It took a recession and higher gas prices for some builders to embrace leaner, simpler boats
At a 2007 boatbuilder's conference, naval architect Lou Codega outlined strategies to build boats that operate more efficiently and burn less fuel. Build lighter, scale back accommodations, and use the latest propulsion technologies. That was the gist of Codega's 45-minute presentation.
"Hear, hear," his colleagues said after the lecture, titled "Moderate Speed Powerboats, Can Less be More?" They praised his philosophy, shook his hand firmly, and patted him on the back.
And that was the extent of their response. Virtually nothing changed.
A year later, companies were still building the same beamy, commodious planing hulls weighed down with berths, heads, galleys, gensets, triple-spreader outriggers and a gazillion horsepower.
But there are signs things are changing. With the volatility of fuel prices and the economy still slumping, some boatbuilders and designers are realizing they must embrace a different attitude, one that stresses more thoughtful engineering and de-emphasizes speed and horsepower.
"I guess I am in the enviable position of getting to say, 'I told you so,' " says Codega, who for 20 years has been churning out proven designs for the likes of Regulator, Carolina Classic, Hines-Farley and Mirage Manufacturing (Great Harbour trawlers). "Now [changing] is a problem. It's easier to do this stuff when times are good."
Will boats become more efficient? Will the public accept or even ask for those changes once the economy turns around? In other words, will it be business as usual or the start of something new? Ken Fickett believes change will prevail.
"The days of the stylists designing boats are over," says Fickett, owner of Mirage Manufacturing, which builds both trawlers and open fishing boats. "I don't think we can go back to where we were. As we come out of the recession, it'll be the guys who have done their homework who will rise to the top. We need to pay a lot more attention," he continues, "to the engineering that goes into a boat."
Yacht designer Doug Zurn agrees. Zurn designed mJm Yachts' 29z, 34z and 40z, cruising powerboats known for their lightweight state-of-the-art construction and efficiency. He says 2,000 hours of engineering went into the Volvo Penta IPS-powered 40z (the z is for Zurn).
"You've got to think it through," says Zurn. "You can't just throw stuff in a fiberglass shell and hope for the best."
Fuel savvy consumers
Even if companies begin to build boats that are more fuel efficient, there's no guarantee that consumers will be interested, says Michael Peters, founder and president of Michael Peters Yacht Design, in Sarasota, Fla. He believes Americans will be hard-pressed to give up their 900-hp, 60-knot vessels.
"These $4 and $5 a gallon [fuel] prices will have to hit us a third and fourth time," he predicts. "Until then, I don't think people will change their boating habits or boat companies will turn the corner."
Peters also believes consumers will be unwilling to accept a boat with Spartan accommodations in the interests of lightening the load and burning less fuel. "To build a lighter, narrower boat you have to give up a hell of a lot of boat," says Peters, who has designed for Chris-Craft, Cabo and Regal, as well as many custom powerboats.
Unlike Peters, Fickett believes in the if-you-build-it-they-will-come theory, especially given today's economic and environmental climates. He's working on a lightweight 40- to 45-foot dayboat that will get an estimated 2 nautical miles per gallon with a pair of 300-hp Volvo IPS pod drives.
Consumers have become more aware of fuel-burn rates and mileage numbers, says Bill Sweetland, a salesman at Atlantic Boat Company in Brooklin, Maine, builder of Duffy Down East boats. "A few years ago people hardly ever asked us how much fuel a boat burns," he says. "Now it's a consideration." That means builders and dealers need to be able to intelligently answer consumers' questions about the fuel efficiency of their boats and how they stack up to the competition, says Sweetland.
"Part of selling is educating people," he says. "Most don't understand the differences in boat types and hull forms. People come in here and compare a Duffy to a Cabo. That's apples and oranges. You have to explain the differences and tell them the pros and cons of your type of boat and others."
Rediscovering the diesel
To combat their inherent inefficiency, powerboats must be built lighter, which means more boats with cored construction rather than solid fiberglass and wood structures, according to designers and builders. And in a number of applications, new and more efficient propulsion technologies, such as Volvo's IPS and Cummins MerCruiser Diesel's Zeus pod drives, can be used instead of conventional inboards, though they increase initial cost.
When the economy recovers, CMD will likely steer people toward its diesel sterndrives for better efficiency in lower-horsepower packages, says David Dwight, CMD vice president of global marketing, sales and integration. The engine manufacturer offers diesel sterndrives as low as 120 hp. Plus, they are available with Mercury's Axius joystick technology (from 220 to 350 hp), which gives sterndrive boats pod-like maneuverability.
"If you think about it, the sterndrive is a pod that hangs off the transom, whereas a Zeus drive is a pod drive that hangs off the bottom of a boat," says Dwight. "So they're really similar products from a mechanical standpoint."
Dwight believes consumers will be pleasantly surprised with the quiet, clean, efficient operation of the new-generation diesels. "They'll rediscover the diesel," he predicts.
Efficiency isn't just about spending or saving money. Just because a boat owner is well-off financially does not mean he or she is happy spending ridiculous amounts of money to run the vessel, says Larry Polster, vice president of displacement trawler builder Kadey-Krogen Yachts. "They don't want to burn 40, 50, 60 gallons per hour," he says.
Polster points to Kadey-Krogen's pool of customers. A decade ago, the majority of buyers were sailors; now they account for less than half of the company's business, he says. "People are moving to us from other powerboats," says Polster. And fuel efficiency is a big reason why some are choosing displacement boats. A typical motoryacht, he points out, burns seven to eight times the fuel to just go twice as fast as a Kadey-Krogen trawler. The Krogen 44, for example, gets 3.5 nmpg at 7 knots.
Some boaters are gaining efficiency by keeping their planing boats but pulling back on the throttles. Darren Plymale, general manager of Galati Yachts in Tampa, Fla., a Tiara, Cruisers and Viking dealer, says owners who must run their boats great distances to compete in fishing tournaments, for example, are doing so at slower speeds - 12 to 14 knots - and setting aside more time to reach their destinations. "It's called chugging," says Plymale. "Today, it's not chic to waste money."
Capt. Brad Wright chugs. "Bosses are trying different ways to save money," he says. "If we save the boss money, we save our jobs." So instead of running a Viking 74 at 29 knots and burning 142 gallons per hour on a passage from Panama City to Anna Maria, Fla., he chugged at an average of 10 knots and burned only 10 gph. "I was totally blown away at the fuel savings," says Wright. The trip took him and his four-person crew six days. It would have taken him and a crew of three only three-and-a-half days at 29 knots, but with a much heftier fuel bill.
Larry Graf has developed a unique new powerboat that sips fuel and goes faster than 7 or 8 knots. Graf, the former president of Glacier Bay Catamarans, has launched a new company, Aspen Power Catamarans. His open 26-foot prototype is powered with a single 110-hp diesel mounted in the starboard sponson. The shape of the sponson offsets the pulling power of the right-hand propeller to maintain straight tracking. Graf calls it "Hydro-Warp" tracking. The sponson is also 35 percent smaller than the port hull, which cuts down on drag and weight. The result: At 15 knots, the boat gets an estimated 5.6 nmpg, he says.
"I wanted to create something that really fits with today's time and fuel prices and what people were asking for," Graf says. "It's something I think the boating industry needs, and if someone wasn't doing anything like this, then boating becomes an elite sport. Spending $1,000 to $2,000 on fuel on a weekend is not realistic for a lot of people."
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.