Deck boat manufacturers introduce new, versatile products A deck boat is a versatile product: It can be powered by an outboard or sterndrive engine, be used for cruising or water sports, fishing or coving. What all deck boats have in common, however, is their open floor plans and capability to take several passengers out for a relaxing day on the water. We spoke with several deck boat manufacturers, who have introduced new product in the past year and are adapting to market demands while remaining faithful to the deck boat model.
Deck boat power
With the ever-increasing popularity of outboard engines, deck boat manufacturers are building product that is competitive and addresses consumer and dealer needs. Stingray Boats has historically been a sterndrive boat manufacturer but because of the price increase with sterndrive engines and requests from its dealers, the company felt it needed to look into options for an outboard-powered boat. Stingray introduced two deck boats – the 192SC and 212SC – both of which are powered by outboard engines. These boats mark Stingray’s entry into the deck boat segment. The deck boats are built with Stingray’s patented ZP hull, which is a deep V from bow to stern. The company says this offers consumers a better ride quality and handling. “When we decided to get into outboard boats again, we looked at all the options of what was selling for other people,” said Barry Avent, vice president of operations at Stingray. “Building a deck boat line just fit into our production system very well.” Avent said the company began 35 years ago building 18- and 19-foot boats, which is why it chose to start there with the deck boat line. Other sizes may be released in the future but it is yet to be determined.
“We are looking at options for the entry-level style boat to be able to compete in the market,” said Avent. “Stingray has always made its life at trying to be the boat that would be the most efficient and best quality for the value for what your dollar can buy.” Chaparral has also seen an opportunity in the outboard trend, introducing its SunCoast line for 2015 as an addition to its existing sterndrive-powered Sunesta line. The 250 SunCoast is available now and the 230 and 210 models will be introduced in the 2016 model year. “We continue to keep deck boats on the leading edge because we have dedicated new R&D dollars to the development of new boats like the SunCoast outboard line for future generations,” said Ann Baldree, vice president of Chapparal and Robalo Boats. “It was kind of a natural fit. We saw a space in the marketplace, definitely, for an outboard deck boat.” Bob Wachs, director of dealer development at Nautic Global Group, says engine preference has tended to be region-specific. However, with the trends toward outboard engine sales, Hurricane Boats is starting to exhibit increased outboard deck boat sales in regions that were typically sterndrive markets. “People are liking the outboards because they’re more dependable, quieter, very fuel efficient. It’s not to say that sterndrives are going away – they’re not – it’s just been a little shift in the marketplace that every manufacturer is aware of,” said Wachs. This does not mean sterndrive-powered deck boats will fade into obscurity any time soon. Deck boat manufacturers who offer sterndrive products remain dedicated to the application. “They remain the best consumer value horsepower to horsepower,” said Baldree. “There are too many people who have had such a long history with owning sterndrives and have had a great experience with them to exit the sterndrive market.” Baldree said that the downturn was the main cause for the decrease in sterndrive sales, as the consumer who buys that category of boat was not repurchasing during the recession. However, she says that buyer is “definitely back in the marketplace.” Manufacturers believe sterndrives are poised for a big comeback as sterndrive engines have improved significantly over the last few years. “We are a company that has always focused very heavily on sterndrives. We remain completely committed to sterndrives, and we’re just very excited to see new innovation [from Volvo Penta and Mercury] and we think that’s definitely going to drive more sales,” said Baldree.
“It’s still a nice base number of sterndrives sold. I know they’re not [going away]. They will have a place in the future but at this point in time, they are just not growing as fast as the outboard product is,” said Wachs, adding that the new sterndrive engines on the market are made for the “sweet spot” of power that deck boats need. “That 200 to 250 hp range is a really good range for deck boats. Deck boats are not 70 miles an hour, ‘go-fast’ boats. We don’t need 400 horsepower in the back of them. That’s not what the hulls are designed to do.” Michael Yobe, brand manager at Bayliner, added that the new sterndrive engines introduced to the market will breathe new life into the category. “Through technology, I think it’s going to make the engine better, which means consumers hopefully will see the difference and have a little bit better choice,” said Yobe. “Any technology infused in whatever segment it is makes the product better and I think that will bode well for sterndrive deck boats.”
