Down East yachts: a modern blend of tradition, innovation

It’s called the blue-boat fleet, although they are better known as Down Easters, that growing segment of traditionally styled yachts with working New England lobster boat roots and, of course, flag-blue hulls.

These yachts are quintessentially homegrown — made in the U.S.A., although numerous interpretations of the distinctive express style have appeared on boats from builders based in Turkey (Vicem Yachts), Australia (Palm Beach Motor Yachts), Italy (Mochi Craft) and elsewhere.

The category is worthy of discussion because it didn’t get hurt as badly during the Great Recession as others. And it has rebounded from the economic doldrums faster and stronger than many, in part because it has been faithful to the mantra that new product spurs consumers into buying.

It’s a category that has smartly blended tradition, styling, technology and innovation, and one that is simpatico with its experienced, well-heeled clientele, who have owned several boats and are now looking for something a little more distinctive, something out of the mainstream.

“People are exhausted with the sneaker look, I think,” one New England builder told me. The blue hulls have gained a bit of ground on the white hulls with a certain buyer.

The best of these boats provide performance, craftsmanship and a finely developed aesthetic. You can still see remnants of their workboat DNA in the general shape of the hull and house, but this is anything but your father’s lobster “yacht,” which was likely a wet, round-bilge, single-screw displacement boat with the pot hauler not that long removed.

The new stylish Down Easter offers the latest in propulsion, from pods to jets; they are fabricated with advanced building methods and materials, such as resin infusion and SCRIMP, Kevlar and vinylester resin; and they have layouts that resonate with today’s buyers — large, open cockpits and saloons for socializing but with nicely appointed cruising accommodations below.

This generation of yacht appeals to a traditionalist coming out of a Herreshoff-inspired sailing sensibility as well as to a modern Gatsby with sprezzatura to spare. This audience has the wherewithal, confidence and perspective on life to pull the trigger and buy. Perspective?

“Life isn’t getting any longer,” says Jim McManus, CEO of Hinckley Yachts, one of the builders having a strong year.

New product and new technology keep you on the consumer’s radar screen and in their conversations, especially when your stiffest competition is often your own used boats, as it is with the Down East segment.

“We believe that clients need reasons to change boats, and technology is one good reason many folks buy into,” says Bentley Collins, vice president of Sabre and Back Cove, two brands that epitomize the blue-boat fleet. “The example to consider is the Apple iPhone. The moment a new [version] comes out, our clients buy it. The old one still makes phone calls, but the technology has improved.”

Into the “headwinds of the recession,” the Maine builder introduced the Sabre 42 Salon Express and the Back Cove 37. About 80 of each model have been sold to date. “This sector has been healthy since 2011,” he says.

The new Back Cove Downeast 37 is making the round of fall shows, and Collins says the company is sticking with the new product, developing a larger Sabre between 55 and 65 feet. “It’s a beautiful blend of Down East and contemporary styling,” he told me recently.

The Hinckley Company is a good example of a blue-boat builder that has capitalized on smart new-product development. I was recently at the corporate headquarters in Portsmouth, R.I., where I walked through a full-scale mockup of the new Talaria 43, which will be introduced in 2014.

The company has presold five T43s at a price of about $1.5 million each. Among the innovations found on the latest Talaria are a fully retractable glass door and windows between the saloon and cockpit, eliminating the traditional drop curtain. With the push of a button, the aft end of the house disappears, and the inside and outside are connected.

“We had a fantastic summer as far as new-boat sales go,” McManus says. “I’d describe it as ‘white hot’ right now.” The summer of 2013 will go down as Hinckley’s strongest since the early 2000s, when the industry was building 300,000-plus powerboats a year.

Compared with last summer, McManus says, “We sold twice the number of boats and generated three times the revenue.” Leading up to July 4, Hinckley reports that it sold seven boats in seven days. In the last five years, the company has launched four new models, accounting for more than $140 million in sales on more than 100 new boats, including 38 of the T34s introduced last year.

Of new product, McManus says, “It’s been the lifeblood.”

Although the stronghold for the Down East express yacht is still the Northeast, the aesthetic is gaining acceptance near and far. Hinckley and Sabre report solid sales in Florida this year, where many of their customers spend at least part of the year, and they see traction on the West Coast, too. “After 85 years,” McManus quips, “the company finally found the West Coast of the United States.”

It’s also not unusual to motor into a harbor on the Italian Rivera, for example, and see several European iterations of Down East styling on display. David Hensel, Grand Banks Yachts’ director of brand and marketing, remembers displaying the 54 Eastbay at the Genoa International Boat Show in 2004. “We were like a fish out of water,” says Hensel, whose company this year has introduced the 50 Eastbay SX. “It was like a UFO landed.”

Not anymore. The blue-boat fleet has landed.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.


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