by David Pascoe
When we first decided to do boat reviews, we pretty much decided that there were certain boat builders that we wouldn't consider. These would mainly be the entry-level class builders, or builders whose products had established such a well known reputation for poor quality and defective products that we needn't state the obvious.
There are always those folks who can't resist a bargain, or whose philosophy is to always shop and buy based on the lowest price. Sure, we harp on quality a lot, mainly because boats are so very expensive, and to spend $100,000 on the lowest priced boat of its class is just plain nuts. But we've come to realize that there are some people -- many of them, in fact -- who will never realize the error in this. So there's no point in our attempting to dissuade them.
We also pointed out in our Introduction to Boat Reviews, which many of our readers don't read, and therefore miss the whole point of these reviews being here, that the quality amongst any builder's product line can be highly variable, not only from model to model, but from year to year, or even month to month. We cautioned against simply reading a review of one boat, and then applying the information in that review more or less globally. We cautioned that boats are not cranked out of a machine, but are hand made products. By human hands, that is. So you may want to reflect on the old Russian adage that you never want to buy a refrigerator that is made on a Monday or a Friday. Or anything else, for that matter.
Carver is one of those builders whom we didn't see much point in mentioning, for the caliber of their products are well known, and a buyer would have to have been asleep for the past twenty years, or simply too lazy to do any research at all, not to know what kind of boats they build. Surveyors have long considered them to be little more than floating campers, and are often heard to make jokes such as "they forgot to put the wheels on this one."
Then, very early in the decade, we started hearing talk that Carver was trying to reinvent itself by entering the mid-sized boat market, and was turning out a higher quality product. Well, "better quality" is a phrase that always gets our attention, so we started paying more attention to Carver. Sure, we've surveyed plenty of their small boats, but didn't see much point in commenting on them. If you do your shopping at a discount store, you know what kind of quality you're getting. By the mid 1990's we were hearing a lot of talk about Carver, mainly by the broker/dealer types, favorably comparing this new line of boats to some of the higher end boats like Hatteras or Viking. Surveyors, of course, don't get to survey new boats very often. Typically, we don't survey a boat until its 3 years or older. What we were seeing in the boat shows and at the dealer's docks certainly looked good. But, then, all new boats look good. It takes a while for the shine to wear off and the boat has some miles under its bilge before we begin to see whether they're really made of the right stuff.
Now, when a builder enters the larger boat market, particularly with boats priced well over 1/4 million, that attracts our interest. Not because we're interested in the higher rollers, but to see what a builder can get away with in this price range. (Sort of like wondering if you could sell a Rolls Royce with plastic bumpers.) And also when the literature is peppered with words like quality and craftsmanship.
Our first good look came in 1995 with Hurricane Opal in the Florida panhandle when we got to see a couple of damaged 43's. There's nothing like examining a boat that's been broken apart (or not broken apart) by a storm to really get a good look at how they're made. For this is where all the cost and corner cutting begins to stick out like a sore thumb. And what we were seeing wasn't looking too good. Our first example was a one year old 43 footer that broke its moorings and was driven up onto a sandy shore in the courtyard of a condominium. This boat really caught a lot of attention because it had part of a helm chair imbedded in the side of the hull. Yep, the base of a helm chair was sticking right out
On close examination, it was pretty easy to see how that had happened. The hull sides were balsa cored and the exterior fiberglass skin was somewhere around 1/8" to maybe 3/16" thick. The glass was so thin that you could swing a small hammer at it with only moderate force and it would go right through. We know because we tried that. The other boat had small holes punctured in the sides all around the hull, but what really caught our attention was the fact that it also had creases in the hull sides where it had scraped against the gunwales of other boats. That's creases like you'd get in your car door if you brushed up against the bumper of another car. This one also had only 1/8" glass on the sides. Fiberglass is strong stuff, but not that strong.
Dent's and creases in a fiberglass hull? Now that's something we've never seen before. But the glass on this boat was also so thin that creasing it was made possible. Then we starting thinking and comparing these two Carvers with the 46 Bertram just down the road that broke loose, wiped out half a marina, took out part of a restaurant built on 12' telephone pole pilings and ended up in a heap against a concrete retaining wall with a pile of other boats. It didn't have a single hole in the side, even though the hull side of that boat was only around 3/8" thick. You can see pictures of it in the 46 Bertram review.
Hole cut here is for a test coupon in way of area where outer laminate started peeling off. The hull is about 1/4" thick in this area and is delaminated. Bottom flexing was so bad here that even the paint flaked off. The delamination can be seen inside the hole.
Our next exposure came with a 46 Carver wherein the owner had decided to add a cockpit extension to the hull. After going into the yard, the after interior was stripped out, then they removed the exhaust pipes from the transom. Problem was, water started pouring out of the balsa cored transom and hull sides. Seems Carver thought it was a good idea to core the hull right down to the chine, well below the water line. But worse, for all the through hull openings and exhaust pipes, they just cut holes right through the core and bedded the fittings and pipes in place. Now builders have know ever since the 1960's that you can't do this, but apparently Carver didn't. So when the fittings inevitably leaked, the core filled up with water.
