Jul

30

ablfYou don’t have to leave the dock to get in over your head

SAFETY EXPERTS WORK HARD TO educate people on the hazards of boating. Rather than talk about wave-tossed drama, they’d do well to emphasize what some consider the most dangerous place on any waterway–the boat landing or ramp.

Horror stories about the hazards of getting boats in and out of the water abound. And with boats getting larger and more expensive, the yarns have become more painful.

Sure, landing the boat seems routine for most veteran boaters, but neophytes often find themselves groping through a series of unforeseen disasters until they master the art. The U.S. Coast Guard is little help, because the landing, as a spokesperson pointed out to me, is not under its jurisdiction. So most people buying a shiny new boat settle for some quick schooling from a distracted dealer and rely on a lot of luck.

Luck isn’t always enough, however. Backing too far into the water, leaving the drain plug out or forgetting to unstrap the boat are all problems seen almost every weekend at any landing, whether on a remote forest lake or on the Great Lakes.

The sight of a 17-foot fishing boat with its floorboards bubbling under water and the hull slowly riding lower and lower–it’s happened to this writer–is sufficient to gall anyone’s memory. But it can get a lot worse. One Wisconsin marina owner recalls a fisherman who drove his boat onto the trailer in fine fettle and then, in an amazing mix-up between hand and throttle, accelerated unexpectedly and roared onto–and over–the trailer to park the boat (well, almost) on the flatbed of his pickup truck.

What makes the boat landing such an interesting place is that Murphy’s Law works here about as well as anywhere. Cautionary tales tend to focus on boaters who forget to put the transmission of their tow vehicle in park and launch their expensive sport-utility vehicle along with their boat. Other common laugh-getters are those who watch their untethered boat drifting away, or those who dump the boat onto the concrete when a frayed winch rope snaps as they’re hauling the boat from the water. Ha … ha.

You can almost smell the bile pouring into the bloodstreams of muttering boaters lined up behind drivers straining repeatedly to back their boat down a tight ramp. Then there’s the privileged clown who figures the leather upholstery in his SUV entitles him to barge into line without waiting. (One reason why the Golden Rule from one marina owner is “Wait your turn.”) Fuming boaters, feuding couples and frustrated neophytes hoping they won’t make fools of themselves are all part of a volatile rampside brew. Mix this crowd with oil, gas and combustion engines, and you’ve got some memorable mornings at the landing.

For this reason the first recommendation for new boaters from John Plenke, a Wisconsin state law enforcement safety specialist, is to become familiar with your boat, its rigging and its manual before heading to the landing and tying up traffic while you learn.

“You get a lot of people out there who are not patient with congestion,” says Plenke, in what may be boating’s biggest understatement.

Plenke has some simple, if obvious, suggestions for new or uncertain boat owners. He suggests they find an open area–such as a school parking lot on the weekend–and practice backing up their trailer until they’re proficient. Secondly, he urges boating-safety classes. Finally, a lot of problem holdups would be averted, Plenke says, if boaters simply stowed their gear in the boat and had everything at the ready when it was their turn to roll down the landing. “They can cut their launch time in half,” he says.

Plenke’s main concern? The slippery covering of algae that is present on many landings–even those in salt water–and causes painful or disabling spills. The stuff can be like walking on STP.

Particularly in rural areas where there are many small lakes and days can pass between launchings, boating experts advise fishermen and recreational boaters to check out landings before using them. Changing water levels can betray unwary boaters, causing them to back off the end of a low ramp and into the muck … and trouble.

Some landings simply aren’t suitable for larger boats and others are just plain misguided hardpan gravel sheets on remote waterways. Cul-de-sacs that fade quickly into sand that sucks at trailer tires, miring boats and vehicles in shallow water. It happens.

For tyro boaters the landing can be a rite of passage akin to running the Iroquois Gauntlet, but with some planning you can survive without serious damage to your pride or boat. Happy launching.

RAMPSIDE CHECKLIST

Marina owner Bob Heckel has seen it all at the launch. Here’s his simple checklist for avoiding a dockside scene.

* Pack wheel bearings and check tire pressure on all trailer tires.

* Keep two sets of trailer locking pins, keys and drain plugs.

* Check for old or frayed winch ropes or straps and never trailer without crossed safety chains.

