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Boat industry offering waves of value

Luke Hellier and his wife have been shopping for two years for their first boat.

They’ve researched online and shopped Craigslist and auctions. But one place they haven’t set foot is the showroom.

“We’re trying to find a deal,” said Hellier, a 29-year-old from Edina, Minn. “We think we can save 20 percent or more from a private seller.”

Used boats have always outsold new, but five years after the recession, powerboat buyers of every stripe are still focusing on value, value, value. Boat manufacturer Brunswick surveyed 15,000 people and found that the majority liked boats but saw cost as a deterrent.

That’s causing manufacturers to rethink the way they do business, including maintaining or lowering the cost of every new boat from entry-level to high-end. Manufacturers are not only offering new boats below the $20,000 threshold, but even under $5,000 in a few cases.

Mark Niforopulos, general manager of St. Boni Motor Sports in St. Bonifacius, Minn., said that he’s been begging manufacturers for years to change their “exclusionist” thinking. “We went through this fancy phase with all these expensive bells and whistles,” he said. “The industry is badly in need of a reset.”

Boat buyers choose used over new by a factor of 5 to 1, a ratio that retailers and manufacturers would like to narrow. In 2007, used boats outsold new by only 3 to 1, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Part of the reason for new boats’ sinking sales was an abundance of bargains after 35 percent of boat dealers closed during the recession, said Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

“There was a lot of repossessed product back then,” Gruhn said. “We hope those days are behind us.”

Recovery continues to ebb and flow. The number of new powerboats sold in the United States prerecession had been cut in half by 2010. In 2013, the number grew to more than 160,000, but it still doesn’t qualify as a recovery.

Irwin Jacobs, who owned 16 boat companies in the 1980s and still owns Larson Boat Group in Little Falls, Minn., said the growth in new boat sales, while not stellar, is at sensible levels.

“We’re the first business to go in a recession, and the last to come back,” he said.

To rev sales, manufacturers and retailers say they’re putting value front and center. At Brunswick — which owns nearly a dozen brands, including Mercury, Bayliner, Lowe, Sea Ray, Crestliner and Lund — Chairman and CEO Dusty McCoy said, “Every new model made should cost the same or less than the model it replaces.”

But it’s not about stripping a model to make it affordable. McCoy said many new models come standard with features that today’s buyers expect, such as joystick docking for easier maneuverability, state-of-the-art dash systems and fuel-efficient engines.

“Consumers want more but expect to pay less,” McCoy said. “They want more standard features without a higher price. It’s happening across the industry.”

Dan Chesky Jr., co-owner of Dan’s Southside Marine in Bloomington, Minn., said that he’s completely changed his customer approach. He’s added an affordability page on his website so customers can see how a new boat fits in their budget.

“If someone is spending $150 per month on a cellphone, we can show them how to own a new boat for about the same amount,” Chesky said.

The monthly payment on a 16 1/2-foot new Alumacraft with a 50-horsepower, four-stroke engine with fish finder, trolling motor, cover and trailer is $159, assuming a $17,628 purchase price, 10 percent down and financing for 12 years at 5.49 percent.

“We say that you could own that boat for less than $200 a month instead of throwing out an $18,000 price tag,” Chesky said. (Interest rates vary from 4.99 to 18.95 percent, depending on a customer’s credit.)

Chesky said most buyers make extra payments to pay the boat off faster, but they still negotiate hard to get the original selling price down. “The wife says, ‘We really don’t need this,’ and the husband says, ‘If I can get it for this price, let’s do it.'”

Jake Jacobson, general manager of Rapid Marine Group in Minnesota, said there’s a lot of value to be found in boats priced under $20,000. New boats are more affordable, interest rates are low and values are holding.

“You can get a Lund 16-footer with side steering, a fish finder, pedestal seats, a 40-horse, four-stroke motor and trailer for under $15,000,” he said.

Even high-buck buyers spending up to $100,000 are seeing changes in their market. At Midwest MasterCraft in Crystal, Minn., owner Andy Larson said that MasterCraft just released a high-end but less expensive line.

“Most MasterCraft boats start at $80,000, but the new NXT will start in the high $50s,” he said.

A year ago, Larson added the Moomba line for the value customer looking at boats costing $40,000 and up. The strategy of adding lower price points has worked. Business is up 20 percent so far this year, he said.

For most buyers, a $20,000 floating party busts their budget. According to the NMMA, most boat owners have a household annual income of less than $100,000, making a used boat a likelier option.


