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Staying afloat

After a scary downturn in recreational boat sales, the marine industry is experiencing an encouraging rebound. The Miami International Boat Show brims with optimism.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


MIAMI -- When the engine manufacturing giant OMC filed for protection from its creditors in December, everybody in the marine industry braced for the hard times that were sure to follow.

"We thought it was something that would never happen," admitted Irwin Jacobs, chairman of Genmar Holdings, the largest recreational boat manufacturer in the United States. "It was the shock of all shocks. We thought this is going to affect everybody in the industry."

Outboard Marine Corporation, the manufacturer of Johnson and Evinrude engines, built about 30 percent of the 349,000 outboard motors sold in the United States last year.

Some blamed the fourth quarter downturn in the marine industry on rising fuel prices and high interest rates. Uncertainty about the economy, an undecided presidential election and an unusually cold winter didn't help.

What a difference a few months make.

On Thursday, Jacobs, whose company manufacturers Aquasport, Ranger, Scarab and Wellcraft, announced at the Miami International Boat Show that an affiliate will acquire OMC's holdings, including the Chris Craft and Hydra-Sports boat lines.

"We have nothing but good news," he said. "By next week we will be addressing warranty issues."

Jacobs' optimism seemed shared by many of the thousands who attended the opening day of what is widely considered the marine industry's premier consumer event.

"Things got a little soft for us last fall," said Dan Atwood, vice chairman of Crystal River-based Pro-Line boats. "We expected sales to be flat, but we have been surprised at how well we have been doing since January."

Atwood, a boat builder for 33 years, watched sales grow steadily through the '90s and peak last year. Despite the fourth quarter slowdown, 2000 still was a record year for the Citrus County boat builder.

"If the boat show response is any indication, 2001 should be another record year," Atwood said. "Let's just say we are guardedly optimistic."

Tony Esposito, a representative of Mercury outboards, said the sale of inboard and outboard motors for larger boats is booming.

"It seems that the economy hasn't affected the sale of the bigger boats," he said. "Offshore racing is booming as are the sale of high-end fishing boat. We are hopeful."

Many boat retailers are optimistic that the market will continue to improve. For instance, Texas-based Travis Boating Center, the nation's largest retailer of recreational boats, just opened 14 new Florida stores, including one in Clearwater.

"There are two ways to grow," said Mike Postill, the company's Florida general manager. "You can either expand the market or expand your market share. We focus on the latter."

Postill said the main reason his company is successful is because it provides everything from training to safety equipment along with the purchase of a boat. "People just want to be able to just get in it and go," he said.

And while general boat sales are holding their own, the market for specialty craft is booming.

Maverick/Hewes, the Fort Pierce manufacturer of performance-oriented flats and bay boats, can't build enough to meet the demand.

"We built 900 boats in 2000 and that still wasn't enough," he said. "We doubled the size of our factory last year and will probably have to do the same thing in 2001."

Boats such as Maverick's new Mirage HPX, a 425-pound carbon/kevlar "technical poling skiff," is in high demand from professional fishing guides in the Florida Keys. Its builder can't keep any in stock for the general public.

"We don't get a lot of first-time boat buyers," he said. "Our customers are dedicated fishermen who know exactly what they want. If you sell a product that is very specific like that, you don't have anything to worry about."

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