America’s growing love affair with saltwater fishing boats continues to blossom, as more and more consumers take the plunge and purchase a new fiberglass center console, dual console, walkaround or convertible.
Fueled by innovative features, substantially improved fuel economy and overall ease of maintenance, the saltwater fishing category remains one of the brightest stars in the recreational boating constellation, continuing to post near double-digit year-over-year sales growth.
The data tells the story
According to the most recent data from the National Marine Manufacturers Association, saltwater fishing boats now represent 14 percent of all new powerboats sold in the United States. NMMA’s New Powerboat Registrations report shows that retail sales of new saltwater fishing boats have been growing steadily for the past five years, with unit sales on a rolling 12-month, year-over-year basis up by a full nine percent nationally through September 2016.
Building on a trend that began as the country emerged from the recession, it’s the big boats that continue to lead the charge. Statistical Surveys Inc. notes that where sales growth for saltwater fishing boats in the 17-foot and 18-foot class has actually declined over the past 12 months, by 3.83 percent and 1.01 percent respectively, sales of boats over 27 feet continue to grow at double-digit rates. On a 12-month rolling basis, sales for 27-foot saltwater fishing boats are up by an incredible 32.57 percent, according to SSI. Sales of boats in the 28-foot class are reported to be up even further, showing a 35.56 percent increase, while sales of boats in the 32-foot class show an astounding year-over-year gain of 41.91 percent. Those are tremendous numbers by any measure.
“We’re seeing growth across the full model line, and we are seeing a clear upshift toward larger boats,” said Regulator Marine President Joan Maxwell. “Yet having said that, our 28 remains the best-selling boat in our lineup. It represents a nice fit, being a size that’s still approachable for a newer boater, but with all of the space and the amenities and features that buyers are now looking for. It’s popular with serious fishermen, but it’s also right-sized for families, so that gives it appeal across the entire market spectrum.”
Part of the credit toward the growth in sales of larger boats lies in the continued development of outboard power.
“Until we see an economic correction we’ll continue to see migration upward in the market, with customers continuing to be drawn to larger boats,” said Boston Whaler President Nick Stickler. “Outboard power is a major factor in that. The engine technology has evolved significantly, and the fuel economy and ease of maintenance that outboards provide has become a major selling point, whether the buyer is a serious fisherman or the boat is being purchased by a family that simply wants a versatile boat that can do many different things.”
The argument that saltwater fishing boats appeal to recreational boaters as well as anglers is now beyond dispute, as sales growth for the saltwater fishing boat category appears to be outpacing growth in saltwater fishing itself. According to the 2016 Special Report on Fishing published by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, a total of 11.8 million Americans participated in saltwater fishing in 2010; by 2015, that figure had grown to 12.0 million, reflecting a growth rate of about 1.7 percent.
“Saltwater fishing boats continue to grow in popularity because they’re so incredibly versatile,” Stickler said. “Of course there are still a lot of serious anglers out there, but the major growth in this category has come from buyers who want to enjoy general boating.”
Design features that have come to give saltwater fishing boats more family appeal include more comfortable seats, cup holders, bow seats, bench seats across the transom, ski tows, built-in ice chests, better stereos, more shade, expanded storage, swim platforms and fresh water.
“With all of these features included in a center console configuration, we now have a very fishable boat that also appeals to families, and that makes it highly desirable,” said Tom Marlowe, national sales manager at Key West Boats. “One of the most talked about trends in the saltwater fishing category is that while fishing is flat or falling off, the use of saltwater fishing boats for day cruising is increasing dramatically. We made a change a few years back to concentrate on family-oriented water activities beyond just fishing, and began including features such as adequate space in the console for a head, for instance. That one feature is a must-have on any family boat.”
Center consoles drive the category
While market data says the saltwater fishing category is growing, in reality, it is the center console segment which is truly driving the market.
“I think there are a couple of fundamental differences between the sportfishing segment and the center console segment, starting with the sheer size of the marketplace,” said John Ward, CEO at Everglades Boats and formerly CEO at Hatteras.
“The center console market is enormous compared to the convertible market. It’s also a very fast-growing market, and that’s really exciting. There are a lot of brands in the center console segment, with maybe a dozen or more that compete in the premium space," Ward added. "By comparison, in the convertible segment there are maybe three or four brands, so there’s not a lot of depth in terms of the number of manufacturers serving that category. But there are commonalities as well. Customers want innovation and they want fresh styling, whether it’s a $5 million offshore yacht or a smaller, trailerable center console. A lot of the success in the saltwater fishing space results from this constant innovation.”
The versatility of the center console design, along with the ability to walk clear around the boat, make it a strong candidate for continued development as manufacturers add more and more family-friendly features.
