Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Looking for a show

Our little book on “How NOT to Buy a Cruising Boat” has made a tiny little splash in the cruising community. Having garnered some nice reviews from people with a long history of sailing and living on boats, it has also gotten us involved in a conversation or two in the blogger's world. Usually the conversations revolve around an equipment choice or the size and style of boat to be considered. And, somewhere in nearly every conversation, comes mention of the pitfalls, trials, and generally miserable condition of the boating industry when it comes to the manufacturing, marketing, maintenance, and support offered to those of us whose boats are also our homes. The continuing discussions, plus our accumulating experience of being full time live aboard cruisers often has me rehashing my own take on the industry, this lifestyle, and all related subjects.

While it would be difficult to cast me as a supporter of the marine industry in general, once in a while I wonder if the industry is really all that guilty. Many of us, I think, believe that the business communities of the the world, and particularly those based in the US, long ago abandoned any pretense of being motivated by anything other than pure greed. No business is in the business of doing anything but returning the maximum amount of money to its investors as possible. Doing this requires pricing be maximized while goods and services provided be minimized. It also requires a maximum of work and production be extracted from employees in return for as little pay and benefits as can be managed. The only restraints on the malfeasance of any business are those of written laws and enforced regulations. In our society, business writes the laws, and enforcing regulations mostly results in fines levied against companies; fines that are ultimately paid by consumers. This is the Wall Street / American standard business model. A model that bodes ill for quality and customer service in all matters of business and industry.

Why expect the marine industry to be any different?

Mind you, I am not making any judgment call here. This is the society the American public has insisted we want. For many decades it is the one we have supported with both our votes and our pocketbooks. As a result, it is the the society supported by both political parties without any viable alternative. Like pretty much everyone in the world throughout all of human history, we have exactly the society we are willing to tolerate. The real question is, how do we manage to live the kind of life we want given the society we have helped build?

Many of us who live on boats have managed by forming a remarkable community of people who work together and look out for each other. We know full well that pretty much the only help we are going to get is that which we offer. A saying in this group is “paying it forward” but, every day, “it” gets paid forward, backward, sideways, up, and down. Nearly every conversation we have with fellow cruisers includes tales of those who treated us well, and those who did not. We talk of what is working on our boats, and what is not. We often sell, at way below market (or outright gift) parts, charts, and equipment to other cruisers. And we have learned that the only really good information available on buying, outfitting, and maintaining “cruising” boats comes from those who are, or have been, “out here”. Yet there is still a problem waiting to be solved. Getting to that information can be difficult unless and until one is “out here” as well.

And by then it is often too late.

The Internet is helping, but winnowing out the helpful information is difficult. (Read anything on anchors or anchoring to see what I mean.) The world of self-published books can help as well but, once again, it is often hard to tell the good from the bad. The good news is one can get to the information with the help of those “out here” before one buys a boat and casts off the lines. But there needs to be a near-universal recognition that getting “out here” is damned difficult, that "industry" is a huge part of the problem, and that being "out here" is not for everyone. (More on that, maybe, in a post lurking out there and waiting to be written.)

Something I would love to see is boat shows getting into the act of a) making such information available and b) emphasizing just how hard this can be. Every show I have ever been to (3 Annapolis Strictly Sails and 4 Chicago Strictly Sails) had a whole list of seminars being run during the event. Weather, engine maintenance, off-shore sailing, the list seemed to be nearly endless. I never saw one with the headline "You probably don't want to go cruising." And I never saw one that headlined a no-holds-barred assault on the pit falls, traps, problems, and challenges facing those who were trying to make the transition from land living to cruising. Yet the crowds at boat shows are full of people looking to make that very transition.

Now that would be a show worth going to.


Tillerman said...

Great points.

I don't expect boat shows are going to start running "You probably don't want to go cruising" seminars any time soon. After all the boat shows are just businesses whose main source of income is the marine industry vendors who pay to exhibit at their shows and they are not going to do anything to upset those vendors by educating boat show visitors on why they might NOT want to buy that nice shiny new 50 ft cruising yacht.

On the other hand, there are plenty of blogs these days, including this one, that are great sources of informations about all the ups and downs of the cruising lifestyle. In fact if you follow such blogs long enough you find that a surprisingly high percentage of people who start out with the intention of adopting a long term live-aboard lifestyle end up going back to living on land after a year or so of cruising.

Robert Sapp said...

