Full speed ahead: Florida boat builders seeing brisk sales

 

moleary@MiamiHerald.com

Sleek white couches, sultry blue light and a suited bartender transformed the basic North Miami Beach showroom into an exclusive art gallery. But on this recent summer’s eve, the wine-sipping crowd wasn’t waiting for the latest work by a contemporary art darling. When the black cloak was swept away, the cheers went up for the 339 Cabin, the newest $400,000-plus luxury powerboat from Miami-based Deep Impact Boats.

The tony event was a sure sign that for Florida’s $2 billion boat manufacturing industry, the seas ahead look far smoother than those of the past few years, when marine sales for some plunged more than 30 percent.

The marine industry’s recovery wave has been building. Attendance at the Miami International Boat Show jumped 6 percent this year over troubled 2009; the number of boats shown at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show increased about 6 percent last November over 2009, too. Boat financers that were scarce just a few years ago are slipping back into lending. Nationally, recreational boat sales jumped 10 percent in 2012.

“Consumer confidence increased for the third consecutive month in June and is now at its highest level since January 2008, which mirrors boating industry sales,” the National Marine Manufacturing Association said in a statement.

But buyers are still more cautious than in richer days. Many are trading down from 50-foot-plus boats with inboard engines to smaller models that cost less to maintain, said Jeff Johnson, president of Maritime Finance. Outboard engines are popular among these more manageable vessels — nearly half the boats on the water in 2012 ran on outboard power, according to the NMMA. Craving more versatility, buyers are also choosing vessels fit for fishing, diving and socializing, said Thomas Dammrich, president of the trade group.

Still, the outlook is far rosier than it used to be for Florida’s 172 boat builders, the most in any state.

In South Florida, companies like Deep Impact Boats and Cigarette Racing Team are capitalizing on demand for smaller, more social and cost-effective boats, while yacht giants like Bertram Yacht and Broward Shipyard are heading to the drawing boards to conjure innovations and drum up revenue in service departments.

Rich Haasse, long-time boat buff and owner of Anclote Harbors Marina in Tarpon Springs, was among those at the Deep Impact unveiling. Haasse has jumped from sailboats to cruisers to 60-foot-plus luxury yachts. But now his sights are set on a Deep Impact 399 Cabin.

“It just fits my lifestyle,” he said. He pointed to the cabin’s profile. “The lines follow the slant of the hull and give it a certain sexiness. That design makes all the difference in the world in terms of appearance,” Haasse said.

The hull is a double-stepped deep vee, just like its 36-foot counterpart and other models in the Deep Impact fleet. “It allows for a smooth, dry ride,” said marketing director Mark Gianassi. Stepped hulls let air stream beneath the boat, lifting the body out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing the boat to go faster while the engine burns less fuel, he said.

The 399 Cabin has a 470-gallon fuel capacity, and the Mercury four-stroke outboard motors that typically outfit Deep Impact’s boats burn about one mile per gallon, Gianassi says. “Boaters get a 400-mile range before needing to refuel,” he said. Unlike inboard engines, outboard engines aren’t sensitive to ethanol-infused fuel, making the outboards easier to maintain, said Randy Sweers, owner of Fastboats.com, a boat dealership and brokerage in Pompano Beach.

Efficiency aside, Rich Haasse wanted speed out of his Deep Impact. Nowadays, that’s something outboard engines can provide. Four Mercury 350 outboards can get a vessel above 75 miles per hour, Gianassi said. “That makes it, quite possibly, one of the fastest center consoles on the market,” Kevin Falvey, the editor-in-chief of trade publication Boating Magazine, wrote of a Deep Impact model. Mercury also backs its engines with five- and six-year warranties — a plus for buyers that seek reliability, Sweers said.

All those pluses add up to sales of the company’s full annual capacity of 40 boats, said Gianassi. During the recession, Deep Impact expanded and invested in the product line, Gianassi said. In recent years, sales have been robust; four 399 Cabins have sold since the model’s unveiling. The company employs about 30 people.