“When we compare center console sales to dual console sales, historically the dual console market has been as much as 50 percent of what our center console sales have been,” said Marlowe. “But recently, with the improvements in the center console design which appeal to the family, we have seen the center console part of our business increase to over 90 percent of what we build. We’ve had buyers comment that they thought they wanted a dual-console boat, but with the bow seating combined with the huge cockpit they now have a very fishable center console while still enjoying the attractive features of a bowrider. To see how popular the center console design has become, take a look at the boats used on many of the inland lakes today. You will see a growing number of center console boats used, and the size of those boats is growing – to the extent that twin engine boats are common, and even triple engines are found occasionally.”
“The styling is appealing, and it’s appealing on a universal level,” he said. “Aging baby boomers have begun downsizing to some degree, and they’re trading down from big cruisers to center consoles.”
But aging boomers aren’t the only buying cohort attracted to center consoles, notes Robert Sass, national sales and marketing manager at Carolina Skiff. Millennials are increasingly making their influence felt, and are driving the demand for technological innovation.
“Millennial buyers may not be making the actual purchase, but there is no question they are influencing purchases,” he said. “What we’re seeing are customers coming in who have clearly done their research, and they probably know as much about the boat as the dealer does. Millennials are highly tech-savvy, and they’re far more likely to solicit input for multiple sources, so the product knowledge on the part of the buyer is higher than ever. So when they walk into a dealership to make their purchase, they know every option for the model they’re interested in. They’ve read the material and they’ve done their homework. They’re also able to give us some interesting feedback that helps us identify what features or elements of the boat are most important to them.”
Innovation continues to drive the market
Virtually all manufacturers agree that the adoption of technology to make the ownership experience easier has been a key factor in growing demand for saltwater fishing boats. While advances in outboard power have improved fuel economy while reducing emissions, the real attraction for buyers lies in how technology makes the boats easier to operate.
With families, businesses and demanding personal schedules, the reality is that few boaters today are able to spend anywhere near as much time on the water as they would like. The result is that innovations such as joystick docking appeal to boaters with limited leisure time, allowing them to enjoy their boat without being concerned that their skills may not be up to scratch when the time comes to dock in current or a stiff breeze.
“The level of innovation we see today, and in center consoles in particular, is truly amazing and much of it is geared directly toward the more casual, family boater,” said Stickler. “Features like joystick controls and digital switching make operation extremely easy, and that’s appealing not only to new boaters, but to boaters who aren’t able to spend as much time on the water as they would like. It’s easy to clean the boat at the end of the day; you just wash it down and walk away. There’s a lot less maintenance commitment. People have limited time, and they want to spend that time enjoying the boat, not cleaning it.”
“I don’t know anyone who wakes up on a nice Saturday morning and thinks great, I can spend 14 hours cleaning my boat today,” quips Maxwell. “People want to spend their time boating, not cleaning the boat or working on the boat.
"They just want to get in and go, so ease of maintenance and carefree ownership experience is huge. Center consoles provide that. You just rinse the boat out with the transom shower and go home and enjoy your evening. You’re not cleaning the cabin out for hours at the end of the day. People don’t have time to do that, and let’s face it, no one really wants to do that. So a major part of the appeal of center consoles is that they’re so easy to maintain.”
The ease of operation and ease of maintenance gives saltwater fishing models even further appeal with boat clubs, who serve casual boaters with fractional ownership arrangements.
“It makes them a good fit for boat clubs or other shared ownership models, which have been effective in attracting people who otherwise might not be ready to purchase a boat themselves,” says Stickler.
The look ahead
Although the superlative growth of the saltwater fishing category has been driven by innovation, one of the byproducts of constant improvement is that it tends to shorten product life cycles – as evidenced by the super-short shelf life of cell phones, laptops and other technology-rich products. The potential for technology to date product more quickly is something all manufacturers in the saltwater segment are being careful to avoid.
“Builders all want to be the first out with something new, something better, and product life cycles are shortening as a result,” said Ward. “Enhancements and refreshes are happening more quickly and that will likely continue as technology continues to evolve at such a great speed.
"Obviously a shorter product cycle has an impact on profitability, but growing sales volumes offset that and, frankly, justify it. I think if you look at the cost of retooling a boat, there’s incentive to design boats with an eye to future development. And customers are OK with that. If you have a proven hull that’s seaworthy and dry and comfortable to ride in, there’s no issue with continuing to use that hull and focusing changes on the insides of the boat. Growing sales drive manufacturers to build better boats, and that in turn drives stronger demand.”
The challenge of coping with shorter product cycles is being offset to some degree by high demand leading to a tightening of the inventory pipeline. Where sales staff once sold from the dealership’s inventory, today boats are being sold before they even come off the production line.
“What we’re seeing now is that supply line is shrinking,” Maxwell said. “We’re seeing more retail boats in our build schedule, they’re being sold to the end user long before they ever reach the dealership.”
Sustained consumer interest in saltwater fishing product through the winter boat shows suggests this category will continue to experience strong growth for the foreseeable future. With their low maintenance, attractive fuel economy and growing versatility, saltwater fishing boats are becoming as ubiquitous as the family SUV.