You are going to think I have completely gone off topic, or maybe off my head, but bear with me and all will become clear.
I used to own a computer systems integration company. We specialized in providing accounting systems to small businesses. This was in the early days of small computers, and business owners faced with unfamiliar technology were understandably intimated by the process of selecting a company to help them automate, so many turned to consultants to help them make a decision. One of those consultants was a man named…well, let’s call him Marco**.
It Seemed So Logical
Marco’s first action when hired by a new client was to spend many hours interviewing every staff member in the organization that had anything do with accounting and asking them what they wanted the new automated accounting system to do and then meticulously writing down their answers.
The Request for Proposal
He would then write a request for proposal (RFP), which was in essence a list of the features gathered in the first step. These documents usually ran to many pages and were often as much as an inch thick. Marco, being a helpful kind of guy, even added little boxes next to each feature.
After receiving the RFP, we vendors would spend hours striving to figure out ways to bend and massage our systems so that we could tick as many of Marco’s little boxes as possible, without stretching the truth…too much. Marco would then add up all the ticks on each RFP and the one that had the most ticks got the contract.
So, how did this work out for the customers that hired Marco? What was Marco’s success rate? Well, in that strange English game of cricket we would have said, “Marco was bowled for a duck”. (Translation for you Americans: Marco’s batting average was a big fat zero.) Every single one of those projects ended in disaster.
What had Marco done wrong? Why were his results so terrible? Three reasons:
- He accorded the same importance to every feature.
- He never defined the things that the company’s systems absolutely had to be able to do well to be successful.
- He never thought about the potential downsides of each feature or looked for potential conflicts between features.
OK, if you are still with me, I’m sure you’re getting my point and how it applies to the process of buying a boat: If you simply list every feature you might want in a boat and then go shopping for the boat that ticks the maximum number of features, I can near guarantee you that the boat you end up with will be a poor fit for your needs…and very likely a just plain poor boat, for the same reasons listed above.
But the sad thing is, that’s exactly what I see many (most?) boat buyers doing.
In later years, when I did some computer selection consulting (poachers make the best game keepers), when explaining to clients how to go about selecting the best automation vendor for their needs, I used to call the systems that Marco’s type of selection process spawned “Swiss Army Knife Systems”—a device that has tools and features to do just about everything imaginable, but which doesn’t do anything well. We have all seen Swiss Army Knife Boats. Boats festooned with gear that really don’t sail and/or motor well, are awkward to handle, and a nightmare to maintain.
A Better Way
So, if listing all your desired features is not the path to a good boat, what is?
They key to success, as we found in the computer business, is to think about vital capabilities, not features. And to make that work you have to impose limits on the number of items you put on the vital capabilities list, otherwise it just becomes a features list with another name above it. We found that the absolute safe maximum is ten, and the fewer the better. Here are the vital capabilities Phyllis and I would require if looking for a new offshore sailboat:
- Seaworthy, able to survive a multi-day storm far offshore.
- Comfortable motion at sea.
- Reasonably fast.
- Good access to all mechanical gear.
- Good performance and range under power. (We sail in the high northern latitudes where there is often either too much wind or not enough.)
- Hull and rig strong enough to take punishment and forgive our mistakes.
- Interior layout that is safe and functional at sea.
- Deck layout that is safe and functional at sea.
- A boat we can love. (Life is too short to own an ugly boat.)
- Cost no more than our budget, ready to sail away.
Stay Away From Details
Notice that I have not been too specific in this list. That is no accident. Focusing in too closely at this point in the process can lead to big mistakes in boat selection. For example, I could have specified a metal hull, but instead I just said that the boat must be strong. The point being that there are weak boats built of metal and strong boats built of wood and fibreglass and you don’t want to limit your choices and miss a potentially great boat that fits your vital capabilities list by adding unnecessary criteria.
In our case, with Morgan’s Cloud, the opposite occurred. All I knew about at the time I bought her was fibreglass. Frankly, aluminum scared me. But if I had put “built of fibreglass” on my list, I would have missed by far the best boat available at the time for our needs and budget.
Another trap to avoid is using specific numbers. For example, I was on a custom motor boat some time ago that had an engine room that is horribly cramped with terrible access, to the point that it makes the boat useless and unworkable. How did this happen? As I understand it, the owner specified a huge fuel range number and just would not budge on that, with the result that the tankage impinged on the engine room.
If, on the other hand, said owner had simply specified “ocean crossing range” he could have worked with the designer to come up with a compromise (all boats are compromises) that would allow both an ocean crossing (perhaps with a stop or modified route) and a decent engine room.
Also note that I have not specified a size. Again, that is no accident. If you specify a minimum size you risk passing by boats that fit your needs and budget but are a bit smaller than you thought you wanted—better a great smaller boat than a large junker.
Finding a Rare Diamond
There’s another huge advantage to keeping the list short and not too focused. You see, the thing is, contrary to what many will tell you and what the massive used boat listings would seem to indicate, there are actually very, very few good offshore voyaging boats out there to buy. Staying focussed on what really matters will make it a lot more likely that you will find one of the real gems in among all the real crap.
Check For Conflicts
The next step after making the list is to sit down and think really carefully and critically about whether any of your criteria are in conflict. For example, if you have listed:
- a huge aft cabin with a queen sized bunk,
- a seaworthy hull,
- a reasonable turn of speed,
- a maximum price of US$150,000, (ready to sail away),
you have a problem. Such a boat doesn’t exsist. At least one of these criteria must go.
Using The list
OK, got your list of vital capabilities done? You are now ready to go and look at boats. The rules are:
- You will not consider any boat that does not meet all the capabilities.
- You will give every boat that meets all the capabilities serious consideration regardless of features you don’t like.
Don’t fudge here, you will regret it. Be particularly careful about rule number two. As my yoga instructor is want to say, “brain tricky”***. Your tricky brain will try to convince you that some feature you don’t like violates one of the criteria. When that happens, use our needs or wants test to see if that is in fact true. If you don’t, you will almost certainly miss a really good boat over a triviality (often in the form of “must-have wisdom” picked up from a forum).
And go ahead and give the list to your broker(s) and tell them that showing you too many boats that don’t conform is a sure route to dismissal. A good broker presented with this list will respect you and save you a lot of wasted time by weeding out the chaff.
I would love to see what list you come up with. Please leave a comment.