Safe and simple are always better than confusing and complex.

At a recent marine industry convention, I co-moderated a keynote seminar on “Designing for Speed.” The five-member panel included giants of power and sail who held a basketful of world speed records among them. More than 200 designers, builders and surveyors attended to learn the secrets of squeezing that last elusive knot out of a vessel, be it a yacht or an America’s Cup contender.

As the attendees clamored for details of custom propellers, stepped hulls, foils and wing sails, the panel kept coming back to one thing: safety. Each member was well aware of the serious injuries, even deaths, that sometimes accompany accidents at extreme speed, and was eager to see them avoided. As the panelists discussed safety, they added one other concept: simplicity.

Safety and simplicity are inseparably intertwined. Safety systems—bilge pumping, firefighting, man-overboard rescue, emergency shutdowns and more—are of little use if they are too complicated to be implemented quickly in an emergency. Their operation should be easy and obvious. This guideline is especially true at high speed, but it is essential for any boat.

After the seminar, I toured the convention hall and noticed something odd. A number of booths were understandably empty during the off-hour, with salespeople standing alone amid the most sophisticated wares imaginable, but one booth at the end of an aisle had a crowd standing four and five deep. The item on display was, to my surprise, not some expensive, next-generation electronic system. Rather, it was a simple, innovative bilge pump switch that held the promise of reliability and longevity in an unforgiving environment. It was advertised as safe and simple.

As I drove from the convention center, I thought back to a large custom yacht I had been called to inspect years earlier. The frustrated new owner contended that the emergency fire and bilge systems were not redundant and interconnected, as had been specified in the contract. Armed with the builder’s drawings, I’d managed to trace out the pumps and piping, and found that the required valving and cross-connections were indeed present and operable. Even with the drawings, though, it took a bit of time and searching to discover and unravel the system’s workings, largely hidden from view in the lower bilge. Extending the valve stems to bring the handles above the floor plates, where signs clearly marked them, solved the problem, but it should not have been a problem in the first place. The system was safety conscious and relatively simple in design, but it was not simple in operation, particularly in an emergency.

These points—safety and simplicity, in design and operation—should be kept in mind whenever you are in the market for a new yacht, or during refits or spring commissioning. Make sure you and your crew, and your guests as appropriate, know about all onboard safety systems, and are familiar enough with them to be able to operate them in the case of fire, flooding, darkness or adverse weather. Your life could depend on it.