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Think Simple

Lead Line — April 2004
By Richard Thiel

Think Simple
This dictum is based on the obsession to explain all problems with large solutions.
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This being our annual maintenance issue causes me to reflect upon the fact that for many PMY readers, working on boats is nearly as much fun as using them. Of course, others tolerate maintenance as a necessary evil, and still others classify such labor up there with tax audits and root canal surgery.

In another life I worked on boats—diesel engines, actually—for a living. I wish that experience allowed me to impart numerous pearls of wisdom to you, but, alas, I came away from it with only two. One is never start a project, however minor, on Saturday afternoon if you’re planning on going out on Sunday. The other I learned in diesel-mechanic school, and it’s served me well: When a problem occurs, look first to the simplest explanation.

The essence of this dictum is based on the human—okay, the male—obsession to explain all problems with large solutions. We seem bent on assuming the worst, whether the subject is the funny knocking sound coming from under the hood of the family car or that suspicious smudge on our chest x-ray. We either refuse to believe or fail to remember that more often than not, the worst never comes to pass, so it’s fruitless to go off half-cocked.

So when faced with an engine that refuses to start, your typical American male thinks of removing the cylinder head rather than checking the fuel gauge. At the least this leads to needless worry; often it means needless expense.

It was not in diesel school that I came to appreciate this philosophy but rather on one of my first boat tests back in the late-1980’s. Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) had just introduced a fire-breathing, 460-cubic-inch engine, and I’d been invited to test-drive a boat powered by it. Arriving dockside, I found a flashy 28-footer surrounded by proud engineers, one of whom introduced himself, helped me into the boat, and familiarized me with the controls. That task completed, I twisted the key and waited for the roar from unmuffled, through-transom exhausts. Instead, I heard the anemic whir of a starter fecklessly spinning the big V-8.

In a flash the engineers, armed with tools and instruments, were all over the engine. Theories flew about like newspapers in a hurricane. Off came components, and as the minutes dragged on, minions were sent for replacements. As faces reddened, I prepared to return to my hotel room to catch the latest episode of “Divorce Court.”

About 30 minutes on, a young man who apparently had been hired to clean the boat uttered something. The engineers disdainfully looked up from the engine compartment as the lad pointed to a piece of coiled plastic on the sole. “It’s the kill switch,” he said simply. The engineers, apparently struck dumb, failed to move, so the lad jumped into the boat, picked up the plastic gizmo that stops the engine if the driver is ejected, and snapped it into place. A half-hour later, the reassembled engine roared to life.

Thus a problem that could have been solved by a quick look around the cockpit consumed the better half of a day. More to the point, a bunch of guys who should have known better nevertheless expended needless worry and suffered needless embarrassment, and I almost missed my ride. So next time something on your boat or in your life doesn’t go as it’s supposed to, remember that chances are it’s not a catastrophe. It’s probably something small and simple.

This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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