* When launching, unplug lights at the car to avoid blowing fuses or trailer lights, even if they are supposed to be “sealed.”

* Keep the bilge pump running until you’re certain you’ve successfully launched.

Jun

22

bgsWith Brunswick for two years, Bob Sell has 20 years experience in IT, engineering and finance–all at manufacturing companies. Prior to his current post, he was CIO with the Coors Brewing Co. Now, he co-leads Brunswick’s purchasing council and has responsibility for the company’s e-business initiatives.

“Bob has really done a lot to bring leveraged purchasing of IT to the forefront,” says Nancy Keenan, corporate purchasing manager. Keenan works with Sell on Brunswick’s purchasing council and has played a vital role in consolidating non-traditional services purchasing at the company, namely corporate travel.

Melding together

Based in Lake Forest, Ill., Brunswick is made up of six distinct units, each of which operates autonomously. These units include: Mercury Marine Division, Fond du Lac, Wis.; Sea Ray Group, Knoxville, Tenn.; U.S. Marine Division, Arlington, Wash.; Outdoor Recreation Group, Tulsa, Okla.; Indoor Recreation Group, Lake Forest, Ill.; and Life Fitness Group, Franklin Park, Ill.

Sell recognizes that the leverage of a $4 billion company like Brunswick is significant. The company’s total annual IT budget is $150 million. (It invests up to $50 million annually in new equipment, while maintaining existing environment and infrastructure.) “We are leveraging technology to be successful,” he says. “Purchasing is key to that success. The two functions help to impose discipline across the organization.”

Integrating the two provides great opportunities for Brunswick, especially in e-business, says Sell, who views dramatic change in technology over the past five years as impetus for growing purchasing involvement in the IT buy.

“Traditionally, the IT buy had been mainly hardware,” says Sell. “And hardware’s price has gone down significantly. Then we started buying software (ERP systems) and services to ensure that it all worked together. Good sourcing strategies have become critical. Used to be, we would select IBM and not go wrong. The number of suppliers that a company can do business with has increased ten-fold and requires a major shift in thinking about procurement. Selecting the right supplier and the right product can make a significant difference in the success of a company.”

Because of these changes, IT and purchasing now are converging. “At Brunswick, our relationship is improving,” says Sell. “We are moving toward a partnership.”

When Sell first came on board at Brunswick, this wasn’t the case. “We were on a diverging path. Purchasing was focused on buying the products that go into the boats we manufacture. IT and other disciplines were doing their own buying.”

Now, IT recognizes the value that purchasing brings to the table. “Our forte is not supplier management or contact management,” says Sell. “We implement the technology that helps drive business results.”

And, at the same time, purchasing is starting to understand that there are opportunities beyond sourcing products that go directly into the manufacture of boats. “In the past, purchasing people tended to shy away from the IT process and were not entirely comfortable with some of the jargon,” says Sell. Each discipline is starting to recognize the value of each other.

“With a good vision, a good strategy, people want to make this work,” says Sell. “Purchasing understands the contribution IT can make and works with us to meet the company’s goals.”

Sell points to the success of the recent telecom initiative. For all the Brunswick divisions, a cross-functional team put together an agreement with two major carriers, AT&T and MCI.

Together, representatives from purchasing and IT from each of the companies sat down and jointly defined requirements, pulled together information on current contracts, and developed an RFP (request for proposal). “As a result, we expect significant cost savings and service improvements.”

For software, a team is working on implementing the Oracle ERP system. “People are starting to come together to make it happen.”

Distinct roles

Within Brunswick, IT’s role is to identify the need for an item or service. IT also develops plans for implementing technology that aligns with the company’s overall business strategy.

The item or service being purchased determines IT’s interaction with purchasing. For commodity-type technology items–PCs, printers–purchasing develops relationships with suppliers. For IT purchases considered not routine, IT notifies purchasing as it is developing strategy.

For these purchases, Sell’s goal is to make purchasing part of IT planning. “Purchasing will be aware of what’s coming up. They will participate in forming strategies. Our roles will evolve and become more seamless.”