Deep Impact isn’t alone. At Opa-locka-based Concept Boats, Susan Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing, can’t keep up with calls from potential buyers looking for a more affordable price and a variety of sizes. Lengths stretch from 23 to 44 feet with prices from $42,000 to $450,000, respectively. Concept’s most popular models are the 30-foot open and the 36-foot open, Patterson said.

At Homestead-based Contender Boats Inc., marketing director Les Stewart remembers all too well the grim days of 2009. “We were lucky to sell 100 boats that year,” he said. In 2012, Contender sold 215 boats to avid anglers. This year, Stewart predicts that the company could sell 260 boats — more than a 100 percent uptick from 2009. Contender employs about 150 people, a 30 percent increase from 2009, Stewart said.

The current bestseller of the Contender fleet is the 25-foot Bay boat: starting at $73,963, the Bay boat costs nearly $12,000 less than the 25-foot Tournament model, and over $100,000 less than the 32-foot model. Contender sells one Bay boat a week, Stewart said. With more creature comforts like a spacious sitting room, the model represents Contender’s foray into the inshore and pleasure boat market.

“It’s more family-friendly than other boats, and that plays back on the demand for versatility,” said engineer Chris Becker. Instead of going offshore to catch tuna, boaters can go inshore to hook tarpon and socialize, he said.

“It’s a market that our customers have been pushing us to get into for a long time,” Becker said. Additional designs are in the works.

To the cocaine cowboys of the ’80s who once zoomed offshore on go-fast boats, a center console boat outfitted with outboard engines might appear tame. Today, the area around 188th Street in Aventura, once known as Thunder Alley, is lined with sleepy, gated communities — far from the hard-running Miami Vice-era that brought infamy and global appeal to the South Florida boating industry.

Cigarette’s founder, Don Aronow, was murdered in 1987. Then, in the early 2000s, Aventura rezoned 188th Street to residential.

Yet Cigarette Racing Team remains intact, in Opa-locka. Founded in 1969, “cigarette” became synonymous with any high-powered, go-fast boat after Aronow won eight straight offshore races in the United States and Europe. Throughout the ’70s, the speed and sexiness of Cigarette lured jetsetters like King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hussein of Jordan and the Prince of Kuwait.

Today, the company’s sales of high-end boats to customers in foreign markets like the Middle East remain robust. Cigarette’s 38-foot electric boat is on display at the Mercedes museum in Stuggart, Germany, says Skip Braver, the owner and chief executive officer of Cigarette since 2002. While overseas presence is strong, the market back home is stronger, Braver said.

But the company’s high-powered performance inboard models, while still popular, are no longer the best-sellers. “When everybody was scaling back during the recession, we were investing in the Huntress,” Braver said. Priced around $800,000, the 42-foot Huntress is one of Cigarette’s five performance center-console outboard models. Capable of holding five Mercury outboard engines, the boat can slice through rough water at more than 80 miles per hour and can hold more than 20 people, Braver said. The center-console performance models are the hottest sellers.

Another performance center console model in Cigarette’s fleet, the 39-foot GTS, was introduced this year. Like the other models in the fleet, both the Huntress and the GTS feature the double-stepped hull. The market is filling up with more social boaters, which is prompting the popularity of center console models, Braver said.

Though Braver would not comment on unit sales or revenues, he said that there is a significant back-order for the boats. “If you were to order one today, you wouldn’t get it until February,” he said. The boats take 12 to 16 weeks to make and can cost over a million dollars. The company also sees a lot of repeat customers. “Most people that buy a Cigarette boat have owned a Cigarette or another boat before,” Braver said.

But there’s no forgetting the company’s go-fast, performance roots, Braver said. Sales for the 50-foot Marauder SS are still brisk, he said. The Marauder resembles Cigarette’s early models and can reach 125 miles per hour with inboard power. “We still have to understand the past — who our customers were and who they will be,” he said.

