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OPINION: Value of boating far outweighs its costs

Like leaves turning in the fall, headaches at tax time and spring housecleaning, it’s an annual tradition. Some newspaper or magazine will trot out an article bemoaning the cost of boating and pithily conclude that, in essence, “it’s not worth it.”

One of the articles I saw this year that raised my blood pressure was from the May 19 edition of the Washington Post, a fish wrapper if there ever was one, with the headline “The Real Cost of Owning a Boat.” This little gem begins with: “It’s an old joke — a boat is a hole in the water you pour money into. It’s also true.”

The article proceeds to spout a few facts about fuel, insurance and maintenance expenses. Disjointed at best, it continues to ramble on about how much it costs to store a boat for the winter and what it costs to shrink-wrap. The only conclusion one can draw from this lightly researched, cherry-picking drivel is that boating is best left to the rich.

What a load of nonsense.

Every year the National Marine Manufacturers Association publishes an abstract that constitutes a comprehensive summary of statistics on the recreational boating industry in the United States.

In 2011 recreational boating pumped $32.3 billion into the economy, up 6 percent from 2010, according to the NMMA’s 2011 Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract. What’s more, of the 238 million adults living in the United States in 2011, 34.8 percent, or 83 million people, participated in recreational boating. This is the greatest proportion of participation in boating since 1997. The abstract goes on to say that 527,000 new boats were sold in 2011 and that 909,000 boats changed hands in the used-boat market.

Those are big numbers.

Granted, boating costs money. Everything material costs money. The real question is, what value are people getting for the money they spend on boating? What the authors of articles like the Washington Post piece fail to understand is that there is real value in boating — enough value to make 83 million people go do it.

So is this a rich man’s game? The answer is an emphatic no. According to the NMMA study, “boating remains a middle-class recreational activity. Seventy-seven percent of adults who went boating in 2011 had a household income of less than $100,000. Sixty-three percent had a household income of less than $75,000. Only 19 percent had a household income of $100,000 or greater.”

The final statistic I’d like to reference is that the NMMA estimates there were 16.35 million boats in use in 2011. That’s a staggeringly large number by any measure.

So why do all of these people get out on the water to fish, ski, cruise and play? Simple: It’s because of the tremendous value they get out of their boating dollar.

How do you assign a value to seeing the look on your children’s faces the first time they are able to get up on water skis? How do you assign a value to the look when they catch their first big fish? How do you assign a value to seeing a sunset or sunrise from the deck of your boat, or to a day spent on the water with the whole family, free of the mundane distractions of life on land? I’d say some of these things are priceless and I’d bet that many of those 83 million people who went boating last year would agree.

But there’s more to it than that. Humans are inexorably drawn to the water. It’s a near-magical place to be. Boating means freedom. Out on the water, there are no lanes drawn in the water that must be dutifully followed. It truly represents breaking the surly bonds of land-borne life and replacing it with a fundamental sense of freedom and adventure.

Moreover, boating attracts people because safe boating requires a measure of self-sufficiency, accountability and knowledge. In our “protect ourselves from ourselves” society in which we’ve let nanny government behavior interfere with nearly every aspect of our lives, boating represents a refreshing, exhilarating way to experience life.

Worth it? Damn right it is.

— Matt Howard

Capt. Matt Howard is a retired marine aviator, longtime boater and yacht broker representing United Yacht Sales in the Mid-Atlantic area. You can contact him



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