Still, Sell says that there was not anything wrong with the way the company was buying before the two functions started working together. “We in IT were spending more time on procurement and not doing a bad job, but we were not leveraging our buys. Now, however, there are greater opportunities. IT can focus on our internal customers. They know we are leveraging technology to move forward.”

Sell had put in place a team to develop the new buying process, implementing best practices of the GartnerGroup. These practices helped to define roles of each of the functions on the team. “We got positive feedback from each division, with the lead being the Mercury Group. The groups that have seen most progress are those with vision, strategies, philosophy that embrace the process.”

For the purchase of routine items such as PCs, Brunswick has a contract in place with three suppliers–Compaq, Dell and Gateway. Purchasing and IT worked together throughout the negotiation process. Once the arrangement is in place, internal customers order PCs against the agreement consistent with architecture and contract terms.

For purchases considered not routine, Brunswick puts in place multifunction teams called TAG, for technology acquisition group. Still in its infancy, the TAG team was successful in developing the telecom arrangement.

Teams select suppliers based on a balance between price, service, responsiveness, available resources, documentation and training. “Making the decision is a very complex process. There is no real good roadmap to choosing technology suppliers.”

As Sell sees it, IT is a critical component in the supplier-selection decision. “If purchasing selected a supplier without consulting IT, there would not be ownership from IT.”

For its part, purchasing monitors the health of the company, its viability and track record at delivering on commitments. “We’d like to get to the point where purchasing does more quality reviews,” says Sell. Other functions are getting involved, particularly legal and finance. Legal reviews the contract. Used to be that purchasing would do the contract, then legal would review it. “Now, legal uses a standard template. We redefine the process to reduce the time they are involved.” Finance plays a role in lease versus buy decisions, determining the ROI, and justifying the purchase of technology items. IT/purchasing always takes the lead.

Reactions from within the company on the efforts of the IT/purchasing teams have been mostly positive. “Internal customers have been very satisfied with our helping to speed up the process and doing more to leverage purchasing,” says Sell. “There’s been a growing realization that this is a team of experts making the decisions. There’s been no rebelling. With the process, each division is accountable and autonomous at the same time and gains benefits from synergy across the organization.”

In fact, the IT and purchasing teams are getting attention from leadership within the company, says Sell. “Together we are looked at as an example of synergy occurring within the divisions.”

From suppliers, reaction was mixed at first. Technology and telecom suppliers are not used to doing business with Brunswick as a company, says Sell. “They are not used to us using multifunction teams that represent our divisions. Yet, they are responding rapidly. They are finding that we are easier to do business with. Before they may have been doing business with one division, now they may be dealing with four or five. It’s an opportunity for them to increase their business.

Jun

6

eparLATE LAST SUMMER, ANOTHER writer and I stepped off a dock and into aluminum fishing boat, intending to take the new Suzuki 70 four-stroke out-board for a test run. I offered him the helm, and he slid behind the wheel. He turned the key and we were assaulted by a pained screeching from the starter. The motor was already running.

Welcome to the world of low-emissions outboards and goodbye to smoking, shaking and sputtering. The Suzuki 70 is so smooth and quiet that we both went aboard without noticing it was humming on the transom. Which is exactly the point Suzuki hoped to make, and it clearly illustrates the difference between an outboard of the past and one of the future.

This year marks the beginning of a graduated Environmental Protection Agency cleanup campaign aimed at reducing two-stroke exhaust emissions by 75 percent by the year 2006. The Suzuki 70, which so surprised us, is just one of the new “low-E” outboards designed to meet those 2006 emissions levels. Not only is it smoother, quieter and cleaner, but it’s also more fuel-efficient than the traditional two-stroke outboards we’re accustomed to.

As the EPA regulations ramp up, manufacturers are allowed to average the emissions of all the motors in their lineups each year, from kickers to blue-water behemoths. For 1998, the target is a 9 percent drop in average emissions. So, while almost all of the models introduced this year meet the 2006 EPA emissions levels, very few of the old high-emissions models have been discontinued. That means you’ll have a choice between a low-emissions or high-emissions model in most horsepower categories.

