MIAMI 2016: Florida startup banks on success with Seakeeper

MIAMI — USA Yacht Stabilizers, based in Merritt Island, Fla., has a couple of mobile crews that specialize in Seakeeper refits.

MIAMI — Seakeeper has created a devout and growing following with its stabilization gyros, which are now available for boats as small as 30 feet, a fact that won’t surprise anyone who has experienced one in action.

John Wurtz believed so much in the future of the technology that he walked away from his 12 years as vice president of Florida Bow Thrusters and decided to start a business solely around refitting boats with them.

His new company, USA Yacht Stabilizers, based in Merritt Island, Fla., has a couple of mobile crews that specialize in Seakeeper refits and will visit whichever yard a boat owner chooses. Wurtz plans to quickly add more crews because he sees an explosion of opportunity.

“They’re going to completely change the industry,” Wurtz said at the Seakeeper booth on the docks at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show. “We feel there’s plenty of demand and we think it will keep growing. We started this year, we have two crews and we plan to double that by the end of the year.”

A 35 ST Contender demo boat was giving sea trials at the show five times a day, each time at max capacity, to finish out the show at about 300 rides. That was in addition to roughly 300 dockside demos, during which several people would start to rock the boat from side to side before flipping the stabilizer switch, said Seakeeper sales and marketing vice president Andrew Semprevivo. (Check out a demo video here.)

As converts will repeat, once people get a taste of the gyros — until recently only available for large yachts — they will become the norm.

Seakeeper reported record growth for 2015. The Maryland-based company, launched in 2008, has more than 3,000 units on vessels ranging from 30 to 220 feet. The business saw a 57 percent growth in shipments from 2014.

Setting the pace was the 50-foot-and-under market, where there previously was no option for stabilization. With its new SK5 and SK3DC, Seakeeper has changed that.

The company also saw an 80 percent increase in refit installations, making it more than 25 percent of Seakeeper's total business.

Wurtz estimates that the refits will cost between $10,000 and $30,000, excluding the price of the gyro — not necessarily pocket change — but that cost could come down as the gyro technology becomes feasible for even smaller boats. It also will lessen as more — “nearly all” — OEMs plan for the addition of Seakeeper during the design phase, he said.

For that reason Semprevivo believes the industry will see more mobile outfits such as USA Yacht Stabilizers spring up to meet the demand.

The technology is so counterintuitive that the company has been pressed to make the general public aware of it, co-founder Shep McKenney said during a November Q&A with Trade Only. But, he added, “We feel will be a part of consumers’ minimum expectations in a short period of time. What we’re hoping is that people will begin to see it the way they saw automatic transmissions in cars in 1965 instead of 1955.”

The company launched a tour last year with the 3DC-equipped Contender, traveling along the East Coast to let boaters experience the 94 percent roll reduction, which has brought more awareness.

Capt. Pete Nolan took a group out the inlet on Friday afternoon and headed east a few miles, chasing wakes so he could demonstrate how the Seakeeper would kill a roll on the deep-vee boat.

After pausing to let the initial wake from a 62-foot Viking pass — “I’ve gotten spoiled, and I don’t like to worry about people going over,” he said — Nolan warned everyone to hang on — tight — and flipped the switch. The gyro stopped working, and instantly, the Contender started to roll. He flipped it again. No discernible roll.

A glass panel over the gyro showed the device tilting back and forth, so passengers could correspond what it’s doing with what’s happening on the boat. Nolan chased every wake he could find, adding, “I’ve tried to break this boat so many times, and I can’t do it. This is a good boat.”

“You know, you’re all right!” shouted a gentleman who was being sold on a gyro that very moment. (He agreed to buy one there on the spot for his Regulator 34.)

Nolan found a cargo ship and began zipping around nearby, though at a safe distance, for one last demo. Three passengers with a GoPro were shouting in German about the captain being crazy, laughing their approval.

Nolan, after warning everyone to really hold on, flipped the switch. The boat began rocking, more dramatically this time. Nolan then chased the wake again, and this time with the gyro engaged, the boat just bobbed over the waves without any discernible side-to-side motion.

The crowd went wild. “Hey, you’re all right!” the gyro-buying guy repeated.

Seakeeper has a new version coming for even smaller boats that the industry will hear more about “around midyear,” Semprevivo said.

At least one repeat passenger will be in line for a trial.


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