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Chennai kids riding a wave of thrills

Little Ramasamy yanks the boat’s rudder. He struggles to catch the early morning wind in the sail of the Optimist, a small sailing dinghy. The eight-year-old appears positively hapless — the dinghy teeters with a life of its own. “Bear off! Bear off! Tighten the mainsheet!” calls out his instructor. Ramasamy obeys; within seconds, the sail spreads out against the wind and the dinghy settles down. It falls smoothly in step with the rest of the fleet that overcast morning. Some 38 children sail Laser, Optimist, and Enterprise class boats in the waters of the inner harbour — they are learning to sail at the week-long Summer Sailing Camp organised by the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association (TNSA).

The inner harbour is a happy jumble of sail boats and children in lifejackets. While some sail with effortless ease, some others tug at their mainsheet and rudder, unable to tame the boat. But ask any of them and they would tell you that the minutes they charge into the sea with their dinghy are priceless.

Sailing, as a sport, is fast catching up amongst the city’s kids. Nilma V. Shah, Hon. Secretary of the TNSA, says that the camp is an opportunity for them to identify those who are serious about the sport. “They can sign up to become our student members and get trained to participate in competitions,” she adds. A lot of kids take to sailing to get a taste of what it feels to be at sea. Once they learn the nuts and bolts of the process, the sport can be pursued just like cricket or hockey. Not just children, Nilma says that the TNSA has been attracting enquiries from adults who are interested in the sport as well.

“It’s a whole new world out there,” explains Nilma. The sailor is “completely at the mercy of Nature.” She explains that sailing teaches one patience and endurance and that it fine-tunes the mind and body. Sailing means different things to different people. For Shrinithi Praga, it’s a unique sport; for M. Nachammai, it’s an activity that will help her face her fear for water. R. Yoga Prabu finds it fun to be in the water; he hopes to take the sport seriously. Then there are sailors such as K.S. Anirudh who have grown to find new meaning to life after they took to sailing.

The 12-year-old has been sailing since 2011. “A lot of people are scared of water and I was one of them,” he says. “Initially, when I joined classes, I simply sat at the front of the boat for a month.” He gradually learned to embrace the sea. Jellyfish, dolphins…Anirudh has seen several fascinating creatures of the sea during his escapades with the sailboat. “I understand water now,” he says. “It is essential for all living things. There’s no need to fear it.”


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Dartmouth, Bishop Stang sailing don't mind if you don't know much about what they do

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FIVE-YEAR GLANCE

Both Dartmouth and Bishop Stang have won the Cape and Islands League in the last three seasons, and they have combined for eight top-five finishes in the 12-team league.

Year School League Overall Place

2013 Bishop Stang 10-1 15-9 1st

Dartmouth 5-5 6-10 4th

2012 Bishop Stang 6-3 8-8 3rd

Dartmouth 3-5 3-15 8th

2011 Dartmouth 6-0 11-7 1st

Bishop Stang 6-3 7-7 5th

2010 Dartmouth 10-1 15-4 2nd

Bishop Stang 6-4 9-9 5th

2009 Bishop Stang 3-2 5-11 5th

Dartmouth 3-2 4-9 6th

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It’s difficult to determine, floating on this Sunday afternoon in the white-capped chop of Padanaram Harbor, whether it’s the sea or the sky that is the truest shade of blue. Only the thin, wispy clouds mark up from down.

This idyllic setting is inhabited by more than a half-dozen support boats, toting parents, teammates and officials, bobbing in the bay as a dozen white-sailed International 420 dinghies cut through the waves around them, filled with high school sailors from Dartmouth High, Bishop Stang, Moses Brown and Nantucket, all decked in life jackets and helmets as they jockey for position before the starting horns sound off.

In the hierarchy of high school sports, sailing doesn’t pull the greatest Q-score, but for the 41 combined skippers and crew on the Indians and Spartans teams, it’s a thrilling mix of strategy, communication and physical ability that isn’t relegated to the upper-crust stereotypes of privileged youths birthed into a yachting culture.

“You can take someone with no experience and they can be an important part of the team,” says Dartmouth coach Ryan Walsh, who succeeded Warren Hathaway two years ago, the only other coach in the program’s 16-year history.

Dartmouth senior Kate Ferland came out for the team as a junior with no sailing experience.

“I had no idea until I got here — the plays, the terminology, how to sail, how to hike,” she says when asked what the biggest surprises have been. But she’s glad she tried it at the behest of her close friend, Anya Krause, a senior captain on the team. “I loved it right away. I loved being on the water. I love sailing and learning a new sport.”

For the kids on the teams, who range from first-time seafarers to battle-hardened veterans, it’s just like any other high school sport. They train or race six days a week from the beginning of March to early June, even when other sports cancel due to weather. Dartmouth, which practices and races at the New Bedford Yacht Club, has only missed three days of practice this spring, despite starting the season with 22-degree temperatures in Week 1.

