Good Night And Good Luck

By Caroline Ajootian

Our Consumer Protection director is about to retire. But first, she reflects on 26 years of representing boaters, and nudging companies to "do the right thing" by our members.

Boats, water, and people are the key elements of recreational boating. Always have been, always will be. But almost everything else we know today about recreational boating and the businesses that produce, sell, and service boats is completely different from what it was 25 years ago, when we first started the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau. Three things caused this transformation: the economy, the environment, and the Internet.

Economic Trends Shape Consumer Attitudes

Economic downturns like today's are not new. In the early 1990s, the U.S. was in the midst of a recession. Belt-tightening meant that people didn't have discretionary income to spend on boats. But even as the economy recovered, boat sales figures continued to flatline. In 1995, the industry's trade group, the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), conducted a survey of customers to discover some of the industry's handicaps. The results were no surprise to the BoatUS Consumer Protection team or anyone who'd ever owned a boat: Among other issues, the marine industry simply hadn't kept pace with the customer-service trends adopted by other sectors, particularly the automotive industry, where comprehensive warranties, overall product quality, and ease of repairs were the norm, and a premium was placed on keeping customers happy enough so that they'd come back for more.

Complaints reported to BoatUS Consumer Protection bore this out. Boat owners told us that quality control was often nonexistent, getting repairs was complicated, work was sometimes poorly done — more than once — and delays put boats out of use too long, a major problem when owners' time on the water was limited to begin with. Another common complaint was the finger-pointing between factory and dealer that left frustrated owners without recourse.

Photo of a woman on a powerboatPart of having peace of mind while boating is knowing that BoatUS Consumer Protection is at work for you. (Photo: Andy Wakeman)

Then and now, BoatUS Consumer Protection's dispute-resolution efforts to help our members solve problems are informal, and we don't have the legal authority to compel companies to take action to assist members. In the 1980s and well into the next decade, it wasn't unusual to be on the receiving end of some pretty salty language and negative attitudes when contacting companies about members' complaints. When appeals for customer service and fairness were ignored, we found the "power of the pen" to be a compelling motivator. BoatUS Magazine has the largest circulation of any boating publication in the country, so articles about boat defects, engine failures, and poor customer service get noticed. Over the years, dozens of high-profile articles in our flagship publication warning boating consumers about hull cracks that caused boats to sink, outboard motors that blew up, and inboard/outboards that ingested seawater were often accompanied by internal memos and service bulletins we were able to gather that showed boat and engine manufacturers were well aware of defects, yet took no action to protect their customers.

In some cases, following publication, companies reached out to BoatUS to correct problems. Chris-Craft president Chuck Husick not only worked with us to define and correct problems with some defective boats built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but later served on the BoatUS Advisory Council, and as a contributing technical editor to BoatUS Magazine.

As part of NMMA's "Grow Boating" campaign to clean up its image in the 1990s, the group required its dealer and manufacturing members to conduct customer-service-index (CSI) surveys to find out what needed to be improved. Today, while complaints to BoatUS Consumer Protection about dealer and factory service haven't been completely eliminated, the truly egregious complaints of the past are rare. And, it is far less common to hear about finger-pointing between the factory and the dealer. Forging good working relationships with companies has been a cornerstone of our Consumer Protection efforts, so that today many companies are more than willing to help members. Virtually all of the major marine manufacturers have further leveled the playing field for consumers by offering multi-year warranties, rather than the earlier one-year guarantees that meant owners had one boating season to see if products were defective.

In another positive step, in 2006, NMMA required its boatbuilder members to adhere to standards developed by the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) and written by committees composed of industry members, marine surveyors, and other boating experts, including our BoatUS Technical Services staff. ABYC's standards cover virtually every working system found on recreational vessels, with a focus on safety and performance. BoatUS continues to play a role with both ABYC and NMMA, bringing consumer feedback from Consumer Protection to bear on the standards development process.

The Environment Is Front And Center

Increased focus on the effect of recreational boating on the marine environment has resulted in regulations addressing the discharge of pollutants from boats and engines, control of invasive species, and protecting endangered marine plants and animals. Overall, boaters accept these laws as necessary for ensuring that there will be a marine environment to enjoy for generations to come. Many of these laws didn't exist 25 years ago and, in some circles, environmental concerns were considered anathema. From the perspective of consumer protection, regulations regarding fuel and hydrocarbon emissions have had the biggest impact on the boats and engines we buy.

The phase-out of leaded gasoline, which began in the U.S. in the 1970s and saw further reductions in 1985 and 1986, led to the introduction of fuels blended with ethanol. Both boat owners and car owners had no idea what their engines, accustomed to operating with the lubrication provided by leaded gas, would do on a lead-free diet.

