“Houston, we have a problem”… This phrase has become a way to communicate, in an understated way, the significance of a major problem at hand. And so, it is with this somewhat ominous introduction that I provide you with a summary of the boat repair and service industry….yes, Houston, we indeed have a problem.
For better or worse, the great State of California has been an incubator of all forms of new technologies and approaches to life. For example, there’s no doubt the advent of digital map technology, which was pioneered by a Bay Area sailor and ushered into our nautical lives, took place long before it became an essential application on our handheld devices. California has also been the epicenter of environmental activism and legislation.
Although the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts have been Federal law since the 70s and our air and water has indeed become cleaner, in most states, the ability of the marine industry to meet these environmental standards has proven to be difficult to achieve. California has enacted even stricter standards, which have not taken our tiny “cottage industry” into account. The result has shown that these standards have been problematic for some time. For example, take boatbuilding. At one time, California led the country, if not the world, in the number of fiberglass boats being built. Today, not one major boatbuilder remains in California, which to a large degree is a result of environmental regulations our state has imposed.
Please don’t get the wrong impression, I believe that as sailors, fisherman and water enthusiasts, we all have a deeply embedded commitment to protecting our environment. We also understand the need for regulations. But it is a matter of balance and scale. As you may be aware, we are regulated as to how much copper may be discharged in our storm water and these concentrations must be reported to the State. Under the current regulations if a boatyard’s storm water has copper exceeding 33.2 parts per billion, the boatyard may be fined for violating the Clean Water Act, which also opens the door to third-party lawsuits. To put this into perspective, the federal EPA allows up to 1,300 parts per billion copper in our drinking water. This surely indicates the standard to which boatyard operators is being held is out of balance, thereby making every boatyard in California vulnerable to becoming the target of a Clean Water Act lawsuit.
We are also challenged, particularly in the Bay Area, with the high costs of living. I know many boatyard operators in California that pay very good wages, yet attracting capable craftspeople is difficult. In addition to the costs, many of the skill sets that boatyard operators need aren’t taught in California. Many trade schools offer vocational training in other parts of the country, but unfortunately not in California. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to recruit capable craftspeople from outside the state due to our high costs of living.
So, you might ask, what is the solution? The answers are complicated. For those of us who are fully vested within the marine industry, particularly in the service and repair side, the solutions will come through consolidation. For example, while the costs of developing and maintaining proper safety, health and environmental programs are very high, these costs can become amortized if you operate more than one facility. Not only does this provide operational consistency but scale.
Solutions to California’s environmental, permitting and regulatory issues can also come through concerned citizens making their concerns known in Sacramento and within our individual communities. If you are not talking to your legislative and local representatives about your concerns, then you’re not likely to find solutions to the matters that impact us all.
There’s no question that our industry is faced with some problems, but like those who risked landing on the moon, we will prevail. The need to be on the water, for pleasure or to make a living, will remain with us forever. Boats will always be with us and as a result, they will always need service or repair. Additionally, due to the unique and specialized nature of the boats we work on, these services and repairs will always be done by skilled craftspeople.
Fortunately, most of the people with whom I have contact within maritime industry are truly passionate about what they do. They are highly motivated to meet their customers’ needs so all can enjoy the water and the sport we’re so dedicated to. So, yes, Houston, there are problems, but we can and will fix them. The sooner the better….for all.
See you on the waterfront,
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