THE COST OF BOAT GEAR
One thing that has always fascinated me about boating and sailing is the attitude of some people that the cost of marine
gear is over-priced.
Part of this is my inherent "economic" attitude that nothing is ever over-priced. It is just that the price may be too high for a
given person. Basic economic theory tells us that everyone is going to have a different impression of what something
should cost, and that something can be "too expensive." But "too expensive" simply means "more than I would pay right
here, right now," which is not the same as "over-priced." "Over-priced," as far as I can tell from the people who have used
it, means that the price is too high for anyone to want to pay.
I once was driving through the Colorado Rockies with my brother and we noticed that there was a stream running down
the rocks off the side of the road. We stopped the car and took some cups over to that stream. It was icy cold and
refreshing, pure mountain stream water. More importantly, it was almost free, costing us only the few minutes that we lost
in our trip to stop and taste it. Now, I can get very similar water at the local convenience store, delivered to me in a plastic
bottle. It's just as icy cold, just as refreshing and just as pure - maybe even more so. However, it will cost me a dollar or
more to enjoy that water. So, something I once got that was almost free now costs me more than a dollar. Does that
mean that the water at 7-11 is "over-priced"?
Not at all. I can tell that it is not over-priced because I - and many other people - are willing to pay for it. We feel that, for
the value we are receiving, a dollar is fair. Would it be better if I could go back to that stream and simply dip a bottle's
worth of water out every time I wanted to? Absolutely. But since I can't, the 7-11 is a worthy alternative.
The second part of my fascination comes from the idea that the price of anything must include the cost of creating and
transporting that thing, along with all of the other costs that might be associated with it. There is an old joke about a man
who called the television repair man (back when it was possible to repair televisions) to his house because the set was
not working. The repair man pulled the set away from the wall and found that the television was unplugged. He plugged it
back in, turned the set on and it worked perfectly. He presented the customer with a bill for $50. The customer was irate.
"How can you charge me $50", the man fumed, "when all you did was plug the set back in?"
The repair man calmly replied, "the bill is one dollar for plugging the television back in and forty-nine dollars for knowing
where to look."
Often, we look at the cost of a part or repair as the things that we can see, without considering all of the costs that we can't
see. It has been said that placing the word "marine" on a product doubles or triples the price. While this is not strictly
true, it does contain a kernel of truth.
When we see a product that is labeled as "marine," we assume - rightly or wrongly - that it is more suitable for an
environment than can be very different from a "normal" one. A product that is intended for "marine" use has to be able to
work in an environment that is more humid than one ashore. It has to be able to work when it periodically can get wet. It
has to be able to work when the electrical supply is not particularly stable. It has to be able to stand up to rough treatment
and to stresses that a shore side component would never be asked to encounter.
Furthermore, there are costs associated with selling and ensuring the proper usage of the material or equipment that have
few counterparts in the residential housing market. For example, very few people would consider connecting an inverter
and battery bank to their house and, if they did, it would be almost automatic that a qualified electrician would be called. In
fact, for many such installations, local or state regulations would require that the change be made, or at least inspected by,
a trained installation technician. In the marine marketplace, on the other hand, such a project is considered very much in
the realm of the "boat owner," and many books, magazines and on-line articles will "walk you through" the project.
However, if, due to the owner's lack of expertise, he inadvertently hooks something up incorrectly, the resulting fire, loss of
property, or loss of life will undoubtedly be traced back to the inverter.
"It was obviously the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that this could not have happened," says the lawyer. "The
manufacturer had the burden of knowing that this might be installed by an untrained operator, therefore, the manufacturer
should pay for the loss."
"But no," says the reader, "I would never say that." It may be so, but consider that it may not be the reader who is making
the decision. It may be the owner's spouse, children, parents or even an estate attorney making the decision to try to get
compensation. These people may not see the "accident" through the same eyes as the reader.
It is true that the possibility of an untrained person attempting to install a difficult and potentially dangerous piece of
equipment in a residential home does exist. However, the probability is lower and the number of successful installations
is higher. While there are hundreds of thousands of boats in America, there are hundreds of millions of land-based
dwellings. So, the cost of providing insurance to the manufacturer of a component not intended for marine use is lower
and spread over a greater number of units sold.
Does this mean that no piece of equipment should ever be installed unless it specifically says "marine" on it? Certainly
not. If something can be found that appears to work sufficiently, there is nothing to say that a boat owner could not or
should not use it. However, the understanding must be that the implied suitability for use is much lower. It may last just as
long as the similar "marine-grade" equipment. It may fail much earlier. You buys your ticket and you takes your chances.
But, the person who does buy the "marine grade" version should not be faulted for doing so. We all have different levels
of risk, just as we all have different levels at which we consider a product - any product - too expensive. There is no way of
saying that anyone's personal level of risk or reward is inappropriate for them. Rather, I should say there is no legitimate
way of doing so, since any search of the sailing and boating Internet forums will find examples of people doing exactly that.