All high-emissions outboards use a traditional two-stroke powerhead, which produces high levels of hydro-carbon (HC) emissions (mostly in the form of unburned fuel that escapes through the open exhaust port as the incoming charge of air and fuel enters the combustion chamber). This is especially the case at low speeds, when up to 40 percent of the fuel entering a cylinder might escape unburned in a cloud of fumes that’s obvious to the eye and nose. At its most efficient operating range, generally 4000 to 4500 rpm, a traditional two-stroke may still expel 8 percent of its raw fuel as exhaust.

Despite the emissions and poor economy, two-stroke outboards have remained popular because they are inexpensive, lightweight and powerful. The two-stroke culture is especially strong at Mercury Marine and Outboard Marine Corporation. Each company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop direct fuel injection (DFI), a controlled system that injects fuel directly into the combustion chamber after the exhaust port has been sealed. Only fresh air and a minute amount of oil pass through the crankcase to push exhaust out of the combustion chamber. DFI can be programmed to deliver just the right amount of fuel for any engine load. At low speeds these motors literally sip fuel. Fuel economy is 80 percent better than in a standard two-stroke and the motor runs very smoothly. At high speeds a DFI two-stroke offers the same performance as a traditional two-stroke with a 10 to 25 percent gain in fuel economy.

For 1998, Mercury Marine (800-MERCURY) offers its OptiMax DFI system on Mercury and Mariner V-6 outboards at 135, 150,200 and 225 hp. OMC (800998-9960) offers its Ficht system on 90/115-hp V-4 and 150/175 V-6 Johnson and Evinrude models, with a Ficht DFI 200/225s expected in late summer.

While both OptiMax and Ficht preserve traditional two-stroke performance, each is more complicated than a two-stroke outboard with carburetors or electronic fuel injection (EFI). OptiMax relies on a belt-driven air compressor to propel fuel into the combustion chamber. The Ficht system is based on electromagnetic injectors that must be machined to incredibly-tight tolerances. As you might suspect, DFI motors are relatively expensive. Expect to pay 10 to 15 percent more for a DFI outboard than for a standard motor of equal power. For example, Ficht DFI raises the cost of a Johnson 90 V-4 from $6,175 to $6,995.

Might a DFI motor pay for itself through improved fuel economy? Sure it might, if you keep it long enough or use it often enough. Let’s take the Johnson Ficht 90 as an example again. The marine industry and the EPA are conducting their emissions certification tests based on an ISO (International Standards Organization) cycle that is based on usage trends discovered in a nationwide study of thousands of boaters conducted by the University of Wisconsin. The cycle is weighted 40 percent to idle speed and only 6 percent to full-throttle operation and assumes the motor is used for only 35 hours per season.

Operating on the ISO cycle, OMC says that its standard Johnson 90 uses 3.1 gallons of fuel per hour, or 108.5 gallons per season. The Ficht 90 burns just 2.0 gph and 70 gallons per season. That’s a 55 percent savings with the Ficht motor, but at $1.20 per gallon it adds up to just $46.20 over a season. It would take almost 18 35-hour boating seasons to cover the $820 difference for the Ficht outboard. By then gasoline could be a thing of the past anyway.

You can expect similar fuel savings with a board that meets the EPA 2006 emissions level. A four-stroke is a low HC producer because it uses moving valves to seal the combustion chamber and can prevent unburned fuel from escaping with the exhaust. Honda has been selling four-stroke outboards for more than 25 years. The rap on four-strokes has been that they’re heavy, expensive and slow.

In tests I conducted, four-stroke outboards were a few mph slower than comparably rated two-strokes. Some of that had to do with the extra weight, but I think superior prop technology from Mercury and OMC (which provided the two strokes) was also a factor. A two-stroke revs faster and gets up to its powerband more quickly than a four-stroke, so it will usually win a drag race. That may change as more sophisticated fourstrokes come onto the U.S. market.

With all its valvetrain parts, a four stroke has traditionally been more expensive to manufacture than a standard two-stroke, but the added cost of DFI has narrowed that gap. Because a four-stroke makes power only on every other stroke of each piston, it must either have larger displacement or operate at higher rpm than a two-stroke to make equal power. For example, the new four-cylinder Suzuki four stroke 70 displaces 1,298cc and weighs 335 pounds, while a three-cylinder Johnson 70 two-stroke displaces 920cc and weighs 250 pounds. Ficht DFI would add about 30 pounds to the weight of the Johnson two-stroke.

