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Calls for simple, ‘sensible’ boats strike a chord

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In my column last month on the industry at a crossroads, I advocated a new generation of "sensible" boats - simple, seaworthy, efficient and more affordable. Boats with value and utility, boats that will encourage people to get back out on the water.

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I heard from several readers, including an offshore powerboat racer and longtime boater from Saugatuck, Mich., whom I knew 20 years ago. "As consumers, we have bought into the concept of more and more frills, stuff and excess in everything we buy," Bill Kaye wrote me in an e-mail. "A couple of generations ago we were satisfied with function."

No stranger to speed on the race course, Kaye asks why so many builders power their midsize boats to top out at 50 or 60 mph? "Even when conditions allow going fast, nobody ever does for more than a minute or two," says Kaye, who in addition to his raceboats has owned Wellcrafts, Sea Rays, Tiaras, Bertrams and a Cigarette. "Build a boat that safely and comfortably can cruise at 25 to 30 mph and can [be trimmed] to head into a stiff chop at 20 mph comfortably. ... Form should follow function. Leave off all the unnecessary frills and junk."

Kaye notes, "The cost of boating has gone through the roof. We've recently downsized to a 25 Pursuit, and I've found I enjoy boating as much as ever."

Value clearly has a larger seat at the table in the "new normal" we're all adjusting to. Robert Moran, president and CEO of Nautic Global Group, told Trade Only this month that going forward he believes the industry will be much more value-boat oriented. "I think consumers want to be on the water, need to be on the water," Moran says. "It's just a question of what vehicle are they going to use to get on the water?"

Correct Craft president and CEO Bill Yeargin says that in this new spending paradigm consumers will accept fewer bells and whistles. "Innovation that brings value is always a no-brainer," Yeargin told Trade Only's editorial board at the Miami International Boat Show. "Conspicuous consumption? If it's not dead, it is mortally wounded."

Marine consultant and author Eric Sorensen has come up with the idea for a line of lightweight, relatively narrow semidisplacement boats from 25 to 45 feet. They will be powered mostly by single diesels - the smaller ones would have an outboard option - providing cruising speeds of around 18 knots.

The goal is a family of boats that are efficient, reliable and seaworthy along with being cheaper to build, own and operate, says Sorensen, a Soundings technical writer and the founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice. Moderate power, moderate costs, moderate speeds - Sorensen believes those are the qualities that will resonate with today's value-conscious boater looking "to get away from the daily grind rather than bring it with them" in the form of overly complicated boats and superfluous gear.

This stuff isn't rocket science, but you sometimes wonder why, with all the builders and models, there aren't more real choices. There's only so much demand for vanilla.

An old fishing friend from Key West, who's been in the industry forever, called to comment on the cost of boating. "You've neglected the little guy," he told me. "They look at these $180,000, $200,000 boats with awe, but they can't afford them. Someone with a family income of 75 grand - the husband makes $45,000 or $50,000 a year; the wife works on the side. What can they afford? But they'd love to go boating." True enough.

Looking back at our time on the water, one thing on which Bill Kaye, Eric Sorensen and I agree is that the fun we've had has nothing to do with fancy features or luxury appointments. Nothing. It's had everything to do with the experience of being on the water with family and friends.

Maybe we're on to something. Maybe some of the simple, enduring joys of boating are coming back around. Time will tell. As Yeargin says, we all need to maintain a "futuristic mindset."

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.

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