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Uncharted Waters: Hey Siri

With over-the-phone customer service fading from the weekend-boating scene, what about that alluring little virtual assistant on your iPhone?

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Illustration by Kent Barton

Okay, are you ready for a couple of fast and furious tales of weekend frustration, the first involving one of recreational boating’s most favorite topics: the rubber portlight gasket? You know, the thing that’s supposed to seal against the portlight lens but sometimes doesn’t, thereby allowing rainwater to sneak into your boat’s interior and cause her woodwork to rot while cold, menacing droplets fall—plop, plop, plop—on the top of your head as you try to snooze in that cozy bunk or berth?

About a month ago, on a weekend—because I rarely have time for projects on board the Betty Jane II during the week—I decided to install new gaskets in all four of the portlights in Betty’s trusty trunk cabin. The existing ones were old, leaky and getting leakier.

I jumped aboard on Saturday morning ready to boogie. I’d brought along a box of new gaskets I’d received earlier in the week, complete with a page of small-print instructions ending with the following, inspiring words: “After the first one, others will be much easier and take less time.” I’d also brought along the one tool the manufacturer specified for hammering the new gaskets into the circumferential grooves in the frames—a mallet with a polycarbonate head.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth soon came to pass. Nothing worked, no matter what I tried. I pounded this way with the mallet. I pounded that way. I pounded up. I pounded down. But every time I got one end of a new gasket secured, the darn thing would snap back like a rubber band when I addressed the other end. Finally, after almost three hours of dispiriting failure, I decided to call the manufacturer’s customer service number for advice.

“We’re open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday,” the recorded voice said cheerfully. No dice on Saturdays. Or -Sundays.

Just a few short days after the gasket manufacturer admitted to me (rather belatedly) that I could buy “pre-formed” products that were comparatively easy to install either with or without a mallet, I tangled with yet another weekend of customer service gone bad. Again, it was a Saturday and I was trying to determine why, all of a sudden, the chartplotter at Betty’s lower helm station was displaying sonar information but the identical chartplotter on the flybridge wasn’t. Did I have a bad Ethernet cable? Was there a software issue? When I called the electronics company’s customer service number to get some help, the recorded voice virtually duplicated the Monday-through-Friday spiel I’d heard on the gasket front. Again, no dice on Saturdays. Or Sundays.

Of course, I’m sure we’d all agree that for the average Joe who does lots of the work on his boat himself, the seeming downward spiral in customer service support on weekends is a challenging development. And hey, it’s especially challenging for those of us who keep our boats a long way from home. What are we supposed to do? Magically anticipate the troubleshooting questions that are likely to bubble up on the weekend? And call customer service during the week?

Well, maybe. But as luck would have it, there’s another, considerably more contemporary alternative. I stumbled across it while attempting to ascertain the name of a tune I’d heard while browsing a website that caters to the needs of Champ, my Golden Retriever puppy. It was catchy.

“Hey Siri,” I said, staring into the depths of my iPhone. At the same time, I hit the play button on my laptop, “what’s the name of this tune?”

“Listening,” Siri responded, as a second or two sped by. Then out of the blue came the name of the song, the name of its related album and an icon to tap if I wanted to buy one or the other.

“Wow, Siri,” I immediately enthused—I mean, this was freakin’ exciting, right? “Are you, by any chance, familiar with any of the sonar difficulties associated with the common electronic chartplotter?”

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.