Wednesday, January 29, 2014

State of sailing on the Salish Sea: close of the 2013 season

When we first entered the boat market, it was a relatively small step from not owning a boat to owning a boat.  We bought a new Cal 21 for around $4000 in 1973.  That doesn't sound like a lot of money, and really, it was not.  Using an inflation calculator, that turns out to be about $21,000 in today's anemic dollars.  For an engineer just entering the job market, the loan was not out of reach.

And it was a good time to enter the sailboat market.  There were lots of manufacturers of boats in this size range, all over the country.  Where we kept that new boat on Carlyle Lake in Southern Illinois, we might have seen on any given day, any of the following boats in the same size range:
  • Cal 20
  • Cal 21
  • San Juan 21
  • South Coast 22
  • Venture 21
  • Catalina 22
  • Kitiwake 23
  • Clipper 21
  • Ranger 23
  • O'Day 23
  • Pearson 23
  • Cheoy Lee 27
Now these are just the ones that I can pull from my memory - I'm sure that I am leaving out some.

And when we went to the boat shows, most of these manufacturers were there, competing for the chance to sell you one of their creations.

Fast forward 40 years.

We attended the Seattle Boat Show this last Sunday, which bills itself as the largest boat show on the west coast.  Sadly, each year the fraction of the dock space devoted to sail in the in-the-water portion of the show shrinks.  This year it was just the small floating dock section off of Chandler's Crab House - 15 out of 111 boats.  Now my memory may be failing me again, but I think the smallest boat on display there was an Island Packet 36.

OK, I get it.  Dock space at the show has gotten so expensive that I guess dealers can no longer afford to bring their used or small boats to the in-the-water show.

I can report a small improvement at the indoors portion of the show.  Tho there was only one sail exhibitor (other than Hobie and the Macgregor "sail" boats):  Beneteau, there were more sailboats in the show than last year.  But sadly, the smallest boat they had on display was a First 25, for the oh-so-affordable price of only $89,500.

So I asked the Beneteau sales rep:  "How are you going to sell someone a $400,000 yacht unless you first sell them a $20,000 boat?"  After all, very, very few people jump into the market at that level.  His answer?  They had a 20 footer on a truck heading to Seattle.  But this last weekend was their best shot, because next weekend, well, the boat show is going to be a ghost town.  After all, this is Seattle, home of the Seahawks.

Catalina was not represented at the show at all.

Finally, we surveyed the charter agencies who were represented at the show.  Amazingly, apparently the smallest sail boat that you can charter in Puget Sound is now 30 feet.

It appears that the sub-30 foot market has been effectively abandoned.  As I stated last year, this is a very bad strategic mistake on the part of the boat manufacturers.  With no realistic entry to the market, the customer base will age and eventually disappear.  Sure, you may sell them that $300,000 - $500,000 boat, but it will be their last boat and your last sale.  What is your plan for the future?

I had first-hand experience with this problem before I retired.  At work there were several folks who were potential sail devotees.  But the high entry price was a show stopper for all of them.  They were unwilling to invest nearly $100,000 to see if this was something that worked for them and their families.

As things currently stand, the used boat market is the only real entry point to the sailing sport.  But when I suggested that my interested co-workers might consider a used boat, they balked.  These are people of means, folks well into their careers, and of course, folks who don't know anything about sailboats.  Despite the factor of 20 reduction in cost, they were deterred by their uncertainty of whether they would be able to handle, or even identify the expected deficiencies to be found in a used boat.  Last year, I offered some suggestions to the business community that would serve to make the used boat market more appealing to the potential sailor.  But I am not a business man.  Some of you reading this are - what are your ideas?  Don't tell me - implement them!  As far as I can see from here, nothing has happened. 

So my take on the state of sailing on the Salish Sea at the close of the 2013 season:   

continuing to decline.


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