Boating is dead.
I've said and written what no one else in the industry or related media is willing to say but it's true. Recreational powerboating in particular has been on life support, in my estimation since 1987, the year of the infamous Luxury Tax. The industry had been through the economic ups and downs, the cycles if you will, but the tax was the first one that the boat manufacturing industry seemed to be unprepared for. Those of us who were working in the industry will recall how devastating those years immediately thereafter were. Some manufacturers closed their doors never to reopen and many dealers followed in the wake of the financial meltdown, the cause of which didn't really seem to be the tax as much as it was that manufacturers had borrowed heavily to fund expansion of their facilities and dealers had financed their floorplans to unimaginable heights and when boat sales dried up so did the orders and the banks came calling.
The industry now finds itself fighting and losing a new war, the war of the recession and unemployment. The NMMA has been giving the same “everything is fine and we've turned the corner” economic pep talk since 2008 but it hasn't had any impact on the consumer. The average wage earners in this country are not buying new boats in fact they may not even be buying used boats. When the recession hit most everyone's discretionary income disappeared. Suddenly the market was awash in used boats, some of which had been purchased with home equity loans and now not only were consumers upside down with their mortgages but with their boats as well. There were also the new boats from the dealers that had gone out of business. That glut in the market lasted a couple of years and once those boats were gone the industry started to respond to the decrease in new boat orders but not fast enough. We've seen the demise of Genmar, Fountain, Pro-Line, Donzi, etc. There are fewer manufacturers but the market is smaller as well and those that remain are fighting for market share and their survival.
So why do I feel that recreational powerboat manufacturing is dead? Very simply the answer is cost. There is not one domestic manufacturer out there that is building an affordable powerboat for the average wage earner. If you want to get people excited about boats and get them into boats then the manufacturers have to start building boats that the buyer doesn't have to go heavily in to debt to purchase. In case they haven't noticed people aren't even considering new boat purchases. It seems that they've been preoccupied with keeping their jobs and a roof over their families heads and that's not likely to change for the next 3-5 years. When an entry level 19′ bowrider has a price tag of $25,000 it would seem that the industry is not paying attention. Most people don't need built in GPS units, Sirius enabled radios, amplifiers, sub-woofers, tilt steering, chrome or stainless bezeled gauges, vinyl wrapped consoles, etc. Save that stuff for the higher end boats and yachts because in the end most people don't want all that stuff but they really don't have a choice as one builder seems to follow another, who follows another, and so on when it comes to design and amenities.
I bet you were thinking that I would throw gas prices in there somewhere but truth be told the cost of fuel has never been that much of a deterrent when it comes to people wanting to spend time out on the water. Owning a boat never meant burning through 50 or 100 gallons of fuel over a weekend. It was always more about having the ability to get away, to be out on your own private floating island whether that was for an hour or a day.
I got my first boat when I was 13. It was a simple 16′ aluminum v-hull with a 50 hp. outboard and tiller steering. I may never have been happier than when I was out on that boat because it was mine and it was paid for. I took a portable radio with me and a small cooler for my adventures out on the Banana and Indian Rivers. I could take my surfboard and leave our dock on Merritt Island and run across the Banana River and tie up behind my grandparent's house in Cocoa Beach, walk across A1A and go surfing for the day. At 13 years of age that was all I needed and despite what the boat industry's public relations machine tells me I still believe that 16′ boat may very well be all that I need still.
The industry is dying and there's no stopping it.