Can technology help swing a turnaround?

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New propulsion systems bring excitement to an otherwise dreary boat market

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New-boat sales have been falling dramatically for months, but builders and dealers say innovative propulsion technology from the likes of Volvo Penta, Cummins MerCruiser Diesel and ZF Marine continue to spark interest in new boats.

“It gives [salespeople] the ability to go back out and pan for gold and try to shake loose a nugget,” says Tiara Yachts vice president of marketing David Walsh. “It’s hard work right now. The end of the funnel is about the size of a pinhead.”

“It’s a bright spot,” agrees Sea Ray vice president of marketing Rob Noyes. “It gives us a reason to pick up the phone and call a customer and say, ‘Hey, you gotta come and see this boat.’ ”

Sea Ray powers its vessels with three different new propulsions systems —CMD’s Zeus pod drives in its boats from 38 to 54 feet, MerCruiser Axius sterndrives for its boats from 29 to 38 feet, and Total Command Integrated Vessel Control for its yachts 55 feet and larger. All three have one common element — the joystick.

The Zeus system uses pods and independently articulating drives for maneuvering; Axius brings the same idea to the sterndrive, allowing the drives independent movement. And with Total Control, straight inboards and bow and stern thrusters work together for low-speed control.

‘Docking anxieties’
In all, Sea Ray offers 16 different models with joystick helm control, says Noyes.

“The feature that really hits home with the consumer is joystick docking,” says Noyes. “It doesn’t matter what kind of boater you are — there are a lot people out there with docking anxieties.”

Volvo Penta brought joystick technology to the production boat market in February 2005 with its Inboard Performance System. Like Zeus, the system consists of five major components: engine, transmission, pod, drive and propellers. The major difference between the two: the IPS propellers face forward, unlike Zeus’s aft-facing wheels. (Neither manufacturer claims a fuel efficiency advantage based on propeller orientation.) Volvo offers IPS in seven different models — five diesel versions and two gas models, ranging from 260 to 435 hp. In addition, the engine maker recently introduced a larger, more powerful system — the IPS900, which packs 700 horsepower.

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“We think IPS has strong capabilities to sell in any kind of market,” says Bob Apple, Volvo Penta vice president of sales and marketing. “And when you have new product, it’s exciting to get up every day and go to work.”

Apple says he expected a few boatbuilders at the Miami International Boat Show to introduce boats powered with the IPS900s. The new Lazzara LSX 92, which was shown in Miami, is powered with four 700-hp IPS900s. Besides Lazzara, Volvo Penta has 12 IPS900 projects in various states of completion, according to the company.

Latest from Volvo
Four years after it introduced IPS with joystick steering control, Volvo Penta recently announced that the same joystick technology will be available with its V8-powered sterndrives.

“We’ll have joystick technology for boats from 25 to 92 feet,” says Apple. “We’ve planning this for quite some time, but we don’t come to market with a product until it’s thoroughly tested, and we know it’s right.”

The new sterndrive joystick uses fly-by-wire technology to command the drives, which move independently and are fitted with two counter-rotating propellers. “We’re very confident it compares extremely well with the competition,” says Apple, referring to MerCruiser’s Axius sterndrives, which also have joystick capability.

Volvo Penta’s joystick sterndrives will be available with twin engine installations from 270 to 420 horsepower. This includes eight engines in three sizes – 5.0-, 5.7- and 8.1-liter. The engine manufacturer planned to have two boats with the new system on display at the Miami International Boat Show: a Monterey 320 and a Four Winns V358.

Four Winns began building boats with Volvo Penta’s joystick sterndrives in December, said Christophe Lavigne, director of engineering. In addition to the V358, the company will also offer the new propulsion packages in its 318, 338 and 288 models, he says.

“It’s fantastic,” Lavigne says. “We we’re losing customers who want to get into bigger boats but we’re intimidated to drive them. Now we have a great chance of maintaining those customers.”

Pricing information was not available at press time.

