Is boating affordable?

At trade events, dealer meetings and boat shows this year, the industry’s affordability issue was a hot topic.
It was tempting to join the bandwagon, spewing forth scary “facts” like boats are too expensive, upkeep has become pricey, and boating is now only for the rich. But I’m not sure the issue is that simple or the industry’s assumptions that true.
Back in 1968, my father introduced our family to boating on the Great South Bay of Long Island, N.Y. After much analysis (he was an engineer, you know) he purchased a two-year-old, used 15’, tri-hull Fabuglass; 40 hp Evinrude outboard; and trailer for about $1,200 —as much money as a very nice used car of the same age.
The boat was narrow, had a top speed lightly loaded of about 26 mph and couldn’t get on plane with our family of five on board. Boy, did we love that boat — me in particular! After every summer weekend use, I would wash it, wax it and back the boat around the house; a two-or-more-hour ritual for a 12-year-old boy. It was part of the fun, not a chore. And other families all over the neighborhood were enjoying similar rituals (though, I suspect, with a little less waxing).
At the time, my father, a fairly senior aeronautical engineer at Grumman Aircraft Co., made about $20,000 a year, and we had just moved into a new, $50,000 custom 2,000-sq.-ft. home in a middle-class neighborhood one block from the town marina. We were living the American dream; three kids, two cars in the garage, a dog, a cat and a boat.
Today, this senior engineer position, now in more demand, would probably pay at least $150,000, the house is assessed for around $750,000, those two cars would cost about $15,000 used (the way my father purchased his cars) and that size used boat about … wait a minute, isn’t that really today’s entry-level 18’ I/O runabout?
Let’s see, that boat will be $12,000 to $15,000 a few years old. But wait, it’ll run 40 mph lightly loaded and 30 mph with the whole family on board. Include a bimini top, stereo, a foot and a half more beam and spend a fraction of the time in the shop. The numbers line up and the boat is better, so what’s going on?
Society and culture have become much more complicated with more competing time constraints on the family. Activity choices such as cruise ships, time shares and kids’ organized weekend activities are just a few of today’s realities. Fewer people every year are do-it-yourselfers and how many kids today do you see washing down their family’s boat vs. gaming on their computer?
If the culprit isn’t the expense of the boat, maybe it’s the expense of the water access. Fewer municipalities today will budget new public boat ramps or expanded parking, let alone new marinas. And investors are gobbling up private marinas to build condo developments. Down the street from my home, what were once little 1?4 acre seasonal waterfront cottages with small private docks are rapidly being bought out and combined into mega-McMansions, resulting in bigger but fewer docks.
The culprit may also be first-time buyers that now demand bigger and higher contented boats. Who would have thought 20 years ago that people would be buying a 30’ bowrider, I/O cruiser or O/B walkaround for their first boat? With all the previously mentioned issues at play, higher income buyers with greater disposable income and older kids is often where the action is in today’s markets.
Add it up, and the good news is that the end of boating is nowhere near. You can no more write it off than you can the joy of a beautiful sunset or quality time with a loved one. As someone famous once wrote: “There is nothing half as much fun as messing around in boats.”
But it IS time to address the big picture, stop the finger pointing and quit dreaming about the so-called good old days. Manufacturers and dealers alike need to support Grow Boating, which is working to both re-energize the public’s latent awareness and yearning for the water, and address water access for the average-income American. The latter, I believe, is the bigger challenge.
Access is getting less affordable and readily accessible for the average American every year. But it’s NOT too late. Everybody in every town can get involved in grassroots campaigns to raise awareness and support funding for water and boating access for the entire community — not just a few McMansion and condo development owners.
Many dealers across the country are already addressing this issue. And it’s time everyone else got involved too.

Tim Leedham
Owner Bosun’s Marine and
Mashpee Neck Marina

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