A mix of everything
Most deck boat manufacturers find that consumers are using deck boats for what they have always been used for: cruising, family activities, water sports and fishing. However, those consumers are not dedicated to only one of those activities. “They want to buy the boat for a variety of different purposes,” said Paul Kuck, products manager at Regal Boats. “They’re not looking to go out and just pull a wakeboarder eight hours a day, and they’re not looking to go sit and troll out in the ocean for eight hours a day. They want to do a mix of everything.” Chaparral has been building its Sunesta deck boats since 1993. It was originally built to cruise and provide good seating capacity. “It has a very open cockpit feel to it so you can move around very easily,” said Baldree, who added that Chaparral’s 26- and 28-foot Sunestas were built into the line for customers who wanted to move up into a larger boat that fit more passengers. However, the popularity of water sports has influenced Chaparral’s deck boat development. Chaparral extended its Sunesta line of deck boats with the Sunesta Xtreme, which is directly tailored for water sports use with ballast, amenities and graphics geared toward those activities and the consumers who enjoy them. Baldree says Chaparral will be adding the Volva Penta Forward Drive engine to its Xtreme line in the 2016 model year, which will be great for customers who want to wake surf. In order to meet the needs of consumers who enjoy a variety of applications for their deck boat, Bayliner offers packs for its boats based on their chosen activities: water sports, fishing, etc. “Much like car companies do, we try to give people packages of things that make the most sense for the activities that they want to do, and they can design or tailor the boat to those needs by selecting those packages,” said Yobe.
Bayliner created dry storage in its deck boats to fit a standard plastic tote that consumers can purchase at any big box store. The fiberglass of the boat under the port side seat is designed to accept the tote, and customers can pre-pack these totes with anything they may need for a specific activity to be kept in their garages at home when they are not boating. “It gives them the ability to get on the water quickly and enjoy the limited time they have,” said Yobe. “Consumers today have limited time to boat. We’re not necessarily just competing with other boat brands out there – we’re competing for people’s time. How do we give consumers the ability to say ‘I’ve got four hours in the day, let’s go for a boat ride’?” As part of its efforts to make it easier for customers to boat, Bayliner’s deck boats are a base product with a windscreen, motor and trailer with an “as low as” price. Customer can choose to add windshields if they desire but they are not considered a separate model from the base with the windscreen. As a result, Bayliner only has two models of deck boats that are customizable to the consumer’s chosen use. “We decided that, from a consumer perspective, it’s much easier. … That’s a better way to simplify things and give consumers the choices that they want for the market that they’re boating in,” said Yobe. “When we talked to deck boat consumers, they wanted an ‘and’ boat, not an ‘or’ boat.” Consumer research from Bayliner also brought out the revelation that consumers don’t care as much about sheer performance numbers as they do about increasing the number of passengers, said Yobe. Top speed is not as important; in fact, from a deck boat perspective, if people capacity affects performance in any way, as long as those consumers have the ability to do the activities they want to do in the boat, the capacity trumps sheer performance numbers on the top-end side.
New concepts in seating
As customers continue to spend their time cruising and coving, it has been a focus for deck boat manufacturers to maximize space and comfort for as many passengers as possible. Hurricane released its SunDeck 2486 OB, which the company calls a convergence between a bowrider and a pontoon, at the 2015 Miami International Boat Show in February. It introduces the line’s patent-pending wraparound convertible seating in the bow and the stern.
“That boat is a totally new concept in terms of seating and space,” said Wachs. “I’m not aware of anyone that has that width and that space in a bow of any deck boat built in the country right now.” Wachs says the U-shaped front and rear seating allows the company to create distinct entertainment areas while using high sides in the boat for a secure feel, and the additional seating allows for at least two additional passengers. “People want a more open boat. I think you’re seeing a lot of runabout-centered companies understanding [that] they’re going to have to figure out how to put more room in a boat,” said Wachs. “People want flexibility in their boat purchase and that’s why deck boats are growing the way they are. They view them as the most flexible thing they can do, short of a pontoon boat, with their dollars.” The U-shaped seating in the stern is a flip seat, which Wachs says provides easy access and boarding on the back platform while keeping the wraparound seating concept when the boat is cruising. “The customers want to get in and out of the back of the boat without climbing over a back seat,” said Wachs. “We figured out how to put that all together into a functioning boat when they want to go tubing, skiing, swimming, sand baring, whatever they want to do, and then we’ve also got the flip-up seating, which we think is a big trend that more and more manufacturers are going to [use], which creates more seating space once you’re in the boat cruising.”
