A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Baby boomers, boats and birth data

As an industry, we have been talking of late about the need to reach out to a more diverse audience in order to fill out the next generation of boaters and the subsequent ones after that. And just a cursory look at the changing demographic landscape in this country provides plenty of evidence that broadening our reach has to be part of a successful long-term growth strategy.

To that point, the Census Bureau last week announced that white births for the first time in the country’s history are no longer a majority. For the 12-month period that ended in July 2011, minority births reached 50.4 percent and non-Hispanic whites 49.6 percent, a trend that has been developing for years.

“This is an important tipping point,” William H. Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times.” He referred to the change as a “transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming,” according to the newspaper.

That’s a look at the future, where in short order the next generations will be marshaling themselves just over the hills. In the meantime, what can we do now to pinch off the narrow end of the funnel, where aging baby-boom boaters will soon be slipping through in ever increasing numbers? Is there anything we can do better or differently to keep those boaters in the fold?

For instance, can we improve our boats ergonomically and, in the process, make them more accommodative to aging boaters, to all boaters — more efficient, easier to use and maintain?

“The user-friendly part is absolutely critical whether they’re young or old,” says yacht designer Mark Fitzgerald of Camden, Maine. “I don’t think boats have changed much in 30 years, but just about everything else has. Baby boomers expect this ease of use in their products today.”

Fitzgerald has worked closely with a number of older clients in designing boats that fit their needs and concerns. “It’s not just about health and agility,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a different philosophy. I’d sum it up as risk-free. It’s all about safety and being risk-free.”

That translates into a variety of features, such as transom and side doors, lots of hand rails, more ergonomically friendly seating, steps, ladders and companionways — even shock-absorbing decks, which you can find on some small, fast military craft and even a few pleasure boats.

Fitzgerald recalls designing a side door for painter Andrew Wyeth because the artist couldn’t swing his legs over the rail. Those features shouldn’t be the exception on boats but the rule, he says.

I ran the baby boomer questions past Bob Johnstone, a J/Boats co-founder who started his MJM line of powerboats specifically targeting that demographic. He still sees boomers as critical to the industry’s health over the next decade or longer. And he traced their progression through the various stages of boat ownership in an email to me.

“Just about every significant success in the boating industry can be explained by that bulge of 77 million Americans called the baby boomers and where they were or are now in their boating lifestyle,” says Johnstone, the 78-year-old patriarch of a broad, successful boatbuilding family. “When they were in their 20s, 100,000 Snarks, Sunfish and Hobies, and an equal number of small Boston Whaler-type boats were selling per year. In the late 1970s, it was J/24s at the rate of 10-plus per week. Then 35-footers, then 40-50 [foot] cruising sailboats and trawlers.”

Now that they are in the 57 to 67 age bracket, many have transitioned from the more “adventurous years” of living aboard to waterfront living, he says. And, Johnstone notes, “The large cruising boats are being replaced by elegant, smaller boats that are easier to handle by a husband-wife team that’s less agile now but no less enthusiastic about enjoying shared adventures on the water … just of shorter duration.”

That was the genesis of MJM Yachts — 29-, 34-, 36- and 40-foot fuel-efficient Down East-style cruisers that can be easily handled by either partner alone without relying upon outside help. And, Johnstone says, the boats can be shipped without penalty from one seasonal homeport to another because they’re less than 12 feet wide and under 13.5 feet tall on a truck.

“It’s a demographic trend that will gain momentum over the next 10 years,” he says. “Key is to own the boat you’ll be using 90 percent of the time, which is no longer the liveaboard trawler. Going for a spin at the drop of a hat to see a sunset, show a friend the harbor, go to a dock restaurant, watch a race, hit the beach or just get out in fresh air. That’s where it’s at.

“And, you know what?” he continues. “To have a boat that’s as much fun to drive as the first time you took the old man’s Whaler for a spin when you were 10 years old sure helps. That’s where it started. And we’ve come full circle but with yacht comfort.”

Designer Fitzgerald says change doesn’t come quickly to an industry steeped in tradition. “We’re so rooted in tradition that it’s difficult to understand we need to change,” he says. “But those who do it, I believe, will succeed.”


3 comments on “Baby boomers, boats and birth data

  1. Peter Swanson


    America’s racial “tipping point” is overstated in two ways. First of all we have always been a multi-ethnic country. Second of all, counting “Hispanics” as non-white is a bit silly since that is really a linguistic and cultural distinction, not a racial one. While most Hispanics would not be described as Nordic in appearance, many would compare to Italian- or Greek-Americans. As far as boating, once a Latino family has the disposable income, the will very likely choose boating for fishing and recreation. Head down to the docks in South Florida if you don’t believe me.


  2. Kurt Hoehne


    You and Bob J and Fitzgerald are on target with the boomers needing more comfort and less risk. There will be a target market of former power cruisers and sailors there.

    There’s another, bigger issue, imho. The industry and boaters themselves have lost a couple of generations of potential boaters. This industry has focused most of its attention on the higher end — figuring out ways to extract more money from the customers they have. There hasn’t been much in the way of true entry level boating. Why sell five $30K open boats when you can make a whole lot more money off one $250K boat? The trouble is that’s left a pretty big gap in market.

    It’s all fine and nice for the industry to cater to the existing boaters, but then what? Johnstone’s J/24 brought people in for a few reasons — it was a fast little boat for its time, relatively rugged and, most of all, a low-cost way to get into sailing and racing. Other manufacturers have had similar impacts including Bayliner, Catalina, AMC et. al. They all figured out a way to deliver a good product at a true entry level price, make a good living and set themselves up for the long haul with a loyal customer base.

    Guess what, the younger generations these days aren’t going to finance the industry with their credit like generations before. First of all, the financial mess hasn’t left them with much credit, but has left them with a mountain of education debt. If they’re going to get into boating, it’s going to have be at an in-fact (not marketing) entry level.

    Want to eek out a living for a few more years, market to the septegenarians

  3. Chris Caswell

    Bravo, Bill Sisson!! A great piece on boomers and their needs. As a boomer myself, I know that I look at boats differently (or, rather, my knees do) than I did thirty years ago. Perhaps a youth spent throwing myself into the hiking straps of racing dinghies caused my knees to age prematurely, but I sure look at companionway and flybridge steps with a new eye.

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