Speak to any yacht broker today, and you will hear a familiar story. Boats are selling big time, and everyone complains about the lack of inventory of quality boats in the brokerage market. Covid-19 has created a boom in recreational boating, as well as in the RV industry. People want to get out and away from their bubble. They want to enjoy time with family away from isolation at home, wherever that may be.
Remote living and social distancing are not the happiest times, yet they have had a very positive effect as well. People are looking towards outdoor activities that are virus-proof, and they are getting out on the water in whatever watercraft they can get their hands on, from luxury yachts to kayaks, many for the first time. Families are introducing their children to how much fun it is to spend time on the water. The pandemic has accomplished more that the NMMA’s Go Boating campaigns ever did. It attracts younger families to the water, people of color, and people who came to this country for a better life and who would never have considered stepping on a boat as it was never a part of their culture.
“As folks see traditional summer vacations, summer camps, and sports leagues being canceled, they’re gravitating toward boating,” said John-Michael Donahue, communication director for the NMMA. “In this era of social distancing, it certainly checks all the boxes.”
Given our travel restrictions, staying in this country becomes the only option. Let’s kick that bucket-list African photo safari down the road for another time. Let us enjoy the U.S., but forget going to the beach, or planning a trip to Disney World.
Let us buy a boat. We can keep our social distance and go places.
The brokers I talk to agree the times have changed. Not only are travel restrictions funneling Americans towards domestic adventure in the woods or on the water, they entice a much wider audience of people not usually associated with the boating demographic. And that is a good thing. (In fact, one very large boat dealer recently reported that almost three quarters of its online inquiries are from first-time buyers.)
Not everyone is looking to do coastal cruising, or the Great Loop. Some just want a boat big enough to fit the family, with as many creature comforts as possible, to ensure fun times in home waters. Children, who would otherwise by enrolled in soccer camps or other summer programs, are now building memories with their families on the water. Quiet sunset evenings, the warm glow and chill of sunburn snuggled under cozy fleece in the cockpit or flybridge. Life is good, with memories that will last a lifetime.
I spoke with Martin Snyder, an experienced broker who works out of Seattle Yachts’ Shilshole office. He has not seen this level of brokerage activity in his 37 years in the business. He finds it astonishing.
Martin said travel boundaries have made boating a more regional experience for many of his customers in the Pacific Northwest. Americans are not allowed across the border to British Columbia, so the San Juan Islands are packed with boats and people, most practicing social distancing, and really enjoying themselves. Many for the first time.
(There is a certain percentage of Americans who still cross Canadian borders under the guise of heading home to Alaska, which is considered essential travel by the Canada Border Services Agency. But many Canadian boaters and marinas find that a significant number of these Americans, who claim the “Alaska Loophole” are just cruising British Columbia or taking their time to head north to Alaska. This alarms local Canadian authorities, who are working hard to not let their own communities become infected with the virus from people coming across the border. Cruisers simply turn off the vessel’s AIS which takes the boat off the Marine Traffic grid. Skirting through an area undetected was once the desire of those avoiding Big Brother, but today it is an offense of a different nature and puts others in harm’s way.)
(Seen below: A tug boat cruises near the popular San Juan Islands. Picture courtesy of ClassicJourneys.com)
Martin told me he is convinced that people just need to get away from the regular world by any means possible. One of his friends sells motorcycles and told him off-road bikes are outselling road bikes in a big way. In the brokerage business, demand is hot for quality used boats in the $300,000 to $500,000 range. As inventory shrinks, brokers are forced to evaluate boats they would normally overlook, boats that are older and need work. If it can be fixed up, then let’s see if we can find a buyer who wants just this kind of boat.
In the Annapolis area, it is impossible to buy a center console. There simply aren’t any.
Laura Unsell works out of the St. Augustine office, and her situation is similar. She sees younger and more diverse people, often with young children, looking for boats, to either go cruising or to live aboard. These people are attracted to the sailing catamaran she recently listed, as cats are stable, perceived safer, and not intimidating. Many of these potential buyers are not yet boaters but watch YouTube videos of young couples living the dream on their sailing catamarans. And they are hooked on the possibilities of living a different kind of life.
Laura said many of these people unfortunately perceive boat ownership based on these videos, and she needs to educate them. She said they have champagne taste on a beer budget. Unfortunately, the 38-foot sailing catamaran that will fit under the bridges along the ICW is not large enough to live aboard comfortably. And these people have no interest in trawlers or powerboats with big, thirsty engines, even though, in many cases, a trawler might make a better lifestyle choice. (Fun read: A Boater's 3-to-5 Year Plan)
Laura’s other definable customer base are older couples, soon to retire, with an idea of the lifestyle they want to live from watching and reading about other people’s’ experiences. They are out looking for a boat now, feeling pressure from the closures from the pandemic. They have a “sooner rather than later” attitude, and even if they are not yet retired, have moved up their timeline. They have a plan and are on a mission to find a boat.
(Seen below: For a couple that wants to cruise and have an easily managed boat, the Nordic Tugs line offer great solutions.)
Unfortunately, as some of these couples begin to learn about the associated maintenance, bottom paint, insurance, dockage, and other key elements of boat ownership, they become overwhelmed. Is it time to reconsider the RV option? These are the times we live in.
There was a day when I could accurately describe the couple who bought a Krogen 42, and I would be spot on most of the time. It was just the way it was.
That is not true today. But that is a good thing. And many builders also recognize the changes in demographics and are adapting accordingly. Interiors have become more contemporary to attract different buyers, often younger, for whom handsome teak interiors hold no charm. They want maintenance-free surfaces, lighter interiors, and pet-resistant flooring. This is today.
We have no idea how long this will go on, but it is clear there will not be a return to what we once considered normal. And that is not a bad thing. Children are now learning to love the water for the first time, building skills and memories, in circumstances that they otherwise would not.
Who knows, maybe that 13-year-old kid just learning to handle a small Boston Whaler, may grow up with such a love of the water, while making lifelong friends, that he or she becomes the editor of a major boating publication. And one day reflect on a journey that began during the pandemic of 2020.