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
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