While “social’’ boats are selling like hotcakes, those too big for outboard engines — longer than 50 feet — are slower to emerge from the recession.

“A lot of people who owned a 60-foot boat stepped down to buy a 30-foot boat due the expenses of maintenance and having a crew,” said Jeff Johnson of Maritime Finance.

South Florida-based yacht manufacturers like Broward Shipyard and Donzi Yacht by Roscioli International have started relying more on the service sectors of their businesses to stay afloat. Broward Shipyard came under new ownership in 2009, and contracts for new construction have been scant.

Despite declines in new boat building, Dania Beach-based Broward Shipyard still services about 100 yachts per year, said Philippe Brandligt, director of the yard. Service comprises 85 percent of the shipyard’s business. Before the financial crisis, business at Broward was split in half between service and new construction, Brandligt said.

That doesn’t mean that the company has given up on building mega yachts. Last summer, the yard secured contracts with WorldSea Yachting to build two 135-foot vessels. Engineering on those boats has begun, and Brandligt hopes that construction will progress within the next two years. In the meantime, people turn to Broward Shipyard for body work, paint jobs, electrical work and carpentry, he said.

Bob Roscioli, owner and chief executive officer of Fort Lauderdale’s Roscioli Yachting Center, said yacht-owners mothballed their boats for a few years after the economy tanked in 2008. As the industry gained strength, yacht chartering and usage picked up, so the majority of business that now goes to the company is for service and repairs, he said. Sales of yachts up to 73 feet are sputtering on the market in general, Roscioli said. But yachts made by Roscioli International in the 80- to 92-foot range are gaining popularity, he said. A Donzi Yacht by Roscioli costs from $2 million to $7.5 million.

The market for these larger yachts is heating up on an international scale. Compared to 2010, the sale of yachts between 80 and 200 feet increased more than 30 percent in 2012, according to Boat International market reports. In the second quarter of 2013 alone, yacht lovers purchased nearly 100 of these big boats. That’s because the niche market for multi-million-dollar big boats never really left, even during the recession.

“The people who buy these vessels are the very wealthy who weren’t hurt by the economic downturn,” said Joel Rotta, a yacht broker with 30 years of experience in the South Florida market. “It’s the middle-class boater buying the $500,000 mid-size vessel who got hurt.”

Over the past two years, interest in the famed 80-foot Bertram sports fishing yacht has also gained momentum, said Alton Herndon, president of the 52-year-old company. After its 2012 move north from Miami to the once-vacant Sea Ray plant on Merritt Island, production is kicking up. Today, about 100 people work at the Merritt Island facility.

Unlike Roscioli and Broward, little activity at Bertram is going towards service. “The work that’s happening is going toward manufacturing current models and new product design and development,” Herndon said. A new model could be announced in the coming months. Meanwhile, the company continues to modify current designs by working with customers’ individual needs.

“We want to make more efficient use of space, and it’s all about compromise. Some customers want more cooler space, some want more space for tackle, some want more dry storage compartments,” Herndon said. He said that customers are wanting more beds below deck to accommodate family and friends.

In the past, Boating Magazine has praised Bertram for the interior layout of its models. “Its clever use of interior space changes what you’ve come to expect from boats in this class,” the staff wrote. “Never before has a boat this size featured such amenities.”

From $2.5 million to $7 million, Bertram is selling luxury and quality to serious — and seriously wealthy — sports fishermen who value wood-paneled cabins and generous kitchens as much as the tuna tower.

The combination of fishing functionality and comfort brought Miamian Jorge Benitez to Bertram.

“If all you want to do is fish with four or five people, get a Contender. If you want to go to the Bahamas for a week, you can use the Contender, but it will be a rough ride. You’d be taking more risk with less comfort,” he said.

In South Florida, there’s a boat for everyone.

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