Those 85 pounds can make a difference on some boats, but you’re not going to carry this motor on your back. What the four-stroke offers is smooth, low-emissions operation and fuel economy with proven technology. Companies like Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda mastered the low-E four-stroke a long time ago. Each is adapting technology–and even parts–from auto and motorcycle engines to their latest outboards. The new Suzuki uses connecting rods, valves and other components from a 1.3-liter Suzuki auto engine. The 90-hp Honda uses parts from its Civic engine.

Honda (770-497-6065) is also the current leader in four-stroke horse power with its 90, and late this year Honda will debut a fuel-injected, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder model rated at 115/130 hp. At 458 pounds, it will weigh about 100 pounds more than the Johnson Ficht 115, but only about 20 pounds more than a Mercury OptiMax 135.

The new Suzuki 60/70 (800-247-4704) four-stroke is also fuel-injected and features water-cooled intake runners tuned to boost airflow to the intake ports. In a field test, this motor burned just 5.2 gph at full throttle, about 30 percent better fuel-economy than I would expect from a 70-hp two-stroke outboard. OMC will also sell the 70-hp version of this motor as a Johnson/ Evinrude model in 1998.

Mercury Marine plans to eventually replace its two-stroke outboards with four-strokes up to about 100 hp. This season it adds 15- and 25-hp four stroke models to its line. The two-cylinder Mercury/Mariner 25 Bigfoot has a balance piston to reduce vibration and an automatic decompression device on rope-start models. Its oversize Bigfoot gearcase can handle props up to 12.5 inches in diameter. That big blade area is useful for moving heavy boats.

The biggest four-stroke outboard yet, a 3.1-liter V-6 rated at 200 hp, is in the works at Yamaha (800-88 YAMAHA). But it probably won’t debut until the 2000 model year. This season Yamaha is offering a new 25-hp four-stroke, which is based on the powerhead it designed and manufactures in a co-op venture with Mercury. Yamaha has already displayed its next four-stroke: a 100-hp, 1.6-liter four with 4-valve heads and double overhead camshafts. Down the road this motor is expected to receive EFI and a displacement boost to 1.8 liters to produce 130 hp.

At that power rating, Yamaha and Honda will butt their four-stroke heads with DFI two-strokes from Mercury and OMC. By then, we’ll all wonder why we put up with stinky, shaky out boards for so many years.

May

28

gyffthOF ALL THE SKILLS IN fishing, boat control ranks near the top on the difficulty scale. However, you don’t sell a lot of magazines by promising to teach boat control–the phrase just doesn’t grab like “hottest new lures” or “breakthrough bucket-mouths.” But whether you’re pulling a leech along a weed line for walleyes, soaking dead bait in a deep hole for catfish or drunking a jig into a pocket in the weeds for bass, how you control your boat often determines whether or not you catch fish. Not only is it hard to find good instructional material on the subject, but mastering it requires a great deal of on-the-water practice. I’ve been honing my boat-control skills for nearly four decades, and I’m still finding new tricks.

Trolling Motor Tips

An electric trolling motor is standard equipment on the boat of any serious freshwater angler. But for precision boat control, you must select the right model and learn to use it properly.

* The biggest consideration when choosing a trolling motor is the amount of thrust. For a boat that weighs 600 pounds (including passengers and gear), I recommend a motor with at least 30 pounds of thrust; for a 1,000-pound boat, 40 pounds of thrust; and for a 1,500-pound boat, 60 pounds. These recommendations may be a little higher an those of the manufacturers, but the extra power often comes in handy.

Until recently, I’d been using a 12-volt transom-mount electric with 42 pounds of thrust for backtrolling. It seemed adequate for my boat, which weighs close to 1,500 pounds, until I tried a 24-volt model (a Minn Kota Riptide) with 70 pounds of thrust. What a difference! Not only does it allow me to fish in a stronger wind, but it has improved my boat control at all times. Plus, when I do stray off the structure, I can get back on it much more quickly, so I don’t waste time fishing unproductive water.

* When you’re backtrolling with a transom-mount motor, even one with a lot of power, be sure to reverse the head, so the motor is pushing rather than pulling. Turning the head around can double your power and increase the motor’s efficiency, which also extends battery life. On most motors, all you need to do is remove a screw, rotate the head 180 degrees and replace the screw. It’s an old trick, but one that many anglers overlook.

