A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Old boats, good boats and the secret to long life

A friend was talking the other day about a new boat that was so well built it was going to last “100 years.” Call it new-boat irrational exuberance, to borrow a phrase from Alan Greenspan.

Although that boat is not likely to see the century mark, his new pride and joy should easily exceed the so-called “useful life” of the typical boat today, which is pegged at between 25 and 30 years.

With the average age of a boat in today’s fleet at 20-plus years, the silver-lining thinking suggests that owners may soon be sending their tired old steeds to the rending plants and replacing them with younger models.

Yes and no. I am less optimistic than some, but I may not be the typical owner. I recently sold a perfectly sound 45-year-old Boston Whaler with many years left on it. And last week we launched a new project boat, a rebuilt Sisu 22 center console that is 21 years old; I suspect Swamp Yankee will be my grandson’s first boat in another 15-some-odd years.

Moving forward, better materials, construction methods and longer-lived engines will only increase the longevity of fiberglass boats. So will the rising cost of new boats. And better-built, more expensive boats will more likely warrant repowering and upgrading, further extending their time on the water.

Resin infusion, vacuum bagging, synthetic cores, improved fabrics and less use of wood in areas where there are better alternatives — combined with modern outboard, diesel and inboard gas engines — should in fairly short order cause us to recalculate the useful life of a boat.

As they continue to compete against their own used product, the better builders will continue to improve and innovate in order to provide reasons for forward-leaning folks to buy new.

And the entry-level boat will continue to be a preowned boat, especially given the northward trend in new-boat prices, even for small boats.

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Do we as an industry have a broad enough selection of reasonably priced (whatever that means) entry-level boats to help spark growth and attract new people to the water? Boats that are safe, handsome, reliable and with enough bells and whistles to mimic an entry-level automobile. Something that might appeal, say, to someone in the millennial generation?

The answer is we don’t have enough, the Bayliner Element notwithstanding. The reason, in part, is it’s hard to make money on small boats. The margins are considerably smaller than they are on larger craft.

Bayliner’s entry-level Element.

The subject of good entry-level boats came up at a recent lunch with designer Mark Ellis and powerboat expert Eric Sorensen. Eric remembers a discussion he had with an executive at a large builder several years ago, who said he’d rather make a swim platform for one of his 54-footers than build another 20-foot boat. The margins were that much better.

The lunch trio also kicked around the notion of tradition being a double-edged sword. How do you strike the right balance between the best of contemporary design, materials, engineering and thinking with the best traditional styling, practices and philosophy — some of which have proven themselves at sea over generations and others that might be best left behind?

We talked about weight in boats, for example, and how, despite advances in stronger, lighter materials and laminates, you can still hear a response that goes something like: “Heavier in boats is better. Heavier is stronger. Period.”

A designer since 1965 who cut his teeth with C. Raymond Hunt Associates, Rhodes, Little Harbor (Ted Hood) and C&C Yachts, Mark proceeded to quote the late English sailboat designer and dinghy sailing pioneer Uffa Fox, CBE (1898-1972).

“You know what Uffa used to say,” Ellis said. “The only good place for weight is in a steamroller.”

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a story in The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Investor section about how to make your retirement income last for as long as you’re on this earth. Predictable choice, I guess.

The lead paragraph went like this:

“How do 78 million baby boomers turn their nest eggs into income that can last as long as they do?”

The last paragraph quotes the head of a Dimensional Fund Advisors unit that provides investors with retirement strategy advice, including annuities.

“Our biggest fear is that people get to retirement and they buy a boat,” he said, “or put their savings in an investment vehicle that rewards the person selling it more than the investor.”

The boat remark I take a little issue with. If you were to believe most of what you read in the financial press these days, baby boomers are headed for chilly, miserly retirements. Boomers in winter. So hunker down and stop living — now!

Life without a passion is not much of a life. Joseph Campbell was right: Follow your bliss. Want to remain active, healthy and long-lived? Don’t sell the boat. And by all means, if it works for you, buy a damn boat when you retire.


5 comments on “Old boats, good boats and the secret to long life

  1. lawrence warner

    Not all of Uffa Fox’s stuff was great and some pretty ugly.With new boat costs there is a lot out there that may be recycled and do well for a long time at the fraction of new. It is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. enginecom

    We have storms like Sandy and it may stimulate new boat sales. The problem is what to do with all the damaged boats. Many will take a crack at a fixer upper. We have seen damaged boats on the market for peanuts that when new were several times $100k. Also see boats that people can’t give away that are not damaged for dirt cheap. I love projects but must finish and sell those I have before jumping on those presented to me!

  3. Bob Brandon

    My wife and I are boomers who do not plan on a cold retirement. We recently completed a ten year re-fit on a 1971 Hatteras 53 MY including a repower. The boat is 42 years old and virtually brand new from a finish and systems point of view. I don’t see any reason why City Girl won’t be around for another 40 years.

  4. CaptA

    Very good article. People can not afford to buy new boat unless they are very rich or wealthy. The indiustry needs to find a way to provide 28-33 foot sailboats at a much lower cost than they do now. One way is to go easy on the systems. Smaller boats don’t need autopilot, fancy GPS systems, etc. Think aboiut it. IF people learned Coastal Navigation, they could save a few thousand dollars off the price of a new boat. How aboit interiors that promote a lot of windflow so Air conditioning is not needed? How about less exensive sail handling systems–for get roller furlers. Have a standard main sail and maybe one electric primary winch?

    Boats are jiust too darn expensive for the majority of the population. The middle class has shrunk–the industry needs to adjust quickly.

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