Seaworthiness Vs. Style

From the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau

Boat manufacturers have improved the overall safety of their products enormously, but there is still the tendency with some to be swayed by the marketing department rather than the engineers.

Entertaining onboard Safety is sometimes left at the dock when boat design focuses on the "patio."

As the French say, plus ça change, plus la meme chose. In other words, the more things change — in this case boats — the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to the design flubs and flops about which some boat owners perennially complain.

Owners flummoxed by the logic of how their boats are put together almost invariably focus on five areas that cause them the most consternation: leaks and drainage problems, limited access to engines and other mechanical systems, poor quality or inadequate fittings and finish, non-ergonomic designs and the conflict between seaworthiness and style.

Following are just a sample of the discussions generated by the many comments and questions fielded by the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau.

Seaworthy vs. Stylish

Are boat engineers/designers really boaters? Do they ever use the boats they design?

Minor feature overload is my pet peeve. Do they really believe that 28 cup holders will sell a boat?

Who comes up with the backward "standard" features? For example, the VHF, engine sync and trim tabs are optional but the blender, cooler and 6-disc changer are standard!

Most of this kind of design excess (sacrificing good design input) is market driven, often by what's popular on cars. Does it make sense? No, particularly when a sunny summer afternoon turns into a squall, the seas turn rough and suddenly the ability to make a pitcherful of margaritas doesn't seem so important.


Why is it almost every boat I have ever seen has leaky windows?

Does it cost that much more to bond the rubrail joint more frequently, or at least use a couple more tubes of caulk?

The short answer: Leaks like these are usually quality-control issues rather than the result of manufacturers skimping on caulk for economy's sake.

Windows, for example, usually don't leak when they are new (if they do, it's a quality control issue) but they can't be expected to be leak-free forever. Every five to 10 years it should be normal maintenance to recaulk fittings, windows and hardware.

The rub rail is a different story. Covering the hull-to-deck joint on most boats, the rub rail is a component of structural integrity and should not leak. Period. In reality, however, the screw holes for the rub rail may be drilled in the wrong place and don't get filled. And, the gunwale guard needs to be sealed at the top, bottom and at the screw line. Often one or more of these steps is left out.

While even entry-level boats are generally built with a watertight hull-to-deck joint, the integrity can be disturbed by repeated impact with docks, pilings, and other boats as well as the normal dynamics of sea action. Once again, the solution is followup maintenance after three or four years or whenever leaks show up.

Leaky windows and a rubrail that weeps underway are a drop in the bucket compared to problems related to leaks that saturate the hull's core. Damage can go undetected for years, creating conditions that render a boat unsafe structurally and cost thousands to repair, if a repair is even possible.

How does water leak into the core? Again, it can start with poor quality control at the factory in terms of adequate bedding around through-hull fittings. Through-hulls and other fittings that are bolted to the hull should be inspected yearly, with bedding compound renewed on a regular basis. Better yet, epoxy and fiberglass can be used to isolate the core from the fitting (this may have been done by the builder).


Why doesn't my boat have an automatic bilge switch and why does it have just one wimpy little pump?

Bilge pumps in recreational boats are only intended to remove normal accumulations of bilge water, sea spray and rain. Even high-capacity systems are almost never designed to maintain a vessel afloat in the event the hull is severely damaged.

In an emergency, the go-to device is either a portable pump or one driven by an engine or generator.

Limited Access

Why is it that boats are constructed in a way that won't allow you to fix or replace anything without having to cut a hole in the fiberglass to access it?

I want to get to my water pumps, belts, spark plugs and batteries without having to crawl on exhausts. Do I have to hire a "vertically challenged person?"

Production boat builders build what the public is buying. If buyers demand a 28-foot express cruiser with galley, microwave oven, air conditioning, auxiliary generator and overnight accommodation for six, access to something has to go.

What get eliminated are the things that don't have immediate visible impact — sex appeal. Unfortunately, these types of design decisions by the manufacturers can mean that changing the oil on two inboard engines and a generator requires a human being with the arms of an orangutan.

And when nuts-and-bolts stuff has to make way for creature comforts, it can create some tense moments during emergencies. Just imagine groping in a far corner of the bilge for the battery switch if there's a fire in the engine compartment. Or trying to determine if the fuel tank is leaking when the tank itself is fiberglassed into a compartment that doesn't allow access to anything except the top of the tank.

Poor-Quality Fittings & Finish

Why do some builders use foam-backed cabin headliners when they disintegrate and come unglued in hot weather?

Why put carpeting in storage lockers where wet gear will be stored or that will be soaked if it rains?