* In a howling wind, even the most powerful trolling motor might not have enough thrust, so you have to crank up the outboard. But the problem with trolling with most outboards is that the steering range is quite restricted. Let’s say you’re trying to backtroll into a quartering wind. Your bow blows to the side, and you can’t keep the boat on course because the motor won’t turn sharply enough to make the correction. You can solve the problem by using your trolling motor and your outboard. Let the outboard provide the power to bust through the wind, while the electric guides the boat. Just tighten the tension control on the outboard so you can let go of the handle, and steer with your trolling motor.

* If your boat swings uncontrollably from side to side when you’re trying to anchor in the wind, the best solution is to throw out two anchors–one off the bow and another off the stern. But what if you have only one? Just use your trolling motor as a second anchor. If you’re anchored off the bow, for example, use your transom-mount trolling motor to pull the stern around.

* When drifting with the current, use your trolling motor to control your drift speed. In most cases, you want to drift at the same speed as the current. If you’re vertically jigging, for example, your line will then stay vertical. But what if there’s a strong downriver wind? Then you’ll be drifting much faster than the current, causing your line to ride higher in the water column. In this situation, turn your transom upstream and backtroll to slow your drift speed until it matches the speed of the current. If you have a bow-mount motor, point the bow upstream and troll forward to compensate for the wind.

Perfect Your Anchoring Techniques

I recently heard a tournament walleye angler bragging that he didn’t even carry an anchor in his boat. Since then, I’ve been keeping an especially close eye on the tournament results, and his name doesn’t show up very often.

Anchoring is certainly not one of my favorite methods either, but it definitely has its place. When you know exactly where the fish are located, anchoring and casting to them maximizes the amount of time your bait spends in the strike zone. Another approach is to repeatedly troll or drift over the spot, but then there’s a strong risk that you’ll spook the fish. Precision anchoring is an art known only by a few anglers, and information on techniques is tough to come by. Here’s a quick course:

* Be sure your anchor is heavy enough and your anchor rope long enough, otherwise the wind will drag the anchor right through your spot, spooking the fish. For anchoring on a clean bottom, I recommend a traditional Navy-style anchor of at least 20 pounds for a 16-foot boat, and 28 pounds for an 18-footer. You can get by with less weight by using a modern, fluke-style anchor, such as the Waterspike. A mushroom-style anchor works fine on a muddy or weedy bottom.

* Your anchor rope should be at least four times as long as the water is deep. Use thick nylon anchor rope rather than thin polypropylene. It’s a lot easier on your hands, especially when you’re lifting a heavy anchor. I normally carry about 120 feet of 5/8-inch soft nylon rope–enough for anchoring in 30 feet of water in a stiff wind.

* Attach a four-foot length of heavy chain (a “rode”) to your anchor. The chain prevents your rope from fraying due to abrasion by rocks, and the extra weight holds the front of the anchor down so the flukes can dig in.

* When anchoring in big waves, always attach the rope to the bow eye. This way, the bow parts the waves so you can ride them out as smoothly as possible. If you tie up to the stern, the waves will crash into the squared transom and lap into the boat. I see lots of anglers make the mistake of tying the rope to a bow cleat rather than the bow eye. But with the rope attached higher on the bow, the bow dips lower in the waves. Then waves can’t splash into the boat.

* To fish a small reef use a “bridle,” which requires two anchors. Motor slightly upwind of the structure and set an anchor about 30 feet to one side and a second anchor the same distance to the other side. Attach one rope near the bow and another near the stern. You can fish one section of the reef for a while and move the boat into position to fish another section by shortening one rope and lengthening the other. This way, you can work the whole reef without ever lifting an anchor.

* When using a single anchor off the bow, you can adjust your boat’s position simply by tying the rope to a different spot. Tying the rope to a cleat on the starboard side will move the boat several feet to port, and vice versa.

* When anchoring in moving water, you can change your lateral position simply by turning your outboard so the force of the water against the rudder pushes the boat to one side or the other.

* At times, you want your anchored boat to swing widely to cover a greater area. When you’re working a large flat, for instance, let out twice as much anchor rope as you normally would. This tactic doubles your lateral coverage, putting more fish within casting range.