“People think it’s going to be warm and nice,” Walsh says. “Then it’s freezing rain with temperatures under 30 degrees.”

The misconceptions among the sailors’ classmates are rampant.

“The biggest thing people say is ‘sailing isn’t a real sport,'” says Bishop Stang sophomore Elizabeth Lonergan, who has been sailing since she was 7. “People don’t understand how high-intensity it actually is. It’s very physical but also very tactical.”

“I think a lot of people think we sit around in boats or go yachting,” adds her older sister, junior Maura Lonergan, who also plays field hockey. “It’s definitely not that at all. Sailing is probably the most strategic sport that there is. It’s definitely a mind game, as well as a physical game. A lot of sports leave you physically exhausted, but sailing will leave you physically and mentally exhausted.”

Maura Lonergan says much of what her friends at school know of sailing is culled from her posts on Facebook and Instagram. Freshman Victoria Pajak gets questions about her sport all the time.

“They usually ask how do you even do that?” she says with a chuckle. “How do you sail? They don’t know how it works. They’re not aware of what we do.”

INSIDE THE RACE

The tactical strategy involved in team racing — which comprises most of the season, with a few fleet racing events sprinkled in — is never more evident than at the start. Six boats jockey for position at the starting line, which is unlike any other. In track, you can walk up to the start, take your position and wait. The ocean doesn’t allow that. Timing the start is crucial. You need to be approaching just as the final horn sounds, which leads to boats boxing out other others, pushing them away from the start, then attempting to race them back to the imaginary line in the water.

At one point on this Sunday in a quad meet, Dartmouth’s No. 3 boat capsizes — this will happen several times in an afternoon of racing — but is able to haul itself vertical just in time for the start, a miraculously useful mistake.

Once the race begins, they’re headed for a far-off buoy that signifies the finish. Of course, you can’t quite get there in a straight line. Enter more strategic machinations. Like one basketball team that likes to slow down the game and another which sprints up and down the court, there are many strategies. One boat tacks a few dozen times as it zig-zags toward the finish. Another takes the layline, essentially sailing out as far as it can in an attempt to take one straight shot to the finish, eventually tracing two sides of a triangle.

“There’s a lot of action going on,” Krause says. “People normally don’t think of sailing as being very mental. There’s a lot of strategy behind it.”

Of course the weather wreaks havoc over even the best laid plans. No sport is as reliant on its conditions as sailing, which must deal with wind and surf and rain and whatever else the sea throws at them.

“It’s different every single time you sail. That makes it interesting, fun and unique,” Pajak says. “A lot of it is all in your head. There’s a lot of tactics involved and strategies. It’s all about playing smart and knowing what to do to win.”

PAYING DIVIDENDS

Both Dartmouth and Bishop Stang have enjoyed success in the Cape and Islands League, which the Spartans, who practice at the Community Boating Center, won for the first time in school history last year, and both have 2014 league crowns in their sight.

“It’s a wonderful group of kids,” says Dartmouth volunteer coach Peter Holmes. “The spirit and character is amazing. I really mean it. If these kids area an example of what Dartmouth High is producing, we’re in good shape.”

The Indians have sent 75 kids to sail in college, many of them at ranked Division 1 programs. Dartmouth won the Cape and Islands league in 2011 after taking second in 2010, but after graduating a hefty class of seniors, the Indians slipped to eighth in 2012 before climbing to fourth last year. Krause has been there for all the ups and downs.

“The dynamic of the team always changes,” she says. “We were a lot more competitive my freshman year with experienced sailors. Building it back up has been fun. It’s been a learning experience for me because I get to teach people how to sail.”

While many sailors report not enjoying the introductory ages — called Opti for the type of dinghy — it seems nearly universal that once they reach the 420 boats, they’re hooked. When Elizabeth Lonergan was entering high school, she had to pick between lacrosse and sailing.

“It was something I debated for a long time,” she says. “I thought sailing was something that would take me farther in life. It’s definitely a cool skill to be able to do.”

The 2014 high school sailing season is beginning to wind down. Four Dartmouth girls are competing today at the Women’s Fleet Racing Championships in Hyannis. Saturday was the final regular-season Cape and Islands meet of the season, and the league championships — in team, fleet and women’s — will be held March 30 to June 1. Following the final regular-season weekend, Dartmouth sits third at 9-2 (6-6 overall) and Bishop Stang fifth at 8-3 (8-9 overall). Both trail Martha’s Vineyard, which has yet to lose.

But even if neither team wins the league this year — or if they don’t qualify for the meets that could send them to nationals in San Diego — they can rest easy knowing they’ve found a sport that lasts a lifetime, and it’s right in their own backyard.

“We’re so privileged to be able to live somewhere where we can just hop in a boat and sail,” says Elizabeth Lonergan.

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