America tests the waters

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The good old days. Postwar prosperity, the new middle class “leisure time,” and a focus on family combined to make the 1950s and ’60s a heady time for the boating industry. There were scores of new builders turning out boats made from new or improved materials, with fiberglass leading the way.

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Outboards were bigger, crossing the 100-hp barrier in the early ’60s. Electric starters made engines easier to fire up, steering systems improved, and electronics for both fun and safety — the fishfinder and radio direction finder, for instance — also created a buzz.

Boat shows sprang up from coast to coast, and the public flocked to them. The Miami show, which drew 3,000 visitors in 1947, was attracting five-figure crowds by 1954 with sales topping $1 million. But the boats and technology didn’t sell themselves. It took people — salespeople — to put America on the water. And selling boats required a special personality. One had to be able to talk older boaters out of wood and into fiberglass — and at the same time convince millions of “never-evers” that a boat was just the thing they needed.

The key to selling was the “test ride,” when the customer and the boat went on their first “date,” chaperoned by the salesman. A nice day, a friendly chat, some good-natured banter — and the right boat — and the sale was made.

The salesman in this picture from the early 1960s was one of the best. His name? Dick Bertram. (The Bertram Yacht Yard building, on the Miami River, is in the background.)

More from this issue

* Seems like just yesterday

* Photo contest finalists

* An eye on the Northwest Passage

— Steve Knauth