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Bring them into the fold with a ‘low-cost boat’

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I first heard industry veteran Augusto “Kiko” Villalon speak more than five years ago at an IBEX panel discussion in Miami Beach titled “Surviving the Storm.” Kiko, as he is widely known, outlined his idea for an affordable, fuel-efficient, single-engine, semidisplacement cruising boat that he believed would retain or bring new people into the sport.

“At IBEX 2008, I raised the warning,” Villalon told me recently. In a nutshell, the warning he refers to is this: Our focus on ever more speed, horsepower and size, and the impact of that trend on prices, is not only costing the industry new boaters, but it’s also driving existing ones to the sidelines.

An engineer with a bit of the poet inside, the Cuban-born Villalon says the industry is missing an opportunity to grow the sport and rebuild the family-cruiser market when it focuses on the destination and how fast we can get there, rather than on the journey. The result, he says, is that too much of the middle class has been priced out of the new-boat cruiser market. Costs have simply risen faster than the discretionary income of would-be buyers, he says.

“Why don’t we slow down?” asks Villalon, who began working in the industry in 1962 for naval architect Jack Riggleman. “There’s so much to see out there.”

Villalon raised the same questions at METS last year during the IBI/ICOMIA workshop on new technologies and manufacturing. “I was prepared to be booed out of the place,” he recalls.

Instead the audience listened with respect to the 83-year-old designer, marine engineer, accident investigator, longtime sailor and entrepreneur, who founded and ran for two decades Marine Concepts, which made tooling for some of the industry’s premier powerboat builders.

Villalon is another voice on the subject of how to control costs and bring more people into the sport. He doesn’t advocate a return to the old days. He acknowledges that boats will continue to evolve with more features and technology. But Villalon does think we can do a better job of filling the “void” that the upscale shift in the market has left. That’s an opportunity for growth, he says.

For starters, Villalon makes the case that we need a greater variety of entry-level boats to attract what he calls the “freshman class” of new boaters into the sport. Who can argue?

The next idea may raise a few eyebrows.

Villalon believes the industry is missing an opportunity by not building more low-cost, no-frills boats. The way to do that, he says, is to return to simpler, more cost-effective construction materials and methods: woven roving, chopper gun, marine plywood, carpeting and cushions, encapsulated wood stringers, no liners, modest power and so forth. Villalon estimates that manufacturers might be able to reduce building costs by as much as one-third.

“Make the styling contemporary but blend simplicity in, from the point of view of billable building materials,” says Villalon, president of Ancon Marine Consultants in St. James City, Fla. “Deconstruct the boat. Rethink it.”

Built properly, this new generation of low-cost boat, Villalon maintains, will provide good value, offer plenty of fun and prove to be durable and long-lived.

For the presentation at METS, Villalon expanded on the concept. “The low-cost boat, in my opinion, is the place where engineering has the reins,” Villalon told the audience. “Again, if I may copy [former Bayliner executive] Slim Sommerville’s ideas. What he did was identify the monthly payments the public was comfortable with, then transferred that into a total amount to borrow, deducted operating costs and identified the amount of money a manufacturer could spend in labor and materials to produce the boat. He gave that number to the engineers and asked them to build a boat for that money.

“There is so much superfluous features in a boat today that I am sure we can design a low-cost, strictly functional, no-fuss, no-smoke-and-mirrors boat. Just try it.”

Villalon also believes that the concept of a single-engine full or semidisplacement cruising boat, similar to the one he spoke of at IBEX in 2008, still has merit. And, he says, it’s a boat that returns the focus to where it belongs: the journey, not the destination.

Villalon is doing his part. When last we spoke, he was in the process of buying a Monk-designed Eagle 40 full-displacement trawler after selling the Brewer-designed 44 Alfin II that he sailed for 26 years.

“If I ever get old,” Villalon says with a laugh, “I’ll retire.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.



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