Poor quality control is again a factor, but so are environmental factors. Slapdash application of the adhesive that binds the liner to the cabin is a bad start which, when combined with the extreme heat that builds up in closed cabins, can cause the glue to lose its grip. There are lots of options for cabin liners and it's all about dollars. Poor-quality foam disintegrates due to temperature extremes. Droopy liners aren't found in top-end boats.

Put two boats side by side that are otherwise identical except one has carpeted lockers, and it's almost a sure bet that the one with the carpeted lockers sells first. Another example of looks trumping common sense.

From a technical standpoint, carpet and padded liners make it very difficult to properly survey a vessel or to make technical decisions when repairs are made. While carpeting and vinyl covers may give the boat the "wow" factor, it's impossible to access core-connecting reinforcement like bulkhead tabbing, cabin sole-to-hull tabbing or locker tabbing.

The boat owner has to rely on blind faith in the manufacturer and, short of removing carpeting and liners — clearly, a difficult job — there aren't many options short of avoiding this kind of boat to begin with.

Poor Quality, Cutting Corners — or Sensible Choice?

Why are plastic through-hulls used on boats that cost more than $150,000?

Actually, there is nothing wrong with plastic through-hull fittings if they are good quality and designed for their intended use. For example, Marelon is a reinforced polymer composite material that is approved by the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) and Underwriter Laboratories (UL) for use in fittings above and below the waterline. It could be argued that Marelon fittings are better below the waterline because they are not subject to galvanic or stray current corrosion. Still, UV deterioration is a major concern for inexpensive plastic fittings above the waterline.

UL evaluates marine fittings for UV resistance in its tests. Boat owners buying plastic fittings should look for fittings that pass the UV test.

Why is it that fittings that are below or at the waterline do not have two hose clamps?

Another myth to be busted! It's an old wives' tale that there is any standard or practice that requires two hose clamps on all fittings below the waterline. It may be good practice for hoses that are fit onto smooth pipe but it is not required by the ABYC. There are only two places where double clamps are required on boats: the fill pipe on a gasoline fuel tank and the hose connections for a marine wet exhaust system. It's also a good idea to double-clamp the shaft log.

In the early days, most hose clamps were steel and corroded readily. Having two made more sense. Today, with the good quality stainless-steel clamps, the second clamp is not as critical as in days of old. Still, good-quality hose clamps are relatively inexpensive so double-clamping is a good precaution with no downside.


Why is it that consoles are made to be comfortable ONLY when you're standing up? When you sit on the helm seat your back is bent over at a 45-degree angle, which is not comfortable.

The forward stateroom in my boat is so small that you cannot get to the sides of the berth. Did the designer really intend for me to jump up on the foot of the berth and crawl forward?

Once again, the answer to the questions about furniture is that manufacturers build what attracts buyers and what seems to attract buyers is eye candy that sometimes has lots of calories but not much nutritional value.

Some modern boats appear to be designed and built by committee — salesmen, accountants and other people with no practical experience. The fix? Do the equivalent of reading nutritional labels when buying a boat: Sit, lie down, climb and put all systems through real-life tests both at the dock and underway.

Who decided to locate the battery on/off switch underneath the rear cockpit seat so you have to get down on your knees to turn the switch on or off?

When it comes to mechanical systems, manufacturers often make a choice between cost of materials and practicality. And don't forget the premium placed on creature comforts versus nuts-and-bolts. There is a tendency to put things like battery switches as close to the batteries as possible because long runs of heavy battery cables are expensive and dangerous unless provided with the appropriate overcurrent protection. Switches shouldn't be in the engine space where they might be difficult to reach in the event of a fire.

Why is it that some boats have flimsy or undersized bow railings or railings that don't leave you with enough support to actually hold onto them, or offer little protection from going over the side of the boat?

The ABYC establishes some good standards for deck rail height and a minimum of 400-pound static load test, at any point and in any direction. Any boat touted as National Marine Manufacturing Association (NMMA) certified should have railings that comply with ABYC.

Take-Home Message

Even though everyone knows the value of having used boats inspected by a marine surveyor prior to purchase, new boats — particularly ones that represent a major investment or have many complicated structures — are also good candidates for evaluation.

Boat manufacturers have improved the overall safety of their products enormously over the past three decades, but there is still the tendency with some to be swayed by the marketing department rather than the engineers. It's up to the consumer to ask tough questions and investigate when buying a "toy" as complicated as a recreational vessel that will be operated in an unforgiving environment. Resisting the surface glitz is step one.

Sure, you want your family and friends to be comfortable and have fun, but you also want them to be safe. Do your homework. To research complaints from other consumers about boats and marine engines, BoatUS members can access the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau's online database at  

— Published: July 2012