I sat down to write a review of your book for our blog after reading it some months back, but got sidetracked and now feel that I would need the time to re-read it before making another attempt. One thing I do remember wanting to ask you though is why you would feel that the used boat and marine repair business would (or should) operate any differently than the used car and auto repair business, as there are many similarities. They all operate on extremely thin margins with low barriers to entry and have a reputation for shady dealings and shenanigans. I think the one big advantage you have coming from an aviation background (and I brought from my nuclear experience) is that we know it can be better, provided we're willing to tolerate at least an order of magnitude increase in costs OR you can develop the skills to do everything yourself. Afterall, there's a reason civil aviation is so damned expensive, and it's all directly related to those extremely high standards and detailed regulations you feel the cruising world would benefit from. There are no cheap, safe, reliable aircraft, and in the world you desire, there would be no cheap, safe and reliable cruising boats. If glass workers and diesel mechanics needed the equivalent of aviation airframe and powerplant licenses with the associated inspections, prices for 30 year old cruising boats would start at a quarter million dollars, just as they do for planes. But you'd know everything onboard worked! Personally, I'm happier with a caveat emptor world where the prices are affordable, good deals are available if you look for them and the lessons learned are the cost of entry to the cruising world.

Welcome back, btw!

Best regards,

Rhonda & Robert
S/V Eagle Too
Pensacola, FL

TJ said...

Robert, its good to be back. With any luck, by this time next week we will be well south of here and gaining on Florida.

It is funny that you mentioned used cars, the catch phrase for shoddy operators, poor quality, and atrocious customer service and support. It used to be that way. Now though, when most of us buy a used car it is from a dealer. The car has been inspected by factory trained mechanics, and it comes with a warranty. It would be interesting to find out if the overall expense of buying, operating, and maintaining a used car has gone up or down when compared to the “used car” industry you and I grew up with.

I think you might have touched on a major problem with capitalism as it is practiced in the US. It appears that there are only two possibilities. The first is a heavily regulated industry where the regulations have driven costs so high that the average consumer cannot participate. The second is a non-regulated industry where fraud, abuse, false advertising, poor product quality, and poor customer service make it an economic crap-shoot (at best) or economic suicide (at worst) should the average consumer be enticed (usually by relentless propaganda like – say – boat shows) to participate.

So long as the economic model in the US uses stock price and “return on investment” as the only measures of “success” those two possibilities are the only two possibilities. Both are, ultimately, self destructive and unsustainable. Which, unfortunately, makes one wonder if the entire economic system on which the US is based is, in fact, self destructive and unsustainable.

In the context of our being cruisers, I think the current marine industry is both self destructive and unsustainable, and will go the way of the personal aircraft industry. The personal aircraft industry was regulated to death. The marine industry is self destructing out of pure greed.

I would like to think that, someday, human kind will find an economic system that balances the need for a company to make a profit, the need of people to be paid a fair wage, the need of a society to have quality products offered at an affordable price, and the need to leave a livable planet behind when all of this is done. When the integration of all of these facets of a sustainable economic system and society are part of the definition of “success” THEN we might be able to make the claim of “making progress”.

Until that time we will remain a species of mostly naked and barely intelligent apes, fouling our own nest and making enemies of our neighbors.

TJ said...

Robert, PS...
In the context of another conversations we are having on a different blog (see if we add up the purchase price, parts bought, and estimate the cost of the labor (at $80/hr shop rate) of getting Kintala ready to cruise, we end up with a number in excess of $250,000. I'm not sure if I should feel good about that, or go jump off the bow while being tied to the anchor.

Robert Sapp said...

You're ignoring the most important component of a properly operating free market economy - competition. If a business can make the most money by selling crap, then that's obviously what they're going to do. Only they can't, because someone else will offer a better product or cheaper price or better service and eat their lunch. Healthy competition provides the consumer with the best choices for obtaining quality goods and services at fair prices. It all starts to break down though when we get crony-capitalism and sanctioned monopolies (too big to fail, for example) brought about by excessive regulation and taxation and the erection of artificial barriers to entry. Then lobbying the government for preferential treatment, tax breaks and subsidies becomes more profitable than providing good products at fair prices, and the consumer gets screwed. Just look at the battle Uber is fighting with municipal governments against taxi monopolies. But the solution is to reduce government involvement in markets to the barest level necessary and let competition flourish, which I think you would not find a palatable option.

As for used cars, I think you might have forgotten to consider that you and I belong to this country's wealthiest quintile - those over 55 who have had a lifetime to create and accumulate wealth and have the disposable income to pay cash for yachts. That's why we buy certified used cars from dealerships, or possibly CarMax. But I can assure you that most people in the lower four quintiles (my sons, for example, and all of their friends) are still buying their cars at independent used car lots and off Craigslist, where fraud and deception are still the norm.

Anyway, I'm not necessarily arguing with you, I'm just curious why you seem so shocked that the market for used boats and marine services is pretty much exactly like the used car and auto repair market. Always has been, and probably always will be. But the solution is for the consumer to beware and educate themselves (by reading your book, for example). Not a massive government regulatory intervention.

