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Trends - 10/14/04

By Little Gidding - Published October 14, 2004 - Viewed 1076 times


October 14, 2004

The number of boats is increasing, but where are the boaters?

We just finished a whirlwind road tour of marine events and boating organizations from Chesapeake Bay to Rhode Island and back. Over the past five weeks, Eileen gave 15 performances and we burned up four thousand miles of pavement. Not exactly bluewater passagemaking, but it pays the bills. Travelling up and down the eastern seaboard gave us the opportunity to meet a lot of people connected to the marine industry and to learn about changes in the world of boating. When we're out actively cruising it's sometimes difficult to discern the bigger boating picture -- the nautical equivalent of failing to see the forest for the trees. Ironically, being land based for a while has provided us with insights on what's happening out on the water.

When we were at the Newport International Boat Show last month we attended a presentation by Jim Petru, the market statistics director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. He told us that last year there were 17 1/2 million recreational boats in use in the US. That number includes everything from personal watercraft to sailboats to big motor yachts, and has been growing at a slow, but steady rate over the past seven years -- there were 8% more boats out on the water last year than in 1997. Interestingly, all categories of boats have enjoyed an increase in numbers EXCEPT sailboats, which have slowly declined in number each year since 1998, dropping in total by 4%. Personal watercraft have shown the greatest jump -- a whopping 42% increase in seven years. There are now almost as many PWCs out there as sailboats (1.42 million versus 1.60 million). Just thinking about that fact made David's ears hurt. "I guess speed and noise are more popular these days than peace and quiet," he winced.

According to the NMMA statistics, 72 million Americans participated in recreational boating last year. Although this represented a modest increase of only half a percent over the previous year, it was welcome news to the boating industry. The number of recreational boaters actually peaked back in 1997 at 78.4 million, and then dropped each year for four consecutive years. The folks who make a living from building and servicing boats are happy that the downward trend seems to be reversing itself.

These statistics paint a curious picture: there are fewer people boating today than seven years ago, but there are more boats out on the water. Our friend Al Golden of International Marine Insurance Services told us another interesting fact. We kept bumping into Al at the various events we attended -- in Baltimore, Newport, Solomons, and Annapolis -- and had plenty of time to chat during lulls in the boat show crowds. According to Al's insurance statistics, the average recreational boater goes boating 26 times a year. As full time liveaboards, we were surprised the number was so low. While this works out to once a weekend for half the year, we're accustomed to hanging out with people who use their boats every day for months on end.

Seeing more of the overall boating scene at the gatherings we attended reaffirmed our sense that liveaboard cruisers aren't typical boaters. Not too surprising, they tend to own larger, more expensive boats with more gear on board. And those boats are getting bigger and pricier. When we started cruising full time ten years ago, "Little Gidding", at 36 feet long, was on the small side of average within the cruising fleet; now we're downright puny. At this year's Annapolis US Sailboat Show, only two of the 24 boats nominated by Cruising World magazine for "Boat of the Year" were smaller than us. Al Golden told us that the average length of the boats covered by his company's Jackline policy -- an insurance programme designed particularly for cruisers travelling in foreign waters -- is 43 feet; their average value is $280,000.

"Wow," David said, "we wouldn't know what to do with that much boat."

"Try me," Eileen responded.

There were a lot of cruising catamarans on display at this year's Annapolis sailboat show

The cruising ranks are changing in other ways as well. Ten or fifteen years ago, multi-hulls were rare. In fact, according to Al, underwriters didn't insure them when they first began appearing on the cruising scene because they didn't understand them. Now 12% of the boats in the Jackline programme are catamarans. Cruising catamarans took up a lot of dock space at last week's Annapolis sailboat show, with builders from the States, France, Brazil, South Africa and beyond vying for the attention of the boat buying public.

We've also noticed a marked increase in the number of trawlers out there. Trawler crawlers used to limit themselves mostly to coastal and inland waters. Now you'll see them throughout the Bahamas and the Caribbean. With larger and better equipped vessels coming on the market, some trawler people are venturing to destinations formerly visited only by sailboats or mega power yachts. Jim Leishman, vice president of Nordhavn, made waves in 2001 when he completed a 26,000 mile, 25 week westward circumnavigation in a 40 foot trawler made by his high-end company.

Catamarans and power boats are joining the ranks at popular cruising destinations like George Town, Bahamas

A highlight of the Trawler Fest we attended in Solomons, MD, a couple of weeks ago was the premier showing of "Living the Dream -- Small Boats Crossing the Big Ocean", a film about last spring's Nordhavn Atlantic Rally. Eighteen trawlers crossed from Fort Lauderdale to Gibraltar via Bermuda and the Azores. "Small" is a relative term; the boats ranged from 40 to 90 feet in length, the average size being 54 feet. Although Atlantic rallies for sailboats have become rather commonplace lately, this marked the first organized crossing for trawlers. The idea seems to be catching on; next June, the first Trawler Trek from Hampton, VA to Bermuda will be run in conjunction with the Cruising Rally Association's Bermuda Cup.

This brings us to the question of who is out there cruising, whether it be in a mono-hull sailboat, catamaran, or trawler. Most commentators agree that the cruising community is dominated by early retirement, married couples. Certainly this profile describes many of the cruisers who attended the Baltimore Southbound Cruisers' Reunion last month and the Seven Seas Cruising Association Annapolis Gathering last weekend. Not that there aren't younger people, including single-handers and families with children, cruising about; it's just that they're not nearly as common as the white-haired folks with full pensions.

The baby boom generation was out in force at this year's Southbound Cruisers' Reunion in Baltimore

Paul Fenn, managing director of Jeanneau America, focussed on this characteristic of the boating population in his speech at the Newport show. The world's largest recreational boat builder has been in expansion mode since 1996, currently producing 4000 units per year. Fenn attributed much of the success of his company to simple demographics. "The baby boom generation is our key group. For the past decade, they've been reaching the target age where they have the time, health and money for boating." He felt boomers would keep the boating industry thriving for another ten years.

For us, the unasked question was what do we do a decade from now, when our peers are too frail to navigate their walkers down the docks and the next generation is too broke paying our medical bills to go cruising? The answer seems pretty obvious. Don't wait until you've scraped together that quarter million to buy the ideal cruising boat. Buy something smaller, older and cheaper and go now.

David & Eileen

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