A SINGLEHANDERS LONELY FIGHT TO RESOLVE A PROBLEM IN THE MARINE BUSINESS
I could easily fill a book recounting all the unbelievable things I have seen and heard in the course of my 36 years of active service in the vane gear business. In fact I did write a book once – and that is what spawned perhaps the most unbelievable train of events of all. My wife advises that I would be wise to keep my own counsel, but I can also see the counter-argument: reflections on life’s experiences – concentrated into anecdotes and retold with a desire to entertain as well as inform – represent an ideal way to revisit past events and bring them to the attention of a knowledgeable audience that would otherwise, in all probability, never have the chance to hear the other side of the story.
And the story needs telling, at least it does if our sailing community is to make any sense of the rumours and innuendo known to circulate in and about what German sailing magazine Yacht (#2/2002) once referred to as the “Windige Branche”, a clever – and rather inappropriate in my opinion – play on words meaning both the “windy industry” and the “dubious industry”. All respect to the leading lights at one of Europe’s leading publishing houses, but was it really necessary to go with a title that implies – and potentially misleads – so much? Why not just present the facts (complicated as they are, I admit) objectively and allow readers interested in the matter to reach their own conclusion?
The journalist entrusted with researching the aforementioned article, a real old hand in the writing trade, certainly implied things could have been managed much better: on the very day the issue containing the article hit the newsstands, I received a horrified phone call from him assuring me that while he was indeed named as the author, he had certainly not signed off the article in its published form, was appalled by the errors and changes it contained and wished to distance himself from its content and tone.
OK, getting a handle on the complex issues involved and turning the whole messy affair into a nice, neat story for publication was always going to be a challenge and it made sense to entrust such demanding and delicate matters to an external professional familiar with the scene. Did the publishers just not trust him enough in the end? Did they fail to appreciate the explosiveness of the material? Did deadline pressures make their presence felt? Did other cooks have their own plans for the broth? There are as many conflicting forces at work in journalism as there are journalists with an interest in the story!
The tale as printed did me no favours. The very harshness of the tone left me wincing every time I read it. It could have been a fine yarn too, after all it involved the conduct of the press itself, the relationship between manufacturers and press in the marine industry and the unwillingness of the press in both Europe and the USA to report on a matter of serious concern. It involved the duty of care of the press in respect of what it publishes and it involved libel, issues that in England (by way of example) provide particularly rich feeding grounds for the legal profession – with a tsunami-like impact on the financial health of the parties caught up in the process. This particular affair also involved editors finding themselves on the wrong side of the boss – even fired out of hand – for venturing, intentionally or otherwise, into hazardous journalistic waters. Not to mentioned questions of journalistic duty and integrity in the name and interests of the readership…
Journalists have a noble calling as conduits, mouthpieces, interpreters and investigators. To them falls the task of explaining the world to their readership, a role that brings with it tremendous freedom: the freedom to choose topics, the freedom to decide what is and is not important, the freedom to develop an angle and, not least, the freedom to delve deeper below the surface. Or not. Journalists do not cease to be ordinary people when they take up the pen or keyboard, of course. Flesh and blood like us, they share our strengths and weaknesses and struggle as much as any of us would to maintain an even keel in the face of demands and decrees from their publisher and the need to keep the commercial wind fair in the corporate sail. Success in this job depends on sensitivity and instinct – and a gift for sorting the wheat from the chaff. A Herculean labour no doubt, but one for which the end of every month brings the comfort of compensation.
Time is money, both are always thin on the ground and deadlines wait for no-one. Sometimes, then, the written word fails to convey the whole story. Permission to publish may be withheld, for example, or the threat of legal repercussions may intervene without readers having the slightest notion of the forces at work. They, not unreasonably, regard the published report as a conscientiously prepared product of painstaking research. Information committed for publication develops its own momentum, comes to life in the head of the reader (for evidence of this look no further than the reactions tabloid headlines often manage to stir up among the hard of thinking).
All the same, Yacht magazine in Germany and Practical Sailor in the USA at least showed the courage in time to report on this most peculiar of cases – a case that held a mirror up to the work of the press – and on the consequences for one party who lived the whole experience especially vividly: me! My compliments to the powers that be in both camps – albeit with reservations: the tone in which the story was reported got under my skin and now, for all that I’ve grown nine years older and (somewhat) wiser in the meantime, I want to put my side.
So what really happened?
POWER GENERATOR AUTOPILOT HYBRID – PROMISES AND REALITY
Once – or should I say once upon a time – there was a certain Freddy Flyboy who, taking it upon himself to reinvent the mechanical self-steering system, hit on the idea of connecting a windvane to a system of hydraulic valves that would steer by controlling the flow of oil to a hydraulic cylinder similar in principle to those used in autopilots. The oil was to be pressurised by the action of a pump driven by a towed propeller, which, so the plan went, could also generate power to recharge the battery. Not content just to sit there laying golden eggs, this goose would wash, cook and clean as well (in a manner of speaking).
