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Right-sizing And The Life Cycles Of Boats And Boaters (BLOG)

We’re in the midst of what I call a Goldilocks phase in boating, with things neither too hot nor too cold. With the lessons of the Great Recession still percolating; modest, steady growth is our rising tide.
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I visited the boatyard recently to pay my slip bill for the season, to catch up with old friends and to see what happened since winter. Tom’s 40-foot Cabo has a new teak swim platform and washboards. I eyeballed the yard’s new hydraulic trailer, which was moving boats from the off-site indoor winter storage shed to the water. Smart purchase.

Four pilings have to be straightened, not bad considering the ice damage a number of yards and private docks sustained. Bottoms were being done, and boats were just days away from being dropped into the tidal river.

Someone asked: So what kind of year is the industry having? Are boats selling?

With a little luck, this year will turn out a lot like 2014, when new-boat sales were up about 6 percent from the previous year in the traditional powerboat categories and just over 8 percent for all market segments. Last year was the third consecutive year that the industry sold more than 200,000 new boats. If we’re able to maintain this growth for the next several years, new-boat sales will climb to 300,000 annually. It’s not what it once was, but who’s going to complain?

We’re in the midst of what I call a Goldilocks phase in boating, with things neither too hot nor too cold. With the lessons of the Great Recession still percolating, no one wants to be caught with too much inventory or too much debt the next time the music stops. Modest, steady growth is our rising tide.

Builders, dealers, boatyards and marinas, and individuals continue the process of right-sizing. Some are carefully expanding; others continue to adjust and tweak to the new normal.

Buoyed by a recovering economy, a bull market in stocks, low gasoline prices and low interest rates, the consumer is back. The trailing edge of the baby boom demographic — those in their early to mid-50s — are back to buying larger, more expensive boats. The leading edge of boomers — those who are in their 60s and either retired or eyeing the pasture — are more content to sit tight or downsize.

My friend Frank is probably a good example of where the wizened portion of the generation is headed. A longtime boater from Long Island, N.Y., Frank this spring took delivery of a new $80,000 25-foot pilothouse cruiser powered by a 250-hp Yamaha. He bought new electronics for the boat and is about to get a new custom aluminum trailer.

Frank is 61, and this is his eighth and last boat. It even says so on the transom: “Last One.” A hands-on guy who has completed more than his share of boat projects, Frank wanted something that was going to be low-maintenance and hassle-free.

“We needed a simple, basic and yet comfortable boat,” he says. That’s why he went with a new boat (a Steiger Craft).

Frank last year sold his 36-foot Albin trawler, which he seemed to be working on every time I called him. “That was a constant work in progress,” he says. “I was married to a boat that took me three years to sell. It was a good cruising boat, but the family just didn’t have the time.”

The time crunch is driving the current trend toward dayboats in every shape, size and configuration, from pontoons to large, sophisticated center consoles that are topping 50 feet and costing more than $1 million.

With one foot in the horse camp and another in vintage Corvettes, Frank agreed that at this point in his life, time is a far scarcer commodity than money.

“Absolutely. It’s really about the time,” he says. “My wife’s real hesitation with the new boat was, ‘Can we make the time to use it?’ I have to maximize my time on the water. It’s quality time. It’s about improving the quality of life.”

That phrase, quality of life, reminded me of something that technologist Salim Ismail said at the Industry Leadership Conference hosted by GE Capital and NMMA at the Miami International Boat Show in February.

After Ismail left everyone’s heads spinning by quantifying the breakneck pace of change and disruption still to come as we move from the material world to the digital realm, he reminded the audience that what makes boating particularly unique is that it offers “real experiences” in a world increasingly dominated by things and objects.

“This is where you separate from this crazy world we’re moving into,” he said.

Boating solidifies relationships and brings people closer in a world doing its best to break us apart by keeping us “connected” 24/7 to an array of devices that interrupt constantly with some bit of breathless news.

People thirst for real experiences. You won’t find those on your smartphone, smart watch, laptop or Twitter account. But you will find them on the water in your boat, which is one of the enduring strengths of our sport and, more and more, a rarity in this world.


This piece originally appeared in William Sisson’s A View From Here blog at our sister publication, Trade Only Today. To read more of Bill’s blog, click here.