J ust as truth is stranger than fiction, reality is a lot tougher on boating gear than any planned testing procedure. Is that Garmin eTrex waterproof hand-held GPS really going to survive a dunking?
You can perform the IPX-7 rating test and submerge it underwater for 30 minutes at three meters. Or, you could carry that unit aboard your boat until the day your three-year-old throws it over the side while you’re anchored at a local beach eating lunch. The water may not be exactly three meters deep (it was up to my neck). You may not be watching a stopwatch as you feel along the bottom with your feet (it took quite a while to find it, pinch it between my feet, and tread water one-handed while reaching down to grab it). But the fact that the unit survived the ordeal says a lot more about its hardiness than any variable-controlled laboratory test ever could.
I’ve inadvertently put boating gear through five other unintentional torture-tests over the years that proved to be quite educational. Here they are:
While wreck fishing 12 miles off the coast, dark clouds began gathering on the horizon. I had three kids under 10 years old aboard, so I decided to pull anchor and head for the barn ASAP.
Unfortunately, the storm was building and moving as fast as a bass boat racing to make the tournament weigh-ins. We had barely cleaned up and secured to run, when the thunder and lightning began. I firewalled the throttles, and ran for the inlet at full-tilt.
After I crashed into a few steep three-foot waves, the bracket mounting my Imtra LED cockpit flood light to the T-top frame vibrated loose. For the next 12 miles, every time we hit a wave the light swung up and then smashed down onto the aluminum pipe. I wasn’t about to stop in the quickly deteriorating conditions just to save the light or make it stop clanging, so it went through hundreds of bell-ringing impacts over the next half hour.
This fall, the oldest child who was aboard for that adventure is heading for her first year of college. Although that light looks like someone beat on it with a ball-peen hammer, it still works just fine.
I’ve used a pair of Fujinon gyro-stabilized 14 x 40 Techno-Stabi binoculars for more than a decade now. Few tools are as helpful when it comes to finding fish. At twice the power of most marine binocs, I can spot flocks of diving birds from seven or eight miles away. I can see whether there’s a boat on my favored hotspot de jure before I spend 20 minutes running over there. Also, I can spot fins moving across the flats from hundreds of yards. These abilities are rather shocking, mostly because those Techno-Stabies should be as dead as a doornail.
Some five or six years ago they disappeared; I had carelessly set them down on a cooler, and when I next reached for them—poof! They were gone.
I didn’t piece together what had happened until a month later, when I discovered them in the bilge. The day they disappeared, I had propped open a bilge hatch, to tighten up a livewell pump hose that had worked itself loose.
At some point we must have been rocked by a wave, the binoculars must have taken a tumble into the open hatch, and somehow I didn’t notice. Until, of course, I found them half-submerged and covered in gooey bilge-crud.
Since the Techno-Stabis aren’t even IPX-rated for waterproofing, I assumed the gyroscope’s electronic innards had been saturated with saltwater and corroded into a gooey mess. Imagine my surprise when I cleaned the binoculars off, replaced the batteries, pressed the power button, and they worked. They still work today.
My kids and I enjoy crabbing with a trot line. One day we were happily scooping the critters, one after the next, as we ran down the line, when suddenly it went taut. We stopped the boat, gave a good hard tug, and whatever the line was stuck on started rising to the surface. A Minn Kota electric trolling motor, covered in barnacles, soon broke the surface.
We decided it would make a neat lawn ornament (assuming Mom would go along with the idea), so we took it home. We never imagined even for a moment that the thing would actually work, after sitting on the bottom of the bay long enough for barnacles to grow on it.
So we were rather shocked when, on a whim, I clipped the leads to a 12-volt battery, turned the throttle, and the propeller started spinning. It was lucky that we were able to put the motor back into service, because Mom most certainly did not go along with our idea.
A Mustang Survival Bomber Jacket Float-coat has been my very favorite boating jacket for 10 years running. It’s warm, it’s comfortable, and the thin layer of foam running throughout the jacket turns it into a USCG-approved Type III PFD. But Mustang’s warranty only spans one year, and you’d think that after five, eight, or certainly 10 years, it would need replacing, right? Wrong.
Although I can’t point to any one single torturous event, my Mustang has been through an awful lot of real-world adversity. It’s been ripped while removing hooks that were cast errantly into my shoulder, but the rip-stop nylon really does stop ripping. It’s been saturated countless times, but the closed-cell foam really is closed and doesn’t absorb any water.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the zippers, which are common failure-points on jackets that age in the saltwater environment, still work perfectly even after going up and down thousands of times.
Just how rugged is an Icom M88 VHF radio? I found out after setting mine down on the asphalt next to a pile of gear, while unloading the boat after a fishing trip. I managed to forget all about it while packing the truck, jumped into the driver’s seat, and proceeded to tow my tandem-axle 3,000-pound rig right over the radio. D’op!
I might not have even noticed, except that another boater saw the radio and waved me down before I left the parking lot. The casing was gouged and the volume button wobbled when I turned it, but the radio still worked like a charm. For all I know, it might still be operational today. But I can’t tell you for sure, since I managed to lose the dang thing a few years later—while unloading the boat at the ramp.
I’m sure lab testing is a valuable practice, and can help manufacturers make better products. But when it comes to discovering which boating gear will last for ages, there’s just no substitute for real-world use—and abuse.
Email Lenny Rudow at
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]