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New boats, new builders and challenging the status quo

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The spirit of entrepreneurship and the dream of building a better mousetrap was alive and well at the Palm Beach International Boat Show last week.

As you’d expect, the big established builders and brokers were there in force, but so were some newcomers and at least one Italian builder that made its Palm Beach debut with a couple of small boats on the hard — the Eolo brand from Nadirmarine. You’ve got to start somewhere.

It bodes well to see new people excited about their creations and about our industry. New blood is a good thing. Small start-ups that challenge the status quo keep all of us on our toes. And there’s always room for smart, nimble companies that know their customers well, especially now that the tide is starting to rise.

I’ll give you an example.

I was talking with Mitch Sorbera of Retro Marine about a new 25-foot pocket trawler he is coming out with next year — more on that in a moment — and he said to make sure I walk a bit farther toward the south entrance and check out a new boat he thought was really nice-looking.

The boat was a 23-foot navy blue center console with big bow flare, a sweet tumblehome transom and powered by a single 250-hp Yamaha on a custom bracket. I met the co-owner, a 26-year-old avid tournament fisherman and boatbuilder named Josh Stoner Miller.

He and his uncle, Marc Stoner, run Stoner Boatworks of South Miami, which also builds the Stoner 26.

Palm Beach was the debut of the Stoner 23, and the young man was optimistic and understandably proud of the handsome center console, which he described as a melding of Palm Beach and Carolina styling.

Downturn? What downturn?

“Come back to Florida and we’ll take the boat fishing,” he said with the youthful excitement of someone with nothing but tomorrows ahead.

Another example. Industry veteran Scott Shane was handling the Florida debut of another nice little custom center console, the OBX 21, which is built by Verns Boatworks of North Carolina, which produces custom open boats from 19 to 30 feet.

“We’re trying to make it like a small Buddy Davis,” said Shane, of Montauk Yacht Sales in Freeport, N.Y., the exclusive dealer for the builder. “We’re going to build one at a time. We’re not going to rush it. It’s for the discriminating guy.”

Shane has experience selling boats, testing boats and writing about boats. But like so many of us, he still has his ear to the ground, trying to discern where the consumer and the market are headed. “We’re listening to what everybody says,” he remarked. “I think we’ll see a shift in the market. I think the hot market for the next five or six years will be boats between 19 and 30 feet.”

Retro Marine’s Sorbera had his 21-foot Cape Island outboard pocket cruiser next to Shane’s new center console. Sorbera, who rode out the recession like most of us — holding his breath and tightening his belt — said he’s finally seen a shift.

“I think I’ll end up selling two or three boats from this show, which is unbelievable for us,” said Sorbera, who is based in Salem, Mass. “Something is underfoot here. I feel a change in the market.”

He gave me an example of shift. He had a customer for one of his 21-footers early in the fall of 2008, who backed out once the market tanked. The same man came back and bought one of Retro Marine’s Nova Scotia-built boats a few months ago, which now lives happily in a slip in Punta Gorda, Fla.

“Four and half years later, we sold him a boat,” says Sorbera.

Sorbera is confident enough now to put the money into the tooling for a new 25-foot Nova Scotia-built trawler, which will debut next year. “The hull is beautiful,” he said. “We’re anteing up to the table. God is saying, either get them out of purgatory or kill them.”

Although he retains the wariness of a survivor of the Great Recession, Sorbera feels good coming out of Palm Beach and other winter shows.

“I’m absolutely walking on air,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something is happening. People are saying, ‘I’m going to enjoy myself. Life is too short. Let me enjoy life a little bit.’ ”

Amen to that.



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