An optimistic spin on recreational boat sales

Posted: February 08, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - Maybe it's the snowiest winter in recent memory that did it, or a groundhog seeing its shadow the other day.

But within two hours of the opening of the Progressive Atlantic City Boat Show, Steve Bell and his family had signed on the dotted line for a shiny, new, 18-foot, $40,000 Robalo 180.

And the Bells had already settled on a name for the vessel they plan to dock in Strathmere this summer: Six Bells, a sort of play on a nautical term that also signifies Bell, his wife, and their four children.

"We've been doing a lot of dreaming about it all winter, doing our research . . . talking about it," said Bell, of Lancaster, Pa. "We knew what we wanted, so we got right to it."

The dozens of boat manufacturers and dealers lining the aisles of the annual boat showcase at the Atlantic City Convention Center are hoping the other 30,000 people expected to attend the five-day show, which opened Wednesday, will be as decisive as Bell.

"We're hoping lots of people have come to buy, but we know most are just looking," said Ed Pfleger of Schrader Yacht Sales in Point Pleasant, whose display of trim Chris-Craft cruisers would make any old salt salivate.

At last year's boat show, some buyers were Sandy victims looking to replace boats they lost in the storm, some salespeople said. They expect other storm victims who were busy fixing their homes last summer to shop for boats this year.

"If I'm out buying a boat and I don't have a kitchen, that's not going to make my wife very happy," Pfleger said. "Now that people have moved beyond that, they're ready to think about a boat. They've gone for a summer without a boat and now they realize they don't want to go through another summer without one."

Pfleger and others said this week that they are optimistic about recreational boat sales this year, in an industry that has hit some rough waters recently.

The economic downturn post 2008 caused a sharp drop-off in sales from the go-go mid-2000s, when dealers like Schrader stocked dozens of boats at a time and moved them out of the showroom and marina quickly. Slowly, the momentum is building back.

In 2012, industry experts say, sales were up about 10 percent over the years before. The official numbers for 2013 aren't in yet, but early indications are that the recreational boating industry continued the uptick with at least a 5 percent increase in sales of new power boats 26 feet or smaller, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

An estimated 88 million Americans, aboard 12.1 million registered boats, will take to the water on luxury cruisers, sportfishing vessels, sailboats, and personal watercraft this summer, helping make recreational boating a $35 billion a year industry in the United States.

As many as 93 percent of the boats sold in the U.S. are made in this country, and the industry employees 338,500 people across the country, according to the manufacturers association.

"It'll probably never go back to what it was, but we see hopeful signs," Pfleger said.

Still, boat dealers don't generally carry the inventory they once did, show manager Jon Pritko said.

"That's what makes coming to a show like this so important for boaters," Pritko said. "They can really see what's new and what's out there. And if they really want a boat for this summer, they better get it in gear now, because some manufacturers are three months, six months, out on delivery."

Pritko said Atlantic City's boat show offered something for every boater - from $1.2 million luxury Italian-made Azimut Yachts to a Sea Doo for about $3,000.

Show goers also can meet Capt. Dave Carraro, star of the National Geographic Channel's Wicked Tuna, to get an inside look at life as a pro bluefin tuna fisherman on the high seas. Enthusiasts of every age can learn all about fly fishing, kayaking, and other paddle sports at the American Fly Fishing Schools' 50-foot "Simulcast Pond," and children can get in on the action at the "Kids' Fly Casting Competition" booth.

"We come every year just to see what's new," said Brad Foster, 36, of Pittsgrove Township, who attended with his father and brother Wednesday. "We mainly come to look, but I think this year we'll be buying something. . . . We deserve it after the winter we've had."

The show continues Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information may be obtained at



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