Growing the Pie: Innovation, Education, Experience

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William Sisson

William Sisson

IBEX is shaping up to be one strong show. Sales figures, consumer confidence and other indicators leading into the three-day show Sept. 19-21 are all positive. Space has been sold out for some time. There will be more than 100 new exhibitors in Tampa, and the waiting list is 75 companies and counting.

Industrywide, activity has been percolating at a brisk pace. Consider: Malibu’s recent purchase of Cobalt Boats, Volvo Penta’s acquisition of Seven Marine, the sale of West Marine to a private equity firm, Yamaha Marine’s purchase of Bennett Marine. All are sure signs of an industry in growth mode.

Down one of those aisles at IBEX — or perhaps hidden in a corner — may be one of the industry’s future players, perhaps even a powerhouse. Timing means a great deal in business and life, and for recreational boating the timing is pretty darn good right now.

What does innovation in infancy look like? You might have a better idea after visiting Tampa this month.

Three industry friends in separate conversations recently mentioned the desire to buy a used single-engine outboard boat and repower it. All three also lamented the cost of a new outboard, which in each case was as much or more than the hull itself. For two of them the price was a deal-breaker, at least for now.

The third guy has made peace with the reality that getting on the water means an older hull and an older 2-stroke — he recently sent me a listing he’s considering for a 30-year-old boat with a 2013 outboard.

The conversations made me wonder about the future market for the current fleet of large multiple-engine outboard boats, which at some point will need repowering. The hulls will have many years left in them, but how many millennial boaters will want to shell out $50,000 (or more) for a pair of new 250s to hang on a modestly sized 15-year-old hull? Time will tell.

Once someone is well-hooked on boating, research suggests they’re in it for the long haul, short of an unexpected life event.

For boaters sliding into retirement, the cost of maintaining their pride and joy will become an increasingly significant factor in the cost-versus-value equation of ownership — certainly more than when they were working. I have a friend who is 69 and continues to work, in part, to fund some major upgrades on his boat. When he finally retires, the big boat projects will stop, too.

In the latter stages in the evolution of a boater, the owner finally has something he or she didn’t have a surplus of while working and raising a family: time. And it’s at this point that a quality marina experience — from service to repairs to amenities — becomes more relevant than ever in keeping them happily in the family.

The industry has been smart to focus on initiatives to get younger people into boats and to find ways to keep first-time buyers, regardless of age, in the fold. The core customer base is composed of longtime participants — lifers. The challenge and question are how many new participants will follow.

I spent several days this summer fishing at Tropic Star Lodge in Piñas Bay, Panama, where the operation runs a fleet of ageless Bertram 31s, capable boats from another time. The 31s are bulletproof, and the experienced team at Tropic Star can repair or rebuild virtually anything that can break on the boats or engines, including changing out a diesel on a tide to make sure there is no interruption in fishing.

At one point during my stay we were about 20 miles offshore when we wrapped the prop or shaft in a tangle of nylon warp, likely from a commercial boat. The mate, a native Panamanian, stripped down to his boxers, donned a face mask and went over the side with a knife in hand. After four dives, the 28-year-old was able to cut the mess free. We hauled him and a big ball of plastic junk back on board and continued fishing.

Boats and systems are better, faster and capable of functions few imagined 20 years ago. But as easy and pushbutton-friendly as we make the new fleet, boating still demands a range of skills and expertise that only develop through time and experience.

Ours is still a world where the unexpected happens and a knife and a mast still have currency. Education — on the water, online, in the classroom — is a key component to turning new boaters into lifers.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.

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