The early days of ethanol fuel were not happy ones for boat owners. Because the 10-percent ethanol (E10) used in fuel is a solvent, it cleaned gums and resins from tank walls, clogged filters, and shut down engines. Fiberglass fuel tanks (sometimes found on vessels built before the mid-1980s) deteriorated upon exposure to ethanol, with the resulting sludge causing massive engine failures. It also caused premature hose deterioration because not all fuel hose was E10 compatible. Finally, because ethanol is an alcohol, it has the ability to attract water and cause phase separation, where two separate solutions form in the gas tank, with engine failure or damage the result. As ethanol use has become the norm, and with engine and boat manufacturers learning what works and what doesn't, problems haven't been eliminated but they certainly have lessened. New problems may be on the horizon as there are moves afoot to increase the percentage of ethanol used in fuel.

Marine engines were also affected by revisions to the Clean Air Act in 1990, which mandated that hydrocarbon emissions from new gasoline outboard engines and personal watercraft engines be reduced by 75 percent by 2006. These compliance standards have been achieved because of marine-engine technology that incorporated direct fuel injection and catalytic converters. In addition, engine makers introduced improved-performance four-stroke engines with much higher horsepower output than had previously been thought possible.

This new technology lets engines start more easily, accelerate faster, and respond better to throttle adjustments, in addition to burning gas more efficiently and emitting less smoke, fumes, and noise. The downside? The days of do-it-yourself engine maintenance and repair are over. Due to the complexity of the new breed of engines, virtually all diagnostic work now has to be done via computer, leaving owners at the mercy of their local mechanics. So, once-simple owner-operator jobs like draining water out of a carburetor have morphed into complex tasks involving delicate injectors and expensive computers. And, of course, the newtechnology engines cost about 10 percent more than their predecessors.

Who Has Time To Call It The World Wide Web Anymore?

Boats to buy, boats to sell. Boat owner groups, angler sites, satellite weather, maps and charts, manufacturing and repair info, recalls, complaints, and kudos … the list goes on and on. It's hard to imagine not having the answer to every question immediately within reach or a global market of boats and accessories available at one's fingertips. While some folks in the early days of the Internet assumed that only nerdy types would want to spend time communicating with other people via computer, it soon became clear that communication and information-gathering had changed irrevocably for the better.

Now, virtually every dealership has a website to advertise its product line. Consumers have only themselves to blame if they aren't educated on available options, pricing, and rival brands before heading to boat shows or dealer showrooms to shop. Shopping online gives consumers the opportunity to weigh options and comparison-shop without being pressed to buy. The BoatUS Consumer Protection Database, which contains thousands of firsthand reports about boats, engines, and marine businesses, is also online, as are the U.S. Coast Guard's databases of safety-defect recalls and manufacturer listings (see sidebar).

Selling online opens up a wider market for boats, a major plus these days as the current economic conditions make this a buyers' market. Years ago, it wasn't unusual for BoatUS Consumer Protection to hear from owners of defective boats or engines who told us, "I thought I was the only one," after we'd reported about major defects. These days, it's less likely that consumers can be kept in the dark about such problems. A quick Internet search will usually result in numerous postings from other owners.

A Moment For Reflection

At the end of Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey," when Ulysses returns to his home on the island of Ithaca after two decades of adventures, he vows to walk far enough inland with an oar over his shoulder until he meets someone who doesn't know what an oar is. Thus, he gives up his life roving the wine-dark sea and settles down, in what is possibly literature's first portrayal of retirement.

Like Ulysses, in a few weeks I, too, will retire from a career that has involved boats — 26 of those years as Consumer Affairs director for BoatUS Although my adventures haven't been nearly as exciting as those of the Greek hero and, certainly, none has involved a Cyclops or a (literal) visit to Hades, I've seen my fair share of danger in the way of unsafe boats and engines, conflicts in the form of consumer disputes with the marine industry, and extraordinary people, both boat owners and industry folks.

In my time "covering the waterfront," I've written hundreds of articles about good boats and bad, scams and scoundrels, repairs and redemption — celebrating in print when companies go out of their way to do the right thing. By fighting for our members, and writing about it, I've also had the good fortune to play a small role in the evolution of the marine industry and recreational boating.

Much has changed during the past quarter- century and, while recreational boating had some dark days, in the aggregate, much of that change has been for the better. By putting pressure on manufacturers, BoatUS Consumer Protection has had a hand in many important industry improvements. But our job is never done. As I leave my post, I'm pleased to hand the wheel over to a formidable Consumer Protection team, led by Charles Fort and administered by Debbie Schaefer. Charles and his team will continue to do their best to stand with boaters, and champion your cause. 

Caroline Ajootian, who retires this month after 26 years as BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau director, sailed on Long Island Sound and the New England coast as a child growing up in New York. She later worked at her family's wooden boat shop and as a newspaper reporter and photographer. The mother of three children (and grandmother of one) lives in Oregon's Willamette Valley with her husband, David Stein, a marine biologist who studies deep sea fish. Retirement means she will have more time to ride her horse, tend her large rose garden, and travel with David.

— Published: December 2012


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