Miami boat show features smaller, more versatile craft

Emerging from the depth of the economic recession, recreational boat maker Bayliner convened focus groups to learn how to draw more participants into the sport. Company executives were shocked at what they learned: potential customers were turned off by seemingly small things like boats that tip too much when they’re boarded at the dock and by bows that rise when the throttles are pushed forward.

“We said, ‘Let’s go back and throw out all of our assumptions,’ ” Bayliner marketing vice-president Matt Guilford said. “How do we make boating easier? Let’s address as many barriers to boating as we can.”

The end result of the Lake Forest, Ill., company’s return to the drawing board is the Bayliner Element 16 — less tippy, more stable, easy to trailer without a big SUV, storable in a standard garage, and priced at about $12,000 — on display at the Miami International Boat Show Feb. 14-18.

The 16-foot Element with a 60-horsepower, four-stroke Mercury outboard is one of more than 240 new models in the 15- to 26-foot range for sale at the show, being held at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Miamarina at Bayside, and Sea Isle Marina Yachting Center.

These smaller boats — less than 27 feet — are leading the U.S. recreational boating industry out of the recession, accounting for 96 percent of America’s 12.4 million registered vessels, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which owns the Miami show. Boat sales went up about 10 percent in 2012, and are forecast to rise another 5 to 10 percent in 2013 if consumers stay confident and increase their participation in outdoor pastimes, according to the trade group.

To lure more Americans to boating and keep them in the sport, manufacturers are turning out more innovative, versatile and affordable craft — deck boats, runabouts, fishing and ski boats, pontoon, and jet boats — and Miami is a prime showcase.

Sea Ray — known for making boats from 20-foot runabouts to 60-foot yachts, including many with stern-drive propulsion — is introducing its first jet boat in 18 years. The 21-footer is propelled by twin, 120-horsepower jet drives — tunnels that suck in and discharge water with no blades. Priced at $35,000 to $44,000 (depending on options), the craft can seat up to 10 people and is available in a variety of stylish colors.

Also new for the Knoxville, Tenn., boat maker: Sundeck models equipped with outboard engines. Sea Ray previously had offered only inboard/outboard propulsion for those deck boats.

“We want to have all the bases covered,” said Joe Cacopardo, Sea Ray’s director of marketing.

Steve Tadd, marketing director of Nautic Global Group — maker of five different boat brands from 12 to 42 feet — said there’s a major shift away from stern drives toward outboards because of cost. A recent federal requirement to install catalytic converters on stern drives has raised boat prices as much as $3,000 while outboards can produce the same power at lower cost with better fuel efficiency.

Tadd said 25 of his Elkhart, Ind., company’s 38 models of Hurricane deck boats in the 18- to 27-foot range are equipped with outboards. They also offer innovative seating options and creative ways to store gear.

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