An Ode to the Overbuilt

14 Sep
I got ninety-nine problems but this ain’t one…

As a bicycle mechanic and now a sailboat owner, I’ll let you in on a little secret – lightweight is a scam. ‘Weighs only XX grams’ ‘Engineered for performance’ ‘Excellent strength-to-weight ratio’ ‘Super-light, all-composite design’ – these are the buzzwords used by a marketing industry so effective that against all evidence it has us convinced that these high-intensity phrases will equate to a real-world improvement for the average consumer. Take, for instance, this item selected at random from West Marine:

‘The ultimate, next-generation, high-performance [item] incorporate unique innovations including radically new [part], super light, all-composite materials, innovative new [part] and a sleek design for the highest strength to weight ratio available.’

Heady stuff, huh? Now, let me ask you a couple questions:

Do you often find yourself locked in a head-to-head battle for the first place finish?
Are you taking off on that ’round-the-world single-hander soon?
Do you find yourself constantly adjusting those running backstays (and actually gaining any speed from it)?

See where I’m going with this? Unless you’re a professional, you just don’t need this expensive high-tech stuff. In most cases you’ll be equally well served, and at a fraction of the price, with previous-generation kit, gear that, incidentally, is time-tested.

Ok, these guys can probably use all that high-tech kit to full effect… Photo: Oracle Team USA

Which brings us to the other side of this marketing buzzword- though the sailing industry is better about this than some, ‘lightweight’ often also means weaker and more failure-prone. The strength-to-weight ratio is just that- a ratio, and though new materials change the game a bit a reduction in weight still usually means a reduction in strength and therefore in working life.

(For the record this applies to carbon-fiber racing bikes as well, which are rarely worth their price tags. Well unless you’re going to take it on your round-the-world single-handed cruise, in which case the weakness of the carbon fiber might be made up for by its corrosion resistance.)

Conversely, an increase in weight very often means an increase in strength, in useful life, and in what I might call the cost-to-weight ratio if I were a marketing department. Which is why heavy-duty is one of my personal ‘buzzwords.’ So let me tell you what I like to see in boat equipment. Actually, let me show you, since what I like to see is usually so low-tech that I can actually afford it.

Here we are re-installing my headstay attachment point (what do you call a chainplate that isn’t a plate?):

That’s one solid piece of cast bronze. Decidedly not lightweight.

My chainplates:

They’re 316 stainless steel 2″x18″x.25″. Way oversized for the boat.

My bow fitting, with anchor roller:

Bow platform is heavy oak, two inches thick

And the anchor roller is solid stainless, salvaged from a damaged fitting in the yard’s scrap pile and modified

 Oh, and the winches?

Not an ounce of plastic in that assembly!

Then there is the rest of the boat- spars, running rigging and associated tackle, sails, ect. Though I replaced a handful of things just about every bit of my boat is technology at least thirty years old, built back when marketing had more to do with reliability and working life than being on the cutting edge of high-tech. As a result it all still functions today. The only exception to this rule is my Dyneema standing rigging. Due to the action of the mast as a lever aloft is actually the one place where I’ll accept that weight savings may have a noticeable effect for the recreational sailor, though this is not really why I went with my Dynex Dux rigging.

So that’s me. Now ok, not everyone wants a 10,000 pound boat that spends most of its time waddling along at four knots. I suppose I can understand that… You could also point out that overbuilding one peiece of a system (ie. my chainplates) doesn’t really increase the strength of the whole system, which is also true, except that I’m not a structural engineer and so I like to play it safe with the bits I built myself.

Regardless, I go crazy when I see all this scam marketing aimed at the recreational sailor (or cyclist, or whatever market has most recently been subjected to a carbon-fiber hostile takeover). Central to these marketing strategies is the deeply flawed idea that what the every(wo)man really needs to ‘improve performance’ is gear designed for professional racers. Thing is, in real-life ninety-percent of this over-hyped gear isn’t going to do a thing for the people buying it (that’s a statistic straight from Pat Schulte’s data-collection agency) . It may not be quite as ‘radically next-generation’ but if we’re honest with ourselves most of us will get more of a ‘performance boost’ out of book on sail trim than some jaw-droppingly expensive bit of gear designed for the Volvo Ocean Race. But if we were all pulling out library cards instead of credit cards where would that leave the marketing departments?

 See my Index of DIY and How-to Posts

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


  1. Matt

    Neil Degrasse Tyson said it in a great way. I do not recall the exact words but it was essentially that those who are scientifically literate cannot be taken advantage of.

Comments are closed.

More from the AIM Marine Group