I woke up on November 8 with a bursting in-box, an oddity for a weekend morning. Perhaps even stranger was that none of the emails addressed what was likely the headline of a year filled with banner headlines: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had defeated the sitting administration in a hotly contested election.
Instead, a good deal of the emails were reactions to something we ran a few days earlier in our daily newsletter, Trade Only Today. That story was about Volvo Penta mothballing Seven Marine. The behemoth parent company behind the marine engine manufacturer is going full tilt to hit its net-zero operation goals, and the thirsty outboards don’t fit into the equation.
“We want to send a clear message,” Volvo Penta president Heléne Mellquist said. “We believe that the indisputable need to drive advancements in sustainable technology must be our main focus.”
Reactions, at least according to my in-box, were a mixed bag. Many Trade Only Today readers lamented the loss of yet another outboard manufacturer in 2020, with BRP having retired Evinrude earlier in the year. Others applauded Volvo Penta’s commitment to future-state power, but questioned how long it would take to see a marina full of pleasure boats with electric and hybrid power, advanced fuel cells and renewable fuels.
Are we there yet? No, says celebrated naval architect and designer Michael Peters, the subject of this month’s Q&A. Peters should know; he was behind Hinckley’s electric-powered boat, Dasher, and his design house is currently involved in four electric boat projects. Peters cites superyacht tenders — and the first Tesla Roadster, which dropped in 2008 — as examples of where the all-electric marine market is now.
Like that $100,000-plus two-seater, he says, today’s electric boats appeal to a fringe group of people who can afford to pay a significant sum for early technology. “That’s completely counter to what the consumer is looking for,” Peters says. They’re instead “looking for something that’s going to go a long way and not cost them a lot.”
My in-box also contained the latest numbers on boat sales, and September was another high point in a year of booms. New boat registrations in the main powerboat categories skyrocketed for the month, up 34.2 percent year over year and 8.5 percent year to date. The National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates new boat sales will top 300,000 units, up 8 percent from last year. And the NMMA expects the trend to continue.
All categories of boats remained white-hot. The only segment that saw a decline was PWC, and that drop was chiefly attributed to being sold out of inventory.
There are, however, some clouds on the horizon. The backlog of inventory now extends to parts, accessories and engines from big manufacturers. On top of that supply-chain jam, frazzled dealerships have barely had a minute to catch their breath and address growing service backlogs.
Another thing that overwhelmed dealers need to address is catering to new clientele. Through September, first-time boat buyers accounted for 31 percent of new boat sales. The question now is whether, as an industry, we can significantly reduce the rate — an alarming 42 percent — of first-time buyers who opt to sell their boat within five years and not to replace it.
Columnist Wanda Kenton Smith has been writing about this retention question for the past few months. Like many others, she cites a lack of new boater onboarding — via safety classes, education, significant follow-up from dealers and more — as a massive issue. In her most recent columns, she addresses the need to unify as an industry to make all those new boaters’ experiences safe, enjoyable and memorable. If we fail to do so, she writes, we risk losing them.
Going into 2021, we seem to be in a different position than we were in early 2020. This does not look like a time when we have to react to an emergency. From what we can see right now, this is a time when we can start to regain, and reshape, normalcy. Boating has already shown that it delivers a space for everyone to get away, to leave the day’s headlines in our wake. In that sense, something that Volvo Penta’s CEO said was correct: “The formation of our [clean power ventures] is an important step in shaping a world we want to live in.”
Some leaders in our industry are not waiting for the world to change one way or the other. They are instead trying to be the change in a positive direction.
That’s a headline I want to see more of in my in-box all throughout the coming year.
This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.