huge stereo in so make sure there is lots of room for speakers.


Sign reads: The customer is always right as long as they have a check. The bigger the check the righter they are, and you can't fall off the floor.

SIGHS - Well Mr. Grunion, you have come to the right place. I can design you a sexy boat. How much do you want the boat to cost?

Why as little as possible of course. That's why we're here.


I think naval architects do three types of boat designs. Vessels for the government that come with a banker's box full of specifications. These could be a hydrographic survey vessel, or a special boat for DHS. The architect will be responsible for everything, down to the location of the fire extinguishers, and the size of fasteners for their brackets.

I don't think they get rich at these but they are often large jobs that cover the overhead (Golf Club membership dues not included), and put 5 to 10% of the job value in the bank when the dust settles.

The next group is one off custom design and build jobs. If I was in this line of work, I think with the right client this would be a most satisfying activity. Work closely with the client to determine the needs and wants. Design the vessel, work with the client to select a builder, and supervise construction. At the end, the client, and the designer know everything there is to know about the vessel.

The last type of activity is designing a boat that will go into production. This is where things can be different, and appear go a bit awry. 

I think in the design of our fictitious Magnifico 26 foot center console fishing boat, the architect's scope of work gets scaled way back.

"Okay," says the architect "Do you want me to do the electrical system design." "Heck no Designer Dave, we have a contractor who will just stretch the 22' design we already have." "Should I anticipate what kind of navigation equipment will be installed?" "Are you going to do that for free Designer Dave? If not don't worry about it. The dealers and the owners installers will figure something out."

In the end, I'm guessing in this scenario the builder gets a comprehensive CAD package that has the structural elements of hull, deck, console, and smaller fiberglass components such as hatches. This is accompanied by a book that includes all of the calculations for stability, hydrodynamics, material schedules, and all other things that will relieve the architect of legal liability if the boat breaks. "You didn't build it according to the plans says the architect. That's why the deck came off. I told you to put screws in the hull to deck joint every two inches, not every two feet." The builder does everything else, all too often poorly.

This is the only scenario I can think of where you can have a safe good looking boat with a great hull, and still have it be a marginal piece of work at best. No anticipation of customer needs, no access for maintenance, no room for the equipment, and inadequate wire conduits if they exists at all. The actual list is much longer.

I do understand why designers who do this type work, might not want their clients singled out for their poor implementation of good designs, at least their contractual scope portion.  It would not be good for business. But where do we go from here? Keep the status quo by producing barely maintainable vessels, or is there an alternative? I know it can be done better. I'm not saying all production boats are of poor quality, but there sure are a lot of them. It's a rare day I don't encounter one. I just deal with the insides, not the pretty outsides.

See Designer Daves, that wasn't too bad. I don't bite, hard at least. I just wish I didn't have to guess what really happens, but I think I'm pretty close. Any thoughts? I'm tired of bleeding.

The CAD drawing photo by Wikipedia user SaltyBoatr
The futuristic boat print by Wikipedia user Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-11217 / CC-BY-SA


  1. I am a Naval Architect/Marine engineer who has specialized in the small craft market. This work includes Gov't contracting as lead designer of the Navy 44 for the Naval Academy, custom luxury craft, custom work boats, refits and restoration work, and insurance consulting. I think your general sense of the designer's role is mostly right though it varries quite a bit between design offices and yards. Every relationship reaches it's own equilibrium of how much is designed and how much is done either by the yard's engineers or on the shop floor, though I think you are over-romatisizing the custom boat design process as these are often the least designed craft. I would be happy to speak with you further about this if you are interested. I also may be able to provide contact with schoolmates in the industry who are in the production power boat field who with an introduction might be more receptive to your inquiries.

    1. Thanks Gram, my email address is in my profile, give me a ping.

  2. Bill,
    I think you need to catch them when they are chicks. Have you tried talking to the Landing School or Westlawn?

  3. That's a good idea. You could be the Jesuit teacher of future boat designers: "Give me the child for seven years,
    and I will give you the man."

    Well, it shouldn't take *quite* that long.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. I cant tell you how many times Ive ran into this on some really high-end boats as well early-80's hand downs like I have. Sometimes logic just escapes us I believe or is it pride that blinds us?
    It doesnt stop with designers....I installed some Trim-tabs awhile back and noticed there was no mention of a fuseable link from the computer to the power supply. I called them and got the, "Yes, we recommend using one." Well why wasnt it mentioned in the instructions? Seems pretty important to me....Furthermore, why would you hold my whole project up over a $3 part?! After paying what I did for the tabs, just throw it in the box!!! Last I checked, the instructions in newer models still make no mention of this....blatent disregard in my eyes

  5. My father always said of such things, no matter the complexity of that item, (He was referring to cars at the time, but it applies) Wanna be a designer/engineer? First use the present product for a couple of months, then work in the shop/factory building the item for SIX MONTHS minimum. OK, now you're ready to design one, and I don't care what degree(s) you bring with you, you WILL do this.


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