I’ve often wondered why you don’t hear more big-time anglers talking about boat control. I suppose the topic isn’t exciting enough for a seminar. Or could it be they have a secret they’re not too excited about sharing?

May

18

mmmMarine Power, a company based in Ponchatoula, La., “marine-izes” engine blocks. As Marine Power buys them from General Motors, the engine blocks are similar to standard automotive engines but come with some fittings that are specific to marine use; Marine Power modifies the engines further, to make them completely suitable for use in boats.

That modification is a “tricky process,” says W.E. “Eddie” Allbright Jr., the firm’s principal owner. Marine Power transforms the half-dozen sizes of engine block that it buys from GM into perhaps 500 marine models. They vary on such points as whether they’re for use in fresh water or salt, are fuel-injected or carbureted, and so on.

Marine Power’s 40 employees build about 3,000 engines a year, up from 200 when Allbright bought the business a dozen years ago, and its revenues in 1995 were around $12 million. Allbright thinks those revenues will more than double in the next five years–if a new product takes off the way he expects it to.

Allbright was a mechanical engineer, working for a large company in the New Orleans area, when he ran across a “business opportunities” ad in The Wall Street Journal that led to his buying Marine Power. “When I bought the business in ’84,” he recalls, “we were building engines for shrimpers. The shrimpers would come in the front door, and leave at the back door, with an engine in their pickup. It was like a retail business, with three or four college kids in the back, putting engines together.”

Allbright was sure that continuing the business in that manner was not an option, given the ongoing changes in engine technology and the growing environmental restraints. “I didn’t think I could stay small forever,” he says. He decided to enter the recreational market.

He began marketing his first recreational engine through trade shows. “In the beginning,” he says, “I couldn’t even afford to exhibit.” Instead, he talked about the engine to “distributors of some of the well-known names” among recreational engines. He used as a wedge his willingness to customize his engines for the aftermarket, so that someone who already had a boat, and needed a replacemerit engine, could get exactly what he wanted. Allbright went beyond what the other, much larger marine-engine manufacturers were willing to do–and his prices were lower, too.

By the time those other manufacturers decided to be more flexible themselves, Marine Power was “a player,” Allbright says, and he was seeking customers among boat companies that would use his engines as original equipment. That market “is extremely tough to get into,” Allbright says, and he used price as his entree, sacrificing profit at first to establish himself.

Around the same time, in 1992-93, Marine Power put close to $1 million into research and development, for a diesel engine and a jet drive, and about $600,000 into tools and equipment needed to build the jet. That combination–high expenses for R&D, plus lower margins on sales to original-equipment manufacturers–“just about sent us down the tubes,” says Richard Clemens, the firm’s chief financial officer/controller.

It took “a good hard look in the mirror”–plus a recovering economy–to transform Marine Power’s fortunes, Allbright says. The company cut overhead sharply, laying off about 10 people. Allbright also took in $1 million in venture capital early in 1995, although he still has a controlling interest in the company.

Marine Power’s revenues have been rising again, and now Allbright thinks that the jet drive, called the X-Stream, will give the company the distinctive product it needs. The differences between Marine Power’s engines and those of its competitors are not that great, Allbright acknowledges, but, he adds, “with the jet drive we really have a unique product.”

Jets for pleasure boats are not new, but the advantage Marine Power’s jet drive offers, Allbright says, “is that we have an extremely large [water] intake, and we can handle a lot of trash. The Achilles’ heel of jets is trash; if you take one of the high-speed jets and get a couple of leaves in the intake, you’ve just killed the pump.”

Says Clemens: “A lot of people can do the engines; nobody else can do the two [engine and drive] together. We think this is what’s going to take us into the stratosphere.”

They expect a boat and trailer with the new jet drive to sell for around $11,000–and to appeal to fishermen in particular. “It’ll replace the $20,000 bass boats, and let people get into some very shallow water,” Allbright says.

Looking back, Allbright has no regrets about staking so much on the jet drive. “The strategic reasons for doing it were right, and they’re still in place,” he says. “I could have stayed in the engine marine-ization business and not had to go through what I went through–but we wouldn’t be poised for the growth that we’re poised for.”