Full speed ahead: Florida boat builders seeing brisk sales

Sleek white couches, sultry blue light and a suited bartender transformed the basic North Miami Beach showroom into an exclusive art gallery. But on this recent summer’s eve, the wine-sipping crowd wasn’t waiting for the latest work by a contemporary art darling. When the black cloak was swept away, the cheers went up for the 339 Cabin, the newest $400,000-plus luxury powerboat from Miami-based Deep Impact Boats.

The tony event was a sure sign that for Florida’s $2 billion boat manufacturing industry, the seas ahead look far smoother than those of the past few years, when marine sales for some plunged more than 30 percent.

The marine industry’s recovery wave has been building. Attendance at the Miami International Boat Show jumped 6 percent this year over troubled 2009; the number of boats shown at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show increased about 6 percent last November over 2009, too. Boat financers that were scarce just a few years ago are slipping back into lending. Nationally, recreational boat sales jumped 10 percent in 2012.

“Consumer confidence increased for the third consecutive month in June and is now at its highest level since January 2008, which mirrors boating industry sales,” the National Marine Manufacturing Association said in a statement.

But buyers are still more cautious than in richer days. Many are trading down from 50-foot-plus boats with inboard engines to smaller models that cost less to maintain, said Jeff Johnson, president of Maritime Finance. Outboard engines are popular among these more manageable vessels — nearly half the boats on the water in 2012 ran on outboard power, according to the NMMA. Craving more versatility, buyers are also choosing vessels fit for fishing, diving and socializing, said Thomas Dammrich, president of the trade group.

Still, the outlook is far rosier than it used to be for Florida’s 172 boat builders, the most in any state.

In South Florida, companies like Deep Impact Boats and Cigarette Racing Team are capitalizing on demand for smaller, more social and cost-effective boats, while yacht giants like Bertram Yacht and Broward Shipyard are heading to the drawing boards to conjure innovations and drum up revenue in service departments.

Rich Haasse, long-time boat buff and owner of Anclote Harbors Marina in Tarpon Springs, was among those at the Deep Impact unveiling. Haasse has jumped from sailboats to cruisers to 60-foot-plus luxury yachts. But now his sights are set on a Deep Impact 399 Cabin.

“It just fits my lifestyle,” he said. He pointed to the cabin’s profile. “The lines follow the slant of the hull and give it a certain sexiness. That design makes all the difference in the world in terms of appearance,” Haasse said.

The hull is a double-stepped deep vee, just like its 36-foot counterpart and other models in the Deep Impact fleet. “It allows for a smooth, dry ride,” said marketing director Mark Gianassi. Stepped hulls let air stream beneath the boat, lifting the body out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing the boat to go faster while the engine burns less fuel, he said.

The 399 Cabin has a 470-gallon fuel capacity, and the Mercury four-stroke outboard motors that typically outfit Deep Impact’s boats burn about one mile per gallon, Gianassi says. “Boaters get a 400-mile range before needing to refuel,” he said. Unlike inboard engines, outboard engines aren’t sensitive to ethanol-infused fuel, making the outboards easier to maintain, said Randy Sweers, owner of Fastboats.com, a boat dealership and brokerage in Pompano Beach.

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