I recently heard from Ruth Ishihara that her beloved partner of 33 years, Dave Smead, died last April. Ruth Ishihara? Dave Smead? These are names that will be unfamiliar to most readers, and yet these two have played a central and critical role in moving onboard lifestyles from the days of camping out with kerosene lanterns and warm beer to our current enjoyment of the comforts of home.
Dave was a brilliant electronics engineer and software developer with a 50-year history of innovation. In the early 1960s, he built the world’s first portable digital voltmeter for the U.S. Air Force. Throughout the 1970s he was a pioneer in the development of early computers and integrated circuits. In the 1980s, he developed fiber optic and monitoring networks for uranium enrichment, followed by satellite communications networks for NASA.
Luckily for the sailing community, Dave was also passionate about boating. Starting in 1974, he built a 50-foot sailboat from scratch. He set sail in 1983 to cruise Mexican waters; in San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas, he met Ruth through mutual friends. They briefly cruised Mexico together. It was during this period that Dave came to realize the cruising community was hopelessly uninformed about battery systems and onboard energy management. He and Ruth returned to Seattle, Wash., via Hawaii in 1984, and initiated a project — that was to continue until his death — to create optimized energy systems for offshore cruising boats and other off-the-grid applications.
Dave is the principal reason we have high-output alternators with multi-step (“smart”) regulators coupled to powerful battery banks and inverters, which today remain the core components in most cruising boat energy systems. He and Ruth created Ample Power Company to popularize their concepts and bring cutting-edge products to market. Their book, Living on 12 Volts with Ample Power, taught a generation of cruising sailors how to manage batteries to optimize performance and life.
When I began work in 1988 on what was to become my Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual, the first person I sought out was Dave. He and Ruth had a booth at the Stamford Boat Show in Connecticut. I flew there, rented a car and slept in it because I could not afford a motel. Over a couple of days, I spent hours picking his brain, and we remained sporadically in touch throughout the years from then onward. As late as a couple of months before his death, I was trying to recruit him for the development of another cutting-edge energy management system for which I knew his expertise would be invaluable. He was always gracious and generous with his knowledge.
It has long been my opinion that Dave should have “owned” the recreational marine energy management marketplace and should have been able to retire a wealthy man. But he, along with Ruth and Ample Power Company, always struggled to make the marketing breakthroughs that enable small companies to grow exponentially; they never received the recognition they deserved. I believe it was fundamentally because Dave was too passionate an engineer — he allowed perfection to get in the way of good enough. Whereas others developed products (several of them with considerable input from Dave) and then concentrated on marketing, Dave was forever tweaking his engineering and confusing his customer base with new and better iterations of his products! His competition took the market that, from a technology perspective, should have been his and Ruth’s.
Through all the tough years, Dave never stopped exploring new ideas and products, and never lost his love of adventure. In his 30s, he raced motocross. In 2012, at age 71 and after more than 40 years away from the sport, he took it up again in vintage motocross. Five years later, he was on the first lap of a race in Boise, Idaho, when he went into cardiac arrest.
All of us who disconnect from shore power, cast off our dock lines and continue to enjoy comfortable onboard lifestyles owe a huge debt of gratitude to the largely unrecognized genius that was Dave Smead.