Designing for Natures Best

I came across this web site which has what appears to be the best collection of images and video of small vessels working their way along in relatively rough sea conditions. I have been privileged in the past to do some design and construction work on vessels of this type, pilot boats, life boats and survey vessels, and seeing some of the trials video brought back a lot of memories. This was before palm size video cameras became available and there was no such thing as an electronic camera, so 99% of the photographic record I have has the horizon severely askew and frequently blurred by sheets of water, it’s nothing as good as what these lads have generated.

In common with most of the colleagues I have worked with over the years, boats have had a peculiar appeal to me. In spite of the unlikelihood of much financial reward we chose to work on them anyway if the opportunity presented itself. We used as an excuse for not getting a “real” job the old chestnut quote from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Working vessels were perhaps easier in some ways to design than pleasure boats. There is a well defined “mission profile” and getting the job done safely and well comes first. Possibly frivolous market forces are largely non-existent, ship pilots and rescue crews are remarkably focussed on what counts and will give you the benefit of well considered first hand experience. There is a need to identify the right way to execute every detail and any required compromises must be well understood. Of course some peculiarities and politics plagued most work, but generally things were pretty serious.

Pleasure boat design requirements seem to be unduly weighted in the wrong direction, frequently steered by the marketing efforts of big production companies. The economics widely differ of course from those of the working boat builder. If you can sell 100 vessels a year based primarily on their flash appeal, it will be a lot more financially rewarding than building only a few boats for an informed customer base, from an accountant’s perspective anyway, plus you have to genuinely inform the customer.

I was fortunate to be of a age to catch at least some advice and example from pre-retirement veterans of the mid-century prolific boat and ship building era, a time of a little more conservatism in marine design and most of the older professional lads had reached their positions via apprenticeship, starting on the lowest deck. Technology has invaded to the extent that specialization is frequently demanded and there seems to be less overall design oversight in many production boat offerings. The concentration of a dense body of design work in the hands of a few individuals, made possible by computer aided design, seems to have resulted in less and less reliance on the factory floor builders to apply customary good boat building practice. Paradoxically, there seems to be less generalized expertise available but a surplus of the specific that is hazy or myopic.

There is no lack of information available to define individual aspects of the vessel but the overview seems to be lacking in many cases. Fashion or current popular opinion, everyone has a voice it seems though it is frequently poorly informed and of dubious motive, may end up as the dominant design parameters. The marine field can ill afford this kind of approach if the customer’s well being is given first priority. This does not mean that every vessel has to be able to survive a typhoon but every vessel should be forgiving of the likely circumstances the owner may experience, inadvertently or by necessity.

The pleasure boat customer today is deluged with imagery, “expert” opinion, sales-speak, irresistible “deals” and assurances. It is no wonder if he finds the task of being informed difficult or confusing, and this at a time when more than ever before he must be diligent in seeking assurance that the design and marketing for his chosen vessel have been responsibly represented.

More than ever it falls to the designer to do his best to work for safety and seaworthiness first, while still providing all possible amenities, then maybe try for some flash, to ensure that for the customer there remains “Nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”


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