But there was another problem. Once again, both the outer and inner laminates were so thin that the yard discovered, much to their surprise, that there wasn't enough material to bond an extension to. The hull was simply too weak to add onto it. At least for the amount they had quoted in the customer's contract. On the inside, over the balsa core, was only ONE layer of mat and roving for a laminate thickness of about 1/16".
It is our policy that we do not publish instances of hull failures or defects of any kind unless we can establish a pattern of defects. All boat builders make mistakes, and its not our purpose to go around pointing them out. The defect has to be endemic to their way of doing things. Moreover, we are extremely careful to make sure that the boat wasn't abused or damaged by some other means. We do not wish to sully anyone's reputation, so unless we find multiple instances of defects or poor design, we keep quiet about it. The boat that put Carver over the threshold for us is this 1994 model 370 that experienced massive bottom laminate failure.
This is a story we're telling with pictures because they speak for themselves. What you see here is a hull that has so little fiberglass in it, that is so thin that it is simply falling apart. At best, the bottom laminate around the unsupported panels (between frames) is one quarter inch thick. It looks a little thicker where you see the test hole cut because the bottom is delaminated and spread apart. Worse yet, of that 1/4" you can see that there are multiple layers of chopped strand mat, a material that is only used (or should be used) to prevent telegraphing of the weave pattern of the structural fabrics through to the gelcoat. In this case the mat, which is a very weak material, comprises a major part of the bottom laminate thickness, at least 25%.
What you see here is a catestrophic hull failure in progess. It was caught in time, before the boat sank, after the boat was hauled out and discovered that parts of the bottom laminate were peeling off. What you see here is the inevitable result of what happens when the bean counters get involved in the design of a boat in order to produce it as cheaply as possible. What you see here is the result of a conscious decision to use as little clostly materials as possible, not just in one or two boats, but throughout a product line. Its what happens when you design a hull to the edge of failure limits: some of them are going to fail. What you see here is a boat that cannot be repaired and, unless the builder is willing to refund the sales price, is likely to be tied up in litigation for years.
This is a very rare shot of bottom panel flexing so bad that it completely outlines the inner hull frames. Note the rectangular pattern. The horizontal cracks outline the stringers, while the vertical cracks outline the bulkheads or frames.
These circular pattern stress cracks are the more typical pattern that indicates bottom flexing. Note that at extreme left, these cracks have been painted over several times, indicating that they are not newly formed. Highly irregular patterns at far right are areas of delamination that are about to fail. At bottom, the strake is badly cracked and is in danger of splitting open.
Consider that the advertised weight of this boat is 17,500 lbs. and that a comparably sized Hatteras of same vintage comes in around 32,000 lbs. If you price a boat by the pound, which we often do for purposes of comparison, you are looking at a difference of almost DOULBE the weight. If you subtract the difference in average per pound cost in materials between the two, the conclusion you must draw is inescapable. And in case you've never made the connection, there is a direct correlation between weight, longevity and quality of ALL products; well made things simply weigh more, whether its a Rolex watch or a Rolls Royce. Even a good toaster is going to weigh more than a cheap toaster. To be well made, it not only must have more material, but better material.
There's no excuse for this sort of thing, or course. This is not high technology stuff here; mankind has been successfully building good boats for thousands of years, and fiberglass boats for over 40 years, boats that are reasonably priced, and boats that don't fall apart. And while its easy to blame the builder, increasingly we are turning our attention to the boating public that buys products like this without discernment. The fact is that you can't ever have your cake and eat it too. Unless you have two cakes. People who shop price alone don't have two cakes; they can only afford one.
Stress cracks outline the hull stringers extending nearly all the way aft.
Its the competitive nature of of capitalism that some manufacturers will attempt to capture market share by reducing the price below all competitors. Of course they cannot stay in business if they don't also reduce the cost of manufacturing by an equal amount. Companies must make a profit to survive. This unfortunate nature of capitalism means that inevitably the cost/quality relationship of manufactured products is going to spiral downward to the least common denominator, ending up with what you see in these photos. We end up with boats little better than so-called mobile homes. And when the big wind comes along, everyone looks to the taxpayers to pay the cost of their stupidity. You don't have that luxury with a boat.
Boat builders are not going to stop producing products like this, no matter how much pressure is put on them to do otherwise. The problem is market driven, and must be solved by the market. That means that unless and until the boating public becomes more discerning about the products they buy, they are going to continue to get burned. We shouldn't forget that capitalism is democracy in action. We cast a vote every time we buy something. That vote tells manufacturers what you want in terms of quality and price. They don't know whether you are knowledgeable or stupid; if you know what you bought, or of you just bought it blind. They only know that this is what sells. If you are willing to make a $250,000 purchase indiscriminately based on price alone, the manufacturer will be willing to take the same risk and design the quality right down to the bare bones, and below, in order to give it to you. Even if it takes both of you right down the drain. Once the downward spiral starts, the builders really haven't much choice. They either meet the market or perish. Its you, the boat buyer, who holds all the cards.
Consider that Hatteras has pretty much abandoned the mid-sized boat market. And so has Viking. Consider that Bertram and Blackfin are out of business. Consider that a lot of other quality builders have met the same fate. See what's happening here? Low quality is driving out good quality, because that's what the market wants.
That's why we find it hard to blame the builder for this sort of thing.