The minimal travel of the sensor windvane and a purely manual approach to calibration offering in the region of 2300 different settings made effective use in practice something of a challenge, as did the tendency of the towed propeller, which was supposed to follow along obediently behind the boat, to jump out of the water and stop spinning, in the process leaving the system with no power to steer. Despite these apparent shortcomings the system continued to sell year after year at wallet-busting prices, with most going to the owners of big yachts.
How can that be?
Customers put their faith in the system because they trusted the full-page product test report published in Yachting World, which read: “This is a unique product designed to solve two problems of today’s yachting at once: automatic steering and keeping the batteries charged on the modern power-hungry yacht. … an astonishing device!” Readers and purchasers had no reason to suspect the test had been authored by none other than an employee of the manufacturer. This revelation emerged only later, by which time the genie was out of the bottle. The manufacturer made hay while the sun shone, using the apparently objective YW report to build credibility and keep the money flowing in.
The flip side of the manufacturer’s successful sales strategy largely played out under the radar. The number of dissatisfied sailors completely unable to make the system work for them at sea rose inexorably. The milder of temperament wrote letters to the editor, others demanded remedial work, still others started talking to their lawyer and the most militant protested with placards at the London Boat Show, sought consular assistance, threatened to settle their differences with the manufacture mano a mano or called in the professionals at Scotland Yard.
Not all of them made headway by any means, indeed the manufacturer’s almost limitless creative manoeuvrings enabled him to put off the moment of reckoning indefinitely in most cases. One infuriated Oyster sailor managed to convince the manufacturer that he had no choice but to fly out to the yacht and make the system work in person, but even this proved futile: after an unsuccessful attempt to work through the various problems out on the Atlantic, the manufacture came out with something along the lines of “obviously the wind is not cooperative today” and vanished. The unit concerned soon found itself five fathoms deep.
A proper test on board Nigel Calder’s boat also found the system wanting, but with no details announced anywhere, suspicions grew that the results had been suppressed by legal means prior to publication. My attempt to extract an opinion from Calder, a renowned author on all things technical afloat, was rebuffed with a comment to the effect that the journalists were not prepared to take out liability insurance for a libel case and consequently the legal risks for him were just too great – Sorry Peter!
It was 1997 when Jimmy Cornell brought me together with the movers and shakers at Adlard Coles Nautical in London to write the book Self-Steering Under Sail. Buoyed by the positive review in Yachting World (which had never been retracted and continued to serve the manufacturer’s marketing efforts splendidly) and by the continued absence of any negative feedback in the press, the hydraulic system with the cryptic name of “Fluid Logic” had already been parting sailors from their hard-earned for several years by this time. Angry letters from sailors landed in the inbox of just about every editor in the sector, only to migrate on into the filing cabinet and disappear without trace. Now why might that be?
The idea of dedicating a section of my book to power generator/autopilot hybrids and describing the system concerned seemed consistent, appealing and logical – and turned out to be a very expensive misjudgement!
The book, including my review of the main points to consider in respect of the hybrid system and my “seven key parameters for comparing this type of autopilot hybrid with a conventional inboard autopilot”, was launched in December 1998. A little voice in the back of my head reminds me whenever I begin to write that delicate matters demand sensitive handling. Hence I limited myself to a run-through of the mechanical operating principles and observations on the damping and control features and made no judgment on or criticism of the system. Nevertheless my remarks clearly hit a nerve. And hard: my fellow self-steering supplier filed for defamation and libel in the High Court in London not only against me, the author, but also against my publisher Adlard Coles, a venerable institution that had never previously faced anything as distasteful as a trip to court.
THE HIGH COURT CASE
The sudden prospect of legal action triggered a frenzy of activity both in London and here in Hamburg. In reality we had little to fear from the law itself. The peculiar approach of the English legal system to the rights and obligations of the press, on the other hand, is very conducive indeed to generating costs on a scale that would be unthinkable elsewhere in the world.
The merits of the case aside, this heady combination of an eager claimant, a society known for expensive legal proceedings and a pair of defendants with no experience in such matters made for anxious days and sleepless nights. At the forefront of our thoughts was the precedent set by a recent and at least superficially similar case in England against IPC Press, the publisher of Yachting World. Yachting World had published a test report on a wingsail trimaran in which it apparently set forth its (unimpressed) observations on the sailing performance of the boat with insufficient subtlety. The company behind the wingsail took offence and – to the astonishment of everyone familiar with the facts – prevailed in court. Even more astonishing was the scale of the libel damages awarded against the publisher.
It soon emerged that “my” claimant had more than a passing acquaintance with the successful claimant in the IPC case. Method, tactics and legal representation were identical, as was the objective: David versus a publishing Goliath in pursuit of damages aided by the favourable winds of English press law.
I discovered too late that my publishers had done a deal to settle their side of the case out of court because, as I learned, negotiations concerning the sale of the business were underway and pending litigation would be likely to affect the outcome. I was sacrificed without warning by a company for which I had spent months preparing the case files. I had never doubted for a moment that we would see the case through together. Wrong again!