One quick comment on enjoying the cruising life - it seems its often presented as a black and white choice. You either love cruising or you return to being a dirt dweller. One thing our year as liveaboards has taught us is that there is a very viable third course. When we head out next April, if we decide we ultimately don't enjoy it, I could very much see us going back to our comfortable liveaboard life in a marina in the heart of downtown. It's like we've found this hidden little low cost lifestyle that everyone else has just overlooked. The people in the condos on either side of us are paying $500K and up to have the same environment that we have for less than $600 a month, power, water, trash and cable included. :-) Shhhh, don't tell anyone or they'll ruin it!

Rhonda & Robert
S/V Eagle Too
Pensacola, FL

Unknown said...

I am probably in the middle of Robert and TJ philosophically. Most economic and political systems have their positive and negative attributes. In their theoretical limits, they all succeed. In their application, they all fail to some extent. My philosophical opinion is that all economic and social systems on a national scale will eventually fail. In the end we are, as TJ puts it, naked barely intelligent apes. We don't seem to be very adept at minimizing suffering while optimizing opportunity. I've been to several different continents and lived in two very different cultures. Most have their strengths and weaknesses. The only two constants that seem to persist are humankind's potential for both incredible kindness and depravity. Capitalism does a great job of maximizing quantity of life but not so well at maximizing quality of life. Some systems do a bad job at both. In any case, they are just systems, imperfect and artificial. Capitalism has the benefit of harnessing greed and distributing benefits to people who (at least most of them) added some value to the system. Sometimes this gets pretty far out of whack, but capitalism is in some ways the economic equivalent of evolution; somewhat inevitable.

What has this got to do with boating? Well, very soon I will be in a position to cash in my chips and cruise, contingent on a willing life partner (spouse: check. Willing? Jury still out). I was largely able to do this because I found a job with a high barrier to entry and had the luck (partially by virtue of birth) to be positioned well to take advantage of opportunities and a willingness to sacrifice short term benefit for long term gain. The US is certainly not the only place where this can happen but it is one of the places. A wholesale criticism of capitalism at this point would be disingenuous. I'd be biting the hand that feeds me. On the other hand, I am not too far removed to understand that there are major problems that are frustratingly difficult to solve on a societal level.

I think we are all three fortunate to be in a position to be able to view most of these problems from a distance. Our demographic tends to be only mildly affected by changes in the Whitehouse or the Capital. I think it helps sometimes to remember that. There are some whose lives, quite literally, depend on it. Unlike Scarlett O'Hara, my life has largely been an attempt to minimize the extent to which I and mine are subject to the kindness of strangers. Well, that and to have a little fun along the way.

Hope to see you all out on the seas sooner rather than later. TJ: see my comment on your post "Clown Cars". I was raised on the shores of the Albemarle Sound and cut my sailing teeth in the howls of northeasters and those short sharp whitecaps. My wife and I have a vacation home there and we spend time each summer there. Fair winds, etc.

TJ said...

Great comments both of you, thanks. I am usually at a bit of a disadvantage in a discussion about economics / capitalism for the simple reason of not being a capitalist. Capitalism is, to me, a bit like the Motel T of 1910. A success by any measure, but a truly sorry excuse for a car by any objective standard. We have been struggling along with the current form of capitalism for a couple of hundred years now, and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Its like the first car of 1910 being a akin to a 1960 Corvair, with the current cars being the Model T.

Which partly explains why my kids and grand kids (like yours Robert) are facing a life with much less opportunity and flexibility than the ones we enjoyed. Pure capitalism doesn't actually approve of free markets. Capitalists much prefer monopolies and getting the corner on markets to anything that even looks like competition. They certainly hate the idea of laborers having any way to leverage higher pay and benefits, or having any outside agency (say a democratic government) dictate health, safety, or environmental standards and making them stick. A free market is actually a social structure forced on the capitalists against their will. For the last 30 years or so the capitalists have ruled America, slowly destroying anything that sniffs of a free market.

There is some example of this in the boating industry. Larger companies buy up smaller ones, usually devastating the labor force in the process, and allowing the manufacturer to reduce the quality of its products by just that little bit more. Capitalism runs on pure greed. And greed, contrary to popular propaganda, isn't good. Eventually it self-destructs. If human evolution eventually leads to a truly free and just society, a capitalistic economic system will not be part of the picture.

Matt Mc. said...

Wasn't it Blanche Dubois that was always reliant on the kindness of strangers? ;)

Unknown said...

Wow. That WAS from Streetcar! I be-Googled it. Apparently it is a common mistaken attribution. Thanks!

Matt Mc. said...

Full disclosure...I'm not that smart, I just teach AP Lit and we do Streetcar every year. ;)