Coming of Age

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In the first of a two-part series on the future of boating, we look at baby boomers, trends and issues

Comingof Age

With her first Social Security check banked, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling is ready for some extended cruising on First Boomer, the Grand Banks 42 Classic that she and her husband, Patrick, bought 10 years ago as their retirement boat.

Casey-Kirschling, born one second after midnight Jan. 1, 1946, has been heralded as the first of America’s baby boomers, the largest generation in the nation’s history. Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers have been the 900-pound gorilla that keeps shaking things up as their take on life shifts with their stage of life.

From Woodstock and anti-war protests to mutual funds and online shopping, from the Beatles and the Whole Earth Catalog to Victoria’s Secret and SUVs, they keep surprising folks who try to predict where this generation will go based on where it’s been. Boomers number some 76 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 62, and if history is a reliable guide their retirement years will leave an indelible, though not altogether predictable, mark, reshaping the way Americans do retirement, enjoy their leisure — and, of course, go boating.

Futurist and strategist P.J. Wade, of Toronto, doesn’t even like to use the word “retirement” anymore. Retirement suggests a disengagement from life, she says. The National Center for Health Statistics says Americans who reached age 65 in 2004 are expected to live to 83, or 18 years beyond typical retirement age — the length of a second childhood. Wade, who is known as “The Catalyst” and has written several books (www.thecatalyst.com), says the question isn’t, “What are you going to do when you retire?” but “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?”

For more stories in this Future of Boating section see:

The Baby Boomer Profile Future in flux Best of both worlds

“If you don’t sit down, if you keep active, if you keep your weight trim and stay strong, you can do almost anything you want to do — forever,” she says. “You just may have to do it a little differently, a little smarter, maybe a little bit lazier.”

She prefers to call this state of affairs “unretirement.” Because they are healthier than their parents, because their life expectancy is longer and because they have more disposable income than any previous generation (an estimated $2 trillion annually), boomers are pioneers in this business of unretirement, Wade says.

That makes Casey-Kirschling the first pioneer. The Kirschlings are busier than ever shuttling back and forth between their home on the BohemiaRiver on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a second home in Vero Beach, Fla., on their restored 1979 Grand Banks, which they consider their third home. Patrick Kirschling, 62, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, retires in June. Casey-Kirschling retired from teaching a year-and-a-half ago, but she still does a lot of pro bono work — common among retiring boomers.

 

She volunteered for six weeks with the American Red Cross in Baton Rouge, La., after Hurricane Katrina. She also is an unpaid spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration, doing media interviews and appearing in videos to educate prospective retirees about how and when to apply for Social Security benefits. Casey-Kirschling received her first Social Security check Feb. 12 by direct deposit to her bank. She’d rather not say how much Uncle Sam sent her, but the SSA says today’s benefits average $1,079 a month. The transfer marked a new era for both the SSA (10,000 boomers a day will become eligible for Social Security over the next decade) and for the Kirschlings.

“We’re open to continuing to work flexibly,” either as volunteers or for pay, says Casey-Kirschling. But what they really want to do now is put some hours on First Boomer. The Kirschling’s boating history should cheer up any industry executive who wonders if the mechanisms for bringing people along in boating really work. The Kirschlings owned a 23-foot Wellcraft so they could water-ski in the summer. But the couple always considered skiing the slopes “their sport” until 1991, when they joined three other couples in chartering a Grand Banks in the British Virgin Islands. “It was the best vacation we ever had,” Casey-Kirschling says.

The couple came home, bought a 20-year-old Grand Banks 36, and five years later bought First Boomer, their “unretirement boat” — one big enough to take the grandkids on for extended cruises. They purchased a home on the BohemiaRiver where they could dock the boat, and though they didn’t have a plan yet for retirement, “We had a direction,” says Patrick Kirschling.

Cruising seemed like something they could enjoy for years — more so than skiing, which had become difficult for Patrick because of a neck injury. They began cruising Chesapeake Bay, and now that they are snowbirds they cruise down to Vero Beach in the fall and back to Maryland in the spring. Once Patrick is retired, they plan to spend winters exploring Florida by boat.

“Living on a boat is a great experience,” Casey-Kirschling says. “It’s such an adventure. … Our boat doesn’t go fast, but that’s great because we don’t need to rush anywhere anymore.” On First Boomer, the pressure is off.

Boomers and their boats

The boating industry is counting on a wave — a tsunami — of retirees like the Kirschlings to descend on the water over the next decade and fuel more demand for boats, current economic woes notwithstanding. Yet more thoughtful observers caution that retirement won’t be a single highway for this trend-setting generation but a lot of byways. Some will retire. Some won’t. Some will semiretire. Still others will retire for a time, then work again or devote themselves to public service.

However boomers decide to spend their “golden years,” their numbers are vast, and there will be winners and losers in the competition for their dollars. The winners will be ones who keep an ear to the ground and stay tuned to what boomers do — and how they do their boating — as they grow older.

“It’s going to be a very competitive environment,” says Dr. Richard Curtin, director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan and author of a 2004 study on the impact of the “boomer bubble” on future demand for pleasure boats. “When you look at the size of the baby-boom generation and the size of their discretionary income, that really is the big prize that everyone has their eyes on.” Boatbuilders, motor home manufacturers, travel agents, second-home builders — they all want a piece of the boomer retirement dollar.

One of Curtin’s key findings is that older people are into boat ownership more than younger ones — no surprise since they usually have more leisure time and discretionary income. Peak boat ownership years are in the 50s and 60s. That means the average age of boat owners will increase as the wave of boomers enter their 50s and 60s, and that builders will have to get in synch with the needs and expectations of the older buyer. “You either do that and attract an older boater or you give up an important market share [26 percent of the population],” Curtin says. “As people age, they get less able, but that doesn’t change their willingness to boat. It just changes their ability to do it.”

Manufacturers of personal watercraft, ski boats and sportboats — the “fun boats” that attract a younger enthusiast — face tough times for the next 15 years as the population ages, Curtin says. But there will be growth opportunities for builders of higher-end boats and those who keep a less-nimble customer in mind. Curtin says builders can woo older buyers with boats that are easy to use — easy to get into and out of, to walk through without clumsy steps or ladders to maneuver. Graying buyers want designs that incorporate safety, comfort and convenience, and they want to deal with companies that deliver good service, he says. And with waterfront becoming scarce, owners need a nice place to store a