Boatbuilding Gone Bad

By Joe Hudspeth

Owners, designers, builders and the crew can collaborate in a meaningful way to ensure that the delivered product meets everyone’s expectations. You can get there from here.

We have all gone aboard or below decks on vessels and looked around with a myriad of instantaneous questions forming in our minds as to why the builder would construct a vessel in such a convoluted fashion. Builders will always get the bad rap for any eyesores and systems designs gone awry. It is true; some builders and designers are to blame and their list of faults should be clearly inscribed on the transom. On the flip side, there is often very little verbalized appreciation for the hours upon hours of pre-engineering that goes into specifying the right system, establishing a good fit, and maintaining overall mission goals, weight, balance, trim, tonnage, performance, etc. No builder is perfect and a philosophy of continuous improvement is generally ascribed to, but sometimes custom built boats leave the ways, nevertheless lacking their fullest potential.

Getting the Hull Story
What may seem like an inherent design flaw may prove to be intentional or at least a best case alternative. Customers themselves are not blameless and have been known to request change orders during the construction phase that can be design-altering. Good builders will do their best to jump through any hoops the customer holds, but the laws of physics, sound engineering, and applicable regulations always take precedence and impact the end result.

One boat buyer was dismayed to discover that a poorly placed raw water intake created a plumbing pipe hurdle right at the entrance to the engine room. The customer’s previously purchased sister ship did not have such an obstacle – why should this boat with the same engine model be any different?  Simple changes to some plumbing configurations have occurred as a result of EPA-driven engine redesigns. Intakes that previously existed out of the way at an opposite corner of the engine now leave a mandate for the builder to lay a pipe maze that the owner will have to surmount every day. Such changes in technology and new model designs will constantly occur, inducing builders to reconcile awkward plumbing, wiring, and serviceable connections that in the end can leave engine rooms looking anything but ship shape despite best efforts.

Builder in a Box
Vessel builders do get it; we understand that new builds are a rare opportunity and come at a significant investment. Establishing clear specifications is certainly the right way to direct shipyards and designers towards the expected results. Careful attention should be made to ensure that specifications are not conflicting and provide enough flexibility for the designers to establish symbiotic relationships between all systems and the confines of the vessel’s infrastructure. To start with, avoid backing the builder into the corner of a poorly constructed box.

Problems usually stem from specifications driven by committee, where everyone is looking to make a lasting mark. This situation is overly common in public procurements and competitive bid solicitations.  Builders have seen rigid design specifications that restrict all the particulars and set performance requirements without accounting for the feasibility of appropriately sized and available engines, propulsion systems, and possible inefficiencies or cavitations that may develop as a result of extreme hull tapers or necessitated prop tunnel designs. It becomes quite problematic when there is a limitation set for a 3’ draft and performance requirements mandate a conventional prop and shaft configuration with a 40” propeller.

It can be fun to ‘play’ at being a naval architect, but this also comes with the responsibility of verifying that the minimum deck size, maximum length, beam, and air draft that will house the remaining requirements for accommodation space, heads, ADA standards, work stations, deck machinery, stores, and whatever else is deemed to be mission critical, actually match. Builders are happy to give you the galley sink, but may have to draw some lines with everything else. Penciling out your plans “to scale” on graph paper is somewhat helpful initially, but bear in mind that things will have to change with the addition of structural supports, plumbing, and wireways. Putting a ship in a bottle may start to look like a more obtainable proposition after all.

It is also important to avoid being caught in the trough of archaism. Just because a long time employee and mariner wants the 3,000 gallon fuel tank he has become accustomed to, this does not necessarily mean it makes sense for practicality and efficiency. Depending on the fuel efficiency of the selected modern engine, the requisite range and reserve may exist with a smaller more appropriately sized tank. Specs should be calculated, not guessed.

Allow the builder to offer a streamlined design and walk you through the rationale and justification.  Furthermore, customers must fully understand the limitations of the design. For example, hull designs built to sustain 20 knots in 10’ seas do not (necessarily) cover any other equipment that may not be rated for such vertical accelerations. Just because equipment such as a crane may be rated for a certain reach and payload for operations over the stern does not automatically equate to an equally safe pick over the side. Smart builders and designers will raise these flags. 

Midstream Course Change
In some instances, it does take the builder a second time around to get things right and rectify issues spawned from their own craftsmanship, nonproductive components, or oversight. Sometimes the bullet has to be bitten and the limitations of a one year warranty must be overlooked when a critical system fails and the builder’s reputation is on the line. Boats are sold and repeat orders are obtained through reputation and a demonstration of lasting quality. All builders go through a transition at some point where their “go-to,” time-tested equipment and/or installation techniques will no longer pass muster and the builder must step up and supply something new. Hopefully, the fix is not as drastic as replacing an ineptly sized engine, but builders who offer goodwill have assumed responsibility to repair cracked welds, blast and replace poorly performing paint, upgrade HVAC systems, substitute interior finishes, and other such items that could easily be argued as outside the scope of a latent defect warranty or construed as questionable beyond normal intended use.

Patching the Hole
Construction contracts are often signed before structural engineering and system designs are complete. General arrangement drawings are provided on the basis of only being a “general representation.” The ambiguity can be lightened with detailed construction specifications. If the budget justifies, 3D modeling can be utilized to map out the hull and systems in a tangible perspective.  Builders should review each system and piece of working machinery with the customer and preferably the crew prior to construction. Upfront, there should be a clear understanding as to what is and was possible with the design and how the vessel can and should be used.

If the initial proposal is not likeable, offer an opportunity to rework and revise the draft.  Determinations should flow to the owner’s representative on what has been agreed upon and the builder should amend the construction specification following review and approval from the naval architect. Similarly, the final step of commissioning and sea trials should always be supplemented with crew training so that everyone understands how the owner’s original vision translated from the naval architect’s plans into the vessel’s actual working design and capabilities.

The Author
Joe Hudspeth is Vice President of Business Development at All American Marine, Inc., a manufacturer of high speed passenger ferries, excursion vessels, and work boats, in Bellingham, Wash.  Hudspeth has been involved with maritime sales, marketing and product development since 2000.  He currently serves as a regional co-chairman for the Passenger Vessel Association and participates on several committees concerned with marine industry issues. 
Reach him at [email protected]

(As published in the September 2015 edition of Marine News -

Marine News Magazine, page 26,  Sep 2015

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Marine News is the premier magazine of the North American Inland, coastal and Offshore workboat markets.