Forty Years of News

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Welcome to our 40th anniversary issue. This special edition looks back at our industry over the last four decades, as well as the economic trends, companies, corporate heads and families that turned it into what it is today. It’s not a complete survey by any stretch — we ran short on space — but it is an attempt to provide broad brush strokes with some fairly significant details about where we’ve come from. In upcoming issues, we’ll continue to look at the impact dealers, distributors, retailers, marinas and others in our ecosystem have had on the industry. This is just a start.

Sifting through old photos for the stories and brainstorming about the most efficient ways to pack 40 years into 42 edit pages took serious work by our editors. The image above of Michael LaBella, our deputy editor, says it all. He spent days sorting through 480 dusty magazines to find the best candidates for this issue’s cover, while grabbing headlines for a timeline.

The luxury tax, outboard dumping case, EPA emissions regulations and the Great Recession were obvious milestones, but there were small stories that became big over time. The sales growth of center consoles and pontoons; the proliferation of towboats; the impact of E15. Reading the issues, there was a lot of, Yeah, I remember when that happened. And, I wonder whatever happened to that person?”

Mining history: Editor LaBella sifting through 480 issues for the best stories. 

Mining history: Editor LaBella sifting through 480 issues for the best stories. 

It was tempting to turn this into an industry yearbook, and there is some of that, but the intent was to paint a representative picture of the industry. We have columns by Pat Healey and George Sullivan, offering personal perspectives on specific events in the industry, as well as profiles of leading boatbuilder families.

The “Then & Now” spread looks at products and boats in 1979, showing the visual evolution over four decades. HCB’s 65-foot center console or Seven Marine’s 627-hp outboards are great examples of how much things have changed.

The cover line of this issue and headline for this column, “40 Years of News,” are what have guided Soundings Trade Only for four decades. The stories not only provided news, but also made the connection between our small industry and larger, global events: The 1979 oil crisis caused by the Iranian revolution prompted our government, for instance, to propose a ban on weekend boating to save fuel.

In 1991, the luxury tax was passed to supplement the federal government’s coffers, but the only Americans who paid dearly were the boatbuilders and, even more so, their workers. The industry experienced mass layoffs only three years after sales of new boats had reached historic levels.

When many builders and their workers marched on Washington — the first time the industry was simultaneously angry and politically active — the luxury tax was repealed.

I joined a boating magazine the same year the luxury tax passed, so I’ve written about that issue and most big events since then.

What impresses me most about our industry beyond its resilience: Once you’re in the club, you’re in for life.

For a writer, that’s gold. Maybe it’s because it’s composed of so many small business owners who don’t have to worry about public comments sinking their share prices.

I’ve also gotten fairly close to the biggest CEOs. Once they understand all you want is an honest story, they tend to open up about challenges impacting their companies. I often look at other industries and think how fortunate I am to be covering boating.

I hope you enjoy the issue. Our staff designed it to be readable, fun and accurate, without embellishment or adulation — though a little adulation doesn’t hurt in an anniversary issue.

We’ve had many remarkable people in the industry. It’s time to celebrate them. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.

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