Dealing with a deadly dilemma; houseboat firms feud, fail to fix fume problem
By Judd Slivka
The Arizona Republic
January 13, 2001

Nestled anonymously into southern Kentucky's gentle hills, the nation's major houseboat manufacturers have managed to spend the past half-century in relative obscurity.

The businesses are family-run; aluminum hulls are still welded by hand; and sending out detail work to be done by someone else is considered unfair to the customer.

But during the past six weeks, the U.S. houseboat industry has been rocked by reports that question the fundamental safety of its products -- safety problems the industry has long been aware of. Carbon monoxide discharged from generators can accumulate beneath a houseboat's swim deck and kill people -- seven of them, in fact, on Arizona's and Utah's Lake Powell over the past decade.

One U.S. congressman is asking for a recall of houseboats with rear-venting generators, and the U.S. Coast Guard is requiring manufacturers to come up with fixes and hinting at a financially devastating recall if they don't.

December and January along Houseboat Row haven't just been about the record cold that has frozen the pond to 8 inches thick in front of Sumerset Yachts. What the two months have really been about are all-time lows.

How bad has it gotten? Some houseboat manufacturers hope the federal government will come in to regulate them.

This is Mitchell Higginbotham's world, and he's a bit puzzled by the latest developments.

He picks fiberglass strands from dirty, ham-hock-size hands and considers the ruckus from inside an old, cold metal building near Columbia filled with the sick-sweet smell of resin and cigarette smoke.

Higginbotham has been building boats for 31 years, lately with a startup named Majestic Yachts.

He has known about the carbon monoxide problem since the 1960s.

The engines had to exhaust someplace, and designers had extended the rear deck of the houseboat a little to keep errant hands and feet away from the propellers. Why not vent there, where the exhaust wouldn't stain the paint? Innovative but it also created a cavity for fumes. Over the years, Higginbotham saw the cavity grow bigger and bigger as houseboats evolved from floating tin shacks to floating palaces. Eager-to-please companies extended the swim decks at the boats' sterns farther and farther out.

At the same time, customer desire for the appliances of home called for something to provide more power: internal-combustion generators.

Despite the louvers on both sides of the hull, if the air isn't being forced under the swim deck, the carbon monoxide from the generators won't leave: There's just not enough space for it to get out.

That's why Higginbotham has been building boats that vent their generators out the side. It's a backyard fix -- the fumes can still accumulate, especially when two boats tie up together -- but it keeps unsuspecting people from drowning as they swim around the back.

That's why all this ruckus is a puzzle. Isn't it common sense? If you put something in the back that people are going to swim from, why vent the generator there?

"We've learned something from every boat we've built," Higginbotham says. "But I guess we're still learning about generators."

If only it were that simple.

But this is an industry handicapped by bitter rivalries.

"I hate them all; they're taking bread off my table," says one company owner about the rest of the industry. It is a field where grudges are held for years, trumping even good business sense; half the industry won't talk to the other half, the result of dog-eat-dog sales practices and business deals gone ugly over the years.

It is perhaps the only $100 million-plus industry left in the country that doesn't have its own political lobby. In fact, when the latest carbon monoxide news came out, no one called the boating industry's special-interest group to have them speak in their behalf. Neither did anyone to call the local congressmen, who are the industry's only proponents on Capitol Hill.

Broken relationships

The owners of the two largest companies aren't speaking. That means their staffs aren't speaking, either, and safety experience gained in one company's plant isn't shared with others.

Now, industry executives are hoping the government will do what they can't.

"The industry as a whole itself could probably accomplish more than the federal government," says Bill Padgett, Majestic's vice president of marketing. "If we could get together and put the (Higginbothams) of the industry together and say, 'OK, you guys have been building boats for 30 years. Now fix this problem,' we could do it."

But will that meeting ever happen?

When the question is posed to Padgett, he smiles, then shrugs.

"No."

In another part of this small, odd world, Lyndon Turpin has stopped his tour of a $389,000 houseboat to talk about the economy. The houseboat is Sumerset Yacht's showroom boat, a 91-foot-long palace with a $7,000 television and Corian counters.

It sits in the prettiest spot in the houseboat industry, the company's gleaming white showroom and factory, complete with test pond and all-window front wall. Sumerset employs about 230 people, pumping out about 125 boats a year, making it one of the two largest builders in the country.

"It would destroy this area if, by some fluke, the houseboat industry disappeared from it," says Turpin, the company's chief operating officer.

Because of its long history around Lake Cumberland and its supply of skilled workers, the houseboat industry is a keystone to the economies of 10 counties in south-central Kentucky. In 1999, marinas across the state reported total revenues of $206 million. More than $100 million of that came from the 10 counties.

There are probably 1,000 people engaged in building houseboats in the area -- no one is sure since companies don't talk to each other -- and countless others in subcontracting for the industry. A recall, in which the manufacturers not only pay the material repair costs but also the labor would devastate the area's economy.

These are not companies that make huge profit. Although all of them are privately held and no one divulges accurate numbers, an estimated profit margin of 5 percent is about average, industry sources say.

A nationwide recall that entails sending maintenance crews around the country would eat into profits.

"Bottom line, we would lose some money and pay less in taxes," Turpin says. "We could survive, but ..."

No one company is taking the lead in putting forth fixes. Companies are designing their own remedies, but zealously guarding them, lest, one industry official speculates, "designing a fix means admitting you're wrong."

That has left the houseboat industry waiting for the Coast Guard to do something. Any suggestion at this point seems to be welcome, so long as the other guy has to do it, too.

"Whatever solution they come up with, it's going to have to be something that everyone agrees on," Majestic's Padgett says. "But it can't be a temporary fix. If it is a temporary fix, you're doing nothing but fooling your customers."

"Addressing the issue"

That is something that Stardust Cruisers is trying to avoid, lately so strenuously that cross words have emanated from its headquarters on Kentucky 90, known as "Houseboat Row" for the dozen firms lining it.

As one of the industry's two biggest producers, as well as having manufactured the boats that accounted for six of Lake Powell's casualties, Stardust has been queried frequently by the media.

When news of the "death zone" beneath houseboats' swim decks began circulating, Stardust officials publicly came out against moving vents from the rear of their boats to the side, though some of their models are manufactured with side-venting generators at the customer's request.

"We've been addressing this issue for a number of years," Ted Towner, production manager at Stardust Cruisers, told a Kentucky newspaper. "We tell people, 'Don't swim in back of the boat.' "

The company since 1998 has posted signs on the back of its boats, warning against swimming with the generators running.

But lately, as Stardust prepares a response to the Coast Guard, the company's tune has changed.

Company officials recently issued a statement emphasizing their commitment to customer safety and stating that carbon monoxide is a threat to boaters.

But, the company says, shifting the exhaust from the rear to the side would endanger swimmers and people sleeping in below-deck cabins along the ship's side.

It's a series of tradeoffs, Comptroller Donya Clark says, and the press release reinforces the point: "Directing gasoline exhaust into a (space beneath the swim deck), in the vicinity of the propellers, reduces the probability of poisoning swimmers and people on the deck or in the living quarters."

The message is clear: As long as generators produce carbon monoxide, there will be a problem. Stardust is working on fixes, but even so, would like the Coast Guard to provide direction.

"We'd love for them to (come up with a mandate)," Clark says. "But they wouldn't."

Torn by fratricidal battles, petty jealousies and differing engineering opinions, the houseboat industry finds itself in an ironic situation: Tell us how to solve the problem, they are signaling to the government. Just don't tell us that we need to solve it.

 

    Copyright 2001, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.