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Winter 2007, ABYC's  publication The Reference Point

In the last ABYC News, Ralph Lambrechtís article on the history of the outboard motor provided a fascinating history of the launch of the power boat industry. As a counterpoint to Ralphís article, James Lambden, an ABYC member from Santa Barbara, California, has submitted a solar workboat article for your consideration. Are solar tool boats the future for marine service? Decide for yourself after reading about Jamesí new craft.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention
By James Lambden of Above the Waterline

What was your experience the last time you worked on a boat? Did you start on your project only to find out that you had forgotten a tool or didnít have the right nut? Did you make something fit because that was the best material available to you at the time? How much time did you spend going back and forth to your vehicle in the parking lot or the local chandlery? After running back and forth did you discover that now you needed to refuel your vehicle or service craft or both?
These are the questions I asked myself over and over again as I went about my repair business in the Santa Barbara harbor and I didnít like the answers. For a marine technician, time is money and I realized that we were wasting a lot of that valuable commodity in getting the right tools and materials to the job. An apparent solution was to have an extensive inventory and tool selection at hand and immediately available, but how?

I began to cart around as many tools and parts as possible on a loaded dolly, but the cart had its own set of problems. The bulkiness and weight of the dolly made getting it around the docks difficult. As a natural progression, I purchased a dinghy and loaded our tools and supplies into the dinghy in the morning and reversed the process in the evening. While the dinghy was a great improvement, we were still spending an inordinate amount of time transporting the tools to the dinghy and back again. Because making money in the marine service industry is all about how much time you can bill your client, I went to the drawing board. As an ABYC Certified Electrical technician and a dedicated ABYC member, I designed and built a tool boat using all applicable ABYC standards, and created a craft that would deliver the work center to the work. The boat was a 16-foot dinghy with a tool cabin for safe overnight storage.

The 16 foot boat carries over 2,500 pounds of tools and equipment with remarkable agility and dependability and, as a bonus, is also environmentally friendly. It is a very simple boat with no through-hulls and the boatís sturdy fiberglass reinforced plywood construction makes for a very strong boat. The cored nature works as an excellent insulator, keeping the tools very dry. Sunbrella fabric covers all hatches when she is stored overnight at her slip.

Our tool boat model has an aisle down the middle and tools on either side. In order to maintain stability, it is necessary for the boat to have sponsons on each side or, in other words, be a catamaran. We carry a full inventory of stainless fasteners up to 3/8 of an inch and every wire size including battery cable to 4/0, all circuit breakers, switches, light bulbs, combiners, charge controllers, Murphy Gages, and a complete plumbing inventory. In total, the tool boat stocks over 500 different part numbers and over 200 specialty tools.

Having more tools and materials available at our jobsite increased our productivity, and in turn increased the demand for our services. Not only did productivity improve but also the quality of our work and we were able to raise our rates -- how much work you can accomplish within an hour ultimately will determine how much you can charge for your time. Having a larger selection of materials to choose from enabled us to pick the absolute best part for the job, and, having the right selection of tools gave us the ability to make our jobs as good or better than original equipment installations. Most importantly, however, having the correct equipment available at a jobsite allowed us to avoid those time wasting scavenger hunts for needed items.

We had considered what we needed to make repairs easier and more time efficient but there was another important factor that called for our consideration. We needed a bumper system that would protect the customerís boat as we worked in close proximity. We developed a unique bumper system with a fiberglass T section at the widest part of the tool boat, covered in foam pipe insulation and then wrapped with sunbrella cloth held in place by the elasticized cover. The concept was employed around the entire perimeter of the boat. We also used 1 inch stainless tubing covered with pipe insulation and sunbrella cloth in areas where we needed a handhold. The two sunbrella-covered bumpers allow the tool boat to snuggle up against any boat without damaging its painted surfaces.
While we were very pleased with the outcome of our work so far, another important, pesky and persistent issue remained, the powering system. We were continuing to make frequent and inconvenient trips to the fuel pump. Again, a clear solution seemed apparent. The Santa Barbara Marina is bathed in sun 325 days a year. With the plentiful sunshine, solar was the obvious power solution. By installing solar panels, AGM batteries and electric motors for propulsion, we replaced the last time and money waster with a system that left no environmental footprint. We used two 12-volt Minn Kota trolling motors with handheld wireless remotes. The bow and stern electric motors are mounted on flat platforms extending out from the hull of the boat and give the boat complete maneuverability. The 160 watts of solar panels provide plenty of power for both the boat and all of our hand tools! The tool boat is totally self-contained and energy efficient.

Of course, not all tool boats can be solar powered. Many marinas are spread out and some parts of the country do not have as much sunshine as southern California. Tool boats for these areas will be powered by 4-stroke gasoline outboard or diesel-electric inboard motors and still offer the increased productivity provided by the immediacy of tools and parts.

Our solar powered tool boat has been operating in the Santa Barbara Marina for 3 years. Our gross and net incomes have doubled in this time period. We now charge $95 per hour per man with the tool boat. The tool boat can support up to 3 men on larger electrical wiring and outfitting jobs and with the exception of bottom paint and installing through hulls, all other maintenance and new equipment installations can be performed at the slip. This eliminates the cost of a haul out, boat yard fees and, because of this reduction in time and expense, creates a happier customer. We have built new fiberglass cabins, installed new masts and rigging, installed every conceivable electronic and electrical component, always to ABYC standard, of course, spray painted (with our custom portable spray paint booth but that is another story!), custom fabricated aluminum, stainless, fiberglass, epoxy, carbon fiber, Kevlar, installed new windows, hatches, and custom teak carpentry.
Working on boats has never been an easy job.   The time spent getting tools and materials to the job while staying organized has always plagued marine installers and repairers.   The Tool Boat addresses all of these problems and makes working on boats at the dock efficient, cost effective, profitable, environmentally friendly and, best of all, more enjoyable.

For more information on James Lambdenís innovative new boat, please contact him at Above the Waterline, Ltd., (805) 455-8444 or toolboat@abovethewaterline.net.