Silver bullet?
Most manufacturers and dealers agree propulsion technologies continue to pump excitement into an otherwise dreary market. But excitement doesn’t necessarily lead to sales in this economy.

“Our technology won’t be able to change global economics and consumer behavior,” says Wolfgang Schmid, general manager of ZF Marine LLC. “However, our technology puts boatbuilders and dealerships in a position to be first in line once consumer confidence is back, and boating enthusiasts will be able again to fulfill their dreams.”

Many manufacturers and dealers are leery of citing a boat’s propulsion system as the sole reason for a sale. Galati Yacht Sales is not one of them.

The role IPS has played in driving sales is huge — and has remained so through this recession, says Brian Dekkinga, Tiara brand manager for Galati Yachts in Destin, Fla. “It’s bigger than any of us expected,” he says. “I’ve never seen a situation where people are coming to buy a propulsion system and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, what boat is wrapped around it?’ It has really come to that. Our sales are off less than most [other dealers], because we have the pull of the IPS product.”

Tiara customers pushed the manufacturer to offer the 3600 Open with IPS, which led to sales, says Dekkinga. “People loved our open class, but they wanted the IPS performance.”

Good start to ’09
Grand Banks sold two of its Zeus-powered GB 41Heritage EU models (which debuted at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last fall) at the international boat show called “boot Düsseldorf” in January in Düsseldorf, Germany, according to David Hensel, director of brand and marketing for Grand Banks Yachts.

“We’ve certainly been impacted by the economy, but we’re making our way around that,” says Hensel. “Every sale is something to celebrate these days. The response from dealers has been good. Everyone wanted a [41EU] for the boat shows.”

Grand Banks has sold 41EUs to its entire international dealer network, which includes 40 offices in 20 countries, says Hensel. There had been five retail sales as of late-January, says Hensel.

Power has helped generate interest but, “It’s not the prime motivating force behind the sales of the 41EU,” says Hensel. “The decisions do not revolve around Zeus,” he says. “It’s not the be-all, end-all of the boat.” He cites a recent buyer who probably would have bought the vessel with conventional inboard propulsion.

Zeus improves business because it attracts a different type of customer, according to Steve Fithian, president of Classic Yacht Sales International, a Grand Banks dealer with offices in Florida’s Fort Pierce, Dania Beach and Cape Coral. “It’s attracting the motoryacht crowd,” he says. “Zeus is getting them here, and then they discover they really like the boat.”

But Fithian and other dealers and manufacturers say they’re wary of giving their new-era propulsion too much promotion. “We don’t want to cannibalize the other models,” says Hensel. “[Zeus] got a lot of attention before the real economic downturn. Some dealers have said, ‘Hey, the word is out.’ You can’t give it too much attention.”

ZF innovation
Some of the newness of Zeus and IPS may have worn off, but other companies are pumping fresh product into the market. Case in point is ZF Marine, which introduced its Joystick Maneuvering System in Fort Lauderdale. JMS controls low-speed steering and power via a helm joystick, bringing pod-like maneuverability to conventional shaft-driven inboard boats.

“We aren’t at liberty to speak for our customers, with regards to announcing the availability of JMS in their boats,” says Schmid. “We can say there is a lot of excitement about the technology and commitments from a lot of the domestic boatbuilders since our JMS introduction at Fort Lauderdale. Some will offer JMS as an option, but many will introduce the ZF Marine system as a standard package.”

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Tiara Yachts showcased its first vessel with ZF Marine’s JMS — a 3900 Convertible Open — at the Miami show, says Walsh. The company plans to make the system available in other inboard-power models, he says.

Twin CMD 600-hp diesels power the 3900, which was in the water and available for sea trials for contracted customers. The system on the Tiara is a $40,500 option.

Says Walsh: “As is always the case here at Tiara, but particularly in our current retail situation, we are improving our products, looking for anything to give [buyers] more value, a better boating experience and a reason to buy this boat instead of holding on to theirs.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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