A Look Back In Boating Time

By Chris Landers

In six short decades, boating has gone from being a sport for the rich, to an American dream reached by a quarter of the population. Here's how it happened.

In the years following World War II, America began an unprecedented movement toward the outdoors. Fueled by a boom in population, more free time, more disposable income, and increased mobility, we took to the woods and waters as never before, and did it for fun. Activities from hiking to hunting entered a new vogue as the country underwent a change that one report on the subject called a "democratization of leisure."

Recreational boating, once the province of royals and robber barons, underwent a sea change as well, as thousands of middle-class Americans found themselves with a little more money to spend. Once limited to gazing at the glossy magazines as celebrities such as John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart took the helm, the average American was able, for the first time, to afford to join them.

A 1954 Life Magazine story put it this way: "In the early days of the century, a man who sailed for fun was very rich and his yacht was very big." By contrast, the writer continued, "new sailors — women and juniors and plain landlubbers — have started racing, not only off the Eastern seaboard, but all over the U.S. Oldtime paid captains and crew are out. The boat owner — he now numbers half a million — is his own skipper, and his family and 'guests' handle the sheets and sails." And this revolution was by no means limited to sail. The following year, the same magazine announced: "An unprecedented motorboat boom jams America's waterways as 20 million weekend sailors start the season."

Cheaper boats, better access to waterways, and an increased interest in outdoor sports in general led Americans to take to the waters as the number of boat owners doubled from 3.5 million in 1950 to more than 7 million in 1960. As early as 1937, an article in the The Wall Street Journal predicted that waterway improvements in the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys, along with other canals, dams, and hydroelectric projects, would create navigable lakes and shorelines where there had been none before, opening possibilities for a new breed of boater. Henry Sutton, then president of the National Association of Engine and Boat Manufacturers, said that year that, "The pleasure-boat industry is on the threshold of the best era in history," and his prediction, though delayed by America's entry into World War II, proved to be prophetic.

New Building Materials Revolutionize The Sport

During the last years of the war, and in the years immediately following it, the fiberglass industry, fueled by the military, began to turn to production boats. Daniel Spurr, in his book Heart of Glass, credits Taylor Winner with being the first boatbuilder, coming out with a series of small production boats in 1945, but the process required the use of expensive molds and high temperatures to cure the fiberglass epoxy used in the building process. Other manufacturers followed, but it was the development of an epoxy that cured at room temperature in 1947 that slashed the costs of fiberglass manufacturing. Spurr writes that the 1950 New York Boat Show featured 22 fiberglass boats; by 1961 half of the displays were fiberglass, and by 1967 there was only one wood boat on offer.

Fiberglass was not just a simpler building material than wood, it was easier to maintain. The labor involved in maintaining a wood boat required a significant amount of either time or money, limiting the sport to yachtsmen with an income to match. For the burgeoning middle class, showing an increased interest in traveling and the outdoors, fiberglass represented an increasingly more affordable way to be out on the water with a minimum of work. Other technological developments accelerated the change in the sport; lighter, electric-start motors, and aluminum spars to replace wooden ones combined to make boating cheaper and easier. The theme of the 1959 Chesapeake Bay Boat Show, "Boating is for everyone," may reflect a certain optimism, but it was grounded in fact. A 1959 estimate from the Outboard Boating Club of America put the number of outboards plying American waters at an impressive 5.5 million, almost three times more than the 1.9 million in 1947, only 12 years before.

See The USA In Your Chevrolet!

The decrease in the price of boats came at the same time as an unprecedented peacetime increase in disposable income, while shorter work hours and longer vacations allowed for more ambitious kinds of recreation. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 and the Interstate Highway System improved our highway infrastructure, and many middle-class families took to the roads as bodies of water farther from home became easily accessible by trailered-boats. These same transportation improvements steadily increased traffic across the country, and according to contemporary articles in Life and in The Wall Street Journal, those families who wanted to avoid traffic altogether also took refuge in their boats. Whichever way you look at it, American recreational boating became a beloved pastime of the working classes.

With the exception of those who plied the waters for a living, boating — yachting, really — had always enjoyed a luxury image as the playground of the super-rich.

But the new boaters were a different breed than the old. In a 1963 article in the journal Social Forces, H. Douglas Sessoms said that during the previous 12 years, boating had become a "major form of outdoor recreation," pursued by all income groups, but that 65 percent of the people buying boats were in the middle income groups — "the skilled, semi-skilled, and white-collar workers." By 1962, the first report of the newly formed Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission found that summertime boating was a popular pastime for almost a quarter of the entire American population.

Part Of The American Dream

Yachting had long been a part of the trappings of wealth. Presidents vacationed on yachts unapologetically. Movie stars partied on them and flaunted the luxury of it. Yachting was how Humphrey Bogart spent his time when he wasn't making movies, aboard his 55-foot sailboat Santana. In 1960, when Sen. John Kennedy wanted to talk to the press about his bid for the presidency, he invited them onto his 52-foot motor yacht. After he was elected, his choice of recreation drew criticism as being elitist — not his boating mind you, but his golf-playing!

"Our image of the yachtsman has been an image of the extremely wealthy," the Outdoor Review found, "Consequently, when small motor-powered boats became available to large numbers, the motivation to possess a boat was already present. Their motivation arose also from the desire to freely explore lakes and rivers, and a desire for speed, both in the boat and on water skis." As with the rise in the family road trip, boating had become a family affair. "The person with a family finds boating an unusually satisfying group activity," the Outdoor Review noted, adding dryly that "togetherness is assured."

With Boating Come Challenges

Boating's rise in popularity was not without its challenges. As early as 1940, Congress began to see a rise in accidents associated with recreational boats, and passed new laws for the construction and operation of motorboats, including strictures on reckless and negligent operation. As the numbers rose, so did the perception that accidents were happening more frequently, according to the Coast Guard, but there were no hard figures for the number of boating accidents until the Federal Boating Act of 1958, which required a registration system for motorboats, as well as the reporting of any accidents.

In 1961, the year the Coast Guard first issued a report, the number of federally registered boats in their new numbering system in 1960 was 2.4 million, and the number of accidental deaths was 819. Just seven years later there were twice as many boats on the water (4.7 million), and the number of deaths was 1,342. It was during this period of growth and increased legislation that BoatUS was created to fill a perceived need. The New York Times reported that the new organization "put vital information in the hands of the boatman, to make his boating less expensive, and to represent his interests on the local and national level." In September of 1966, as the association reached its fifth month, BoatUS Reports, the predecessor to this magazine, reported a membership of "several thousand," and featured articles condemning industrial and municipal pollution and outlining the specifics of when, and if, the Coast Guard would respond to calls for assistance from recreational boaters.

The first real test for the new organization came in 1967, when BoatUS co-founder Richard Schwartz testified before congress about manufacturing flaws in new model boats, including a lack of ventilation for gasoline engines that could have potentially explosive consequences. Congress had heard from the manufacturers and the Coast Guard during the debate over the 1958 Boating Safety Act, but this was the first time the new class of American pleasure boaters was heard and represented in any unified way. The result was dramatic; the next revision of the Safety Act gave the Coast Guard authority over manufacturers for the first time. For 45 years since then, through countless political-policy and safety issues, and as the number of registered recreational boats has climbed to more than 12.7 million, BoatUS has continued its staunch representation and defense of the rights and welfare of the American boater. 

— Published: April/May 2011

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