Regal’s new 22 FasDeck also comes with wraparound U-shaped seating in the cockpit, which is complemented by a cockpit design that Kuck says is wider than traditional deck boats and makes the boat feel more like a 25-foot vessel, thus maximizing seating space. Regal also added a social seat on the port side, a feature found in its 19- and 20-foot bowriders. The seat allows passengers to sit forward while underway or lay down the seat and face aft. “The seat allows them to do everything,” said Kuck. Regal extended its FasDeck line this year to include the 22 FasDeck because it represented a size market with potential for growth. “That’s a gap that we had in our product line for a couple of years. There certainly is a market out there for that model,” said Kuck. “We don’t offer anything under 24 feet with a head [so] it’s very important for us to have a boat under 24 feet with a head in our lineup.” One reason could be its ability to attract new boaters. Wachs said the 18- and 20-foot Hurricane deck boats are the first boat many consumers buy. “The deck boat buyer is starting to get a little younger because the people that are coming into boating are not buying that 18-foot bowrider as fast as they would. They’re still buying them … but they’re also looking around [and] saying ‘Wow, this boat really would work for my family,’” said Wachs. Kuck said part of the reason Regal chose to enter the 22-foot deck boat market was to appeal to younger buyers who are purchasing smaller vessels. “When you bring the price point down, that certainly opens up your ability to access a younger group,” said Kuck. Regal added the 22 FasDeck ESX to its line to attract younger buyers. The boat features edgier graphics, colored upholstery and a black windshield. Kuck said younger buyers prefer a sportier look to the traditional design.
A better, more stable ride
Deck boats may have an open feel and are suitable for a large number of passengers, and pontoons can do the same thing. However, deck boat manufacturers see no need to be concerned that pontoons could take away market share from deck boats. Avent says Stingray deck boats will be able to compete against the pontoon boat by giving the ride of a fiberglass V-hull bottom to provide more speed for more horsepower, and to give more options for where the customers can go and what they can do with the boat. “What we try to do is be able to give the most flexible, yet most optimum, seating for the size of the boat that we can give in the industry,” said Avent. “We try to get our seating capacities to maximize the use of our boats for the number of occupants to give a boat buyer and option other than what the pontoon boat would provide.” Wachs said the introduction of triple tube technology in pontoons has exploded in the marketplace but is not concerned they will take market share from deck boats.
“They’re not a fiberglass hull. They’ll never corner as well as a Hurricane does. They have distinct disadvantages in saltwater that a fiberglass boat has always had,” said Wachs. “We basically give you a fiberglass boat that feels like a pontoon boat but yet has the performance aspects of a hull that a triple tube pontoon boat will never give you.” Wachs says part of what makes a deck boat is its stabilization, which helps the segment compete, as well as the safety the boat provides. “Hurricanes have always had high sides on them so people feel very comfortable and safe, and a lot of bowriders have dropped the points of the bows down and they’re very narrow, and there’s maybe six to eight inches of fiberglass between you and the water, and a lot of people don’t want that. They want to feel safer in the front of the boat,” said Wachs. Chaparral said consumers still want the look and feel of a deck boat, which is why the Sunesta line has remained so popular. “It has style and it looks like a Chaparral, but it gives all these different type of amenities and I think appeals to a buyer who would not be suited for a pontoon,” said Baldree. “That customer still wants a boat that is all about performance and a boat that still allows them to participate in all their water sports.” Some manufacturers are creating crossover products to appeal to deck boat and pontoon customers. Bayliner recently released the Element XR7, which is a crossover utilizing the hull of a deck boat and the top side of a pontoon. Bayliner wanted to give consumers all of the features they enjoy in a pontoon with the performance of a deck boat. Yobe said that Bayliner found customers were on the fence between a deck boat and pontoon when they walked into a dealership, and chose one or the other for different reasons. However, they ended up with buyer’s remorse years later because the boats are missing a feature the consumers wish they had. “If we can alleviate that on the front end and give them a boat that gives them everything they want, that helps the brand out [and] that helps them out from an overall perspective of want to be on the water and have fun,” said Yobe. “It’s just a way to take all the learnings that we have from all of the consumer research we do and figure out a better mousetrap, and that’s what we came out with [in] the XR7.”
Deck boats by design
Hurricane has been building deck boats since 1973, “before it was cool” to build outboard deck boats, said Wachs. Now, the segment is exploding. “They’ve always been popular because by their very design, they’re open boats, they’re shallow draft,” said Wachs. “They’re very quick planing boats because of the nature of their hulls. We can get on plane and stay on plane with less horsepower than a bowrider is ever going to be able to of because we’re not as deep of a V.” Because the segment continues to grow, new manufacturers enter the market to meet increasing dealer demand. However, Wachs said that deck boats are their own segment with their own unique traits, and it takes dedication to be a true deck boat. “We have a saying ‘Wide in the front all the way to the back’ for a reason. We’re not a pointy bow. We’re not a modified boat that became a deck boat,” said Wachs. “This isn’t something you can sort of put your foot in the water with and say ‘Well I’ve got this 20-foot runabout. We’ll put a flat deck on it and make it into a deck boat.’ That simply isn’t how this is done. It’s never worked … You have to build a deck boat by design. You can’t just modify a boat to become a deck boat. … It’s a design concept from start to finish and the top deck boat brands are really doing well.”