When it comes to engineering, “close enough” is a recipe for disaster, and lemonade cans should not be a unit of measure.
They don’t build ‘em like they used to, right? We’ve all heard the phrase, and most of us have used it to bemoan cheap crap and pine for the “good old days,” however we personally define them. But as a yacht designer with an engineering degree, I have seen the flip side of “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” more than once over the past quarter-century. While a lot of old boats are built like brick houses, engineering and build processes have come a long way, baby! Most new boats are far better engineered and built than boats from the old days. How do I know? Well, let me tell you.
About 15 years ago I was walking the docks at the Ft. Lauderdale boat show with a guy whom I’d describe as a “mom ‘n pop” boatbuilder. This was my first time meeting this prospective client, so I was trying to learn more about the level of quality he was accustomed to building into the 36- to 50-foot powerboats he produced. I would soon find out in alarming fashion.
As I walked the docks with “Pop,” we talked about his plans for a new model in his lineup. I was citing chapter and verse about our structural engineering methods, utilizing advanced, finite element analysis software and documenting each boat’s compliance with global engineering standards. All of this seemed to go in one ear and out the other for this man who outsourced the building of his boats overseas with, as I would learn, little or no engineering discipline whatsoever. I was getting the impression he had no intention of paying for professional engineering services.
Twenty minutes into our stroll, Pop was sipping a Minute Maid in the Florida sun and we stopped at another builder’s display. He took notice of this builder’s hull bottom and transom core samples which were proudly presented to demonstrate the strength of their fiberglass hulls. The thicknesses of fiberglass laminates and core were clearly evident. What happened next was an eye-opener.
Pop set his Minute Maid between the core samples and snapped a photo. “I have lots of Minute Maid back at the office. I buy it by the case. I’ll just look at the picture and measure how far the core comes up on the label. Engineering done!” he said earnestly.
But mom-and-pops weren’t the only shops that would cut a corner or two back when women wore shoulder pads and men sported perms. Twenty-eight years ago I was an intern for a successful naval architect who also surveyed pleasure boats. He was a pilot, and one day he asked me to go along with him in his Cessna to survey a 32-foot powerboat from the early 1980s. It was built by a major production brand from that era, far from a backyard builder. A thorough survey takes a few hours even on a relatively small boat like this and involves a detailed analysis of the hull structure inside and out. In the bilge, we were checking the main hull longitudinal stiffeners to which the engines were mounted.
Normally these fiberglass stringers would be filled with a marine-grade wood or closed-cell foam core with areas of high-density core in way of the engine mounts. But not on that boat, on that day. Pulling a bracket off a stringer, we actually found green floral foam “core” in the hull structure! Far from a marine-grade material with useful mechanical properties, this was just stuff for sale at Hobby Lobby or Walmart. Green floral foam is a mix of formaldehyde and phenolic. Why is it known as floral foam? Because it can hold up to 50 times its weight in water! (Which this foam was busy doing as it slowly dissolved beneath the engine mount.)
So Minute Maid and floral arrangements in a boatbuilder’s office are two sure signs, from my experience, that some engineering support might come in handy for their future product. But today’s boatbuilding methods and materials are far superior to those in the 1980s, so new boat buyers can largely breathe a sigh of relief. And enjoy a cold Minute Maid along the way.