Consumerism and Sailing: An Almost Impossible Match

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Today’s thought comes from viewing a great video over at Doryman (and here), who links over from Annie Leonard’s site. The discussion is on consumerism, and it got my creative juices going. Not that I have an “audience”, but I suppose I have a platform.  If you find yourself with twenty minutes, grab a snack, a coffee, a whatever, and watch.

I was initially turned onto these types of short documentaries by the 35 minute film There’s No Tomorrow.  Since we don’t have cable, I don’t get to watch a ton of Discovery or Learning Channel, and these Youtube-style versions are filling the gap.

When I think on what consumerism is, I’m reminded of lessons learned from living aboard.  The plain fact is, there’s only a finite amount of room aboard any sailboat. It will be filled, in some way.  Maybe it’s chock full of foodstuffs, chock full of friends, chock full of junk, but it will be full of something. As a liveaboard, this is your environment, so you must learn to make wise choices on what comes in, what stays, and what goes.  Since your environment is small, and ever close, you quickly learn this lesson.

– You purchased the boat and it came with a typical assortment of 1970’s era life jackets.  Do you replace them out of concerns for safety, or because they smell musty, or because they look awful?

– You graduated college with your old 13″ tube-style TV.  Do you give up cubic feet on the boat to keep the TV or pitch it and get a flat screen?

– You want to refresh the look in the main cabin, but do you throw away the old cushions and replace, or recover what you’ve got.

It’s easy to think that these questions revolve solely around money. If I can afford to replace the life jackets with newer, safer models, I should. The TV probably uses more power than I can spare, and the cushions are full of evil chemicals; replace them all.

As a sailing consumer, we need to think about the other aspects of those decisions.  What is the impact of getting this _____ onto the boat, and what is the impact of taking _____ off the boat.

 

The Decision Two-Step

For things coming on:

  • Does this item serve a necessary purpose?
  • Will this item serve multiple purposes?
  • Where will this item live? Is there a space aboard for it?
  • What is this item replacing?
  • What additional work will having this item bring on me?
  • Will I get a substantial relative value from having this product aboard?

For things going off the boat:

  • Where is this item going to?
  • Can this item be reused aboard my boat?
  • Can this item be used aboard someone else boat?
  • Can it be recycled? (And where will I do that?)

Here’s an example from my Tartan 37.  The head was vintage 1980, with a substantial amount of plumbing missing.  I was overseas and getting parts would be problematic.  I wanted a bulletproof system, and went with a camper potty.  For the inbound toilet:

  • I had to “go” somewhere, so it was very necessary
  • It had its own water tank, holding tank, and seat, so I didn’t need to buy multiple pieces to create a system
  • It would be in the head, exactly where the old toilet bowl was and was measured to fit
  • It replaced the non-functioning marine head
  • I would have to purchase holding tank treatment and a spray bottle of cleaning solution, and later chose to keep some air freshener in the space. These were consumable goods that needed a life cycle decision of their own
  • Compared to ordering, shipping, installing, and maintaining a marine head system, this would allow me to do less work and have a lower potential for system failures, therefore provided substantial value

For the outbound toilet

  • The toilet had a number of copper fittings which could be recycled: off to the metal scrap yard
  • Sadly no, and what plumbing was left was of no value to me
  • In this case, no, because the head wasn’t rebuildable
  • Yes: at least the fixtures were and went to the local scrap yard

Most of your purchases should get this level of questioning before coming aboard. Protect your space, because many folks out there want to take it from you.

(Photo credit: Miz_ginevra)

Decisions Decisions: Factors in Sailboat Upgrades and Improvements

http://volkscruiser.blogspot.com/2013/08/if-it-aint-broke.html

 I’ve long been a fan of Bob’s writing, having enjoyed almost 7 years of daily (practically) posts from the Caribbean. He switched off of “BoatBits” for a while now, but started up a blog known as “Volkscruiser”, the implied meaning being a cruiser for the masses.

 I didn’t know it at the time, but I was joining the Volk when I purchased SeaWitch in 2002. An aged Cal28, she was one of the thousands of reasonably priced fiberglass production boats of the 70’s available in the U.S. These “classic plastics” are an ideal choice for the young, or beginning, liveaboard. If one sticks with a firm understanding of ROI.

Return on Investment

As a financial phrase, ROI means the ratio of profit to the amount invested. In life, ROI is a flexible term with a subjective meaning. Investment could mean time, money, attention, or effort. But harder to measure is “return”.

 In 2004, while on patrol with my first submarine, USS Rhode Island, I made the choice of bringing out the latest Defender catalog. Based in New England, Defender is a well-known source of all things marine. I spent several evenings flipping through the pages with a notebook next to me, jotting down ideas for upgrades to SeaWitch’s systems. Sometimes the pictures would remind of a part I knew needed replacing. Sometimes it was an improved product that promised additional utility or efficiency. Sometimes it was a whole new concept that I “knew” I needed to incorporate, i.e. solar charging for my batteries.

 I don’t regret spending the time day dreaming, but such behavior can become destructive with an older boat.

 Facts

 When doing an initial survey or taking stock of what you’ve got, there are a few important things to keep in mind.

 1) No boat will ever be perfect: Even if you had unlimited resources, there’s always “something” else that could be improved. And use will always cause systems to fail, given enough time. The state of a sailboat is constantly changing. In that way, it’s really a living thing.

 2) You must understand the minimum effective state for your vessel: Call it whatever you want, but there’s a minimal amount of equipment or capability that a sailboat must have to sail properly and safely, and to carry you (and others) from point A to B. Any future purchase should be married to one of these things.

 3) Define what success looks like ahead of time: Measuring return is tough unless you know what it is you’re looking for. If I spent $1000 on a solar charging system, but always stayed at marinas, what was my return? I charge on shore power at every opportunity, maybe my engine charges, and I have a large capacity battery bank. Those solar panels aren’t doing anything other than making me look like a “real cruiser”. Vanity may be an appropriate measure, but just understand what it is ahead of time. Do you want to look like a cruising boat, or be a boat that cruises?

 Your Money or Your Life

 Most upgrades will not provide a financial benefit to the resale value of your sailboat. That’s just facts. It’s not much different than doing home makeover and improvements; most won’t pay for themselves, but some are more valuable than others. You should try to ensure that any effort made at improving your sailboat adds real value, in the form of convenience, safety, performance, or comfort, and if it does those things, then it will likely add to the “real” value of the vessel as well. If those $1000 solar panels leave my batteries topped off at all times, no need for shore power, and I spend a significant amount of time away from other sources, then I won’t mind if the resale value of my boat doesn’t go up by the total cost of installation. But, all things equal, a sailboat with good working systems will outsell one without, especially if marketed correctly.

As Bob mentions, a good filter to test purchases is the traditional advice: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

What systems do you look at first when deciding to upgrade or replace gear? Are traditional areas of concern still valid?