So now it was just me before the court – me and a pumped-up claimant boosted by his recent victory. Wiping out the German author must have seemed like a formality after his one-man-band success in forcing a global publishing house into an expensive settlement. The situation looked bleak. The price of losing didn’t bear thinking about, but winning was clearly also going to be very expensive: every hour in discussion with my legal team cost the equivalent of a smart new windvane steering system. And we deliberated for hundreds of hours…
This all happened in a time before Google when the internet was still in short trousers. Assembling a convincing dossier of victims of the contentious system took months of work, hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls and arduous research all over the world, but eventually we had details of 36 separate cases – and enough material for a detective thriller!
The story that emerged told of a businessman with a questionable respect for the law who had managed to carry on selling successfully for many years, virtually untouched by the press or commentators (whose silence he ensured through legal threats), even though his product appeared unable to satisfy the great majority of its customers. I hope you will understand if I refrain from putting this in more straightforward terms.
As one person familiar with the proceedings was heard to ask, how can it even happen that a product apparently undergoes 50 technical modifications in just a few years, with manuals revised every month, and yet the manufacturer seems to have only once refunded a customer, transferring all of the other (advance) payments received to an account in a tax haven where they would remain safely out of reach?
What I found particularly dispiriting at this point was the limp response of magazine editors all over Europe and the USA to my request for assistance in a flagrant case of deception affecting the global sailing community. It seemed nobody was prepared to stick their head above the parapet for fear of being dragged through the courts themselves. Everyone at the relevant publications seemed to know about it, indeed journalists I spoke to were often effusive in expressing their support. They wasted no time in wishing me good luck, but of actual active assistance I received none even though readers of just about every publication I spoke to had been affected.
The newly appointed editor in chief of Yachting World was particularly direct: “Sorry Peter, I cannot help you. Please f**k the plaintiff – but leave me out!” To be fair, his hands were most definitely tied.
Tracking down good lawyers in England proved difficult and it took a number of false starts before I found the right team. Rates of GBP 600 an hour left me weak at the knees (not to mention rather unpopular at the bank) and I seemed to spend half my existence in airport and hotel lounges. All thoughts of a private life were on hold. Eventually though the fates smiled on me. I discovered a prominent specialist in press law, who had previously worked for the British royal family, and found his verdict on reviewing the case documents both considered and encouraging: Simon was my man (I even gave my son born shortly thereafter the same name). Our barrister, moreover, turned out to be an enormously experienced sailor in her own right and her partner no less than an ardent Windpilot aficionado! Now I could be confident that none of the nuances of this complex matter would go unmarked and had the goodwill I felt I needed to help a German technical author surmount the quirks of English press law.
Eventually my bulging file full of the extraordinary stories of the victims of a product purporting to mark a new dawn in the world of self-steering also won over Justice Charles Gray, the judge assigned to the affair, who brought my two-year nightmare to an end by striking out the action. Hours later the claimant filed for bankruptcy. Many years later I received a cheque for EUR 7000 from the judicial sale process, but obviously that barely scratched the surface of the mountain of costs with which I was left.
I would like to say I learned from the experience, but the most obvious lessons are rather unpalatable. Among the many unpleasant shocks and surprises of the whole business, the conduct of certain of my competitors clearly stands out. Those concerned welcomed the chance to see preprints of the book, some even commissioning the publisher to advertise their own products in the back. Once the legal proceedings had begun, however, the publisher started to receive complaints from the same people – apparently on the basis that the book had taken them by surprise! The combined effect of these complaints to the publisher from a group of competitors who all appeared to be cooperating with the claimant certainly did not make the situation any easier. Interestingly, reviews of the book tended to laud it as “even handed”…
I do not intend to name names here; suffice it to say that there were only a few people who refrained from joining in the attempt to ride a competitor out of town and that – as if by chance – those few were the same small group along with whom I have been serving the market amicably for several decades in a spirit of genuine mutual respect.
PRESSWORK IN THEORY AND PRAXIS
Having always been open and friendly towards the press, I was also struck by how little support I received in return when it really mattered and I now have a completely different view of the effectiveness and authenticity of journalists. It is hard to have any confidence in representatives of the press after my personal experience of their attempt to ignore – or at least to brush under the rug – the facts of a case with serious implications not just for me, but for the readers they supposedly exist to serve.
In particular I will never forget the fact that the nautical press left me on my own to tackle a problem in the marine business that actually fell squarely within its own remit. All but the two exceptions mentioned fell silent in the face of the challenge.
A SINGLEHANDER’S LONELY FIGHT TO RESOLVE A PROBLEM IN THE MARINE BUSINESS turned out to be my own private fight for survival, a fight the effects of which I still feel to this day.
P.S.: SELF-STEERING UNDER SAIL is available in six different languages, sells for a minimum of US$ 60.00 new on Amazon.com and has been downloaded from the Windpilot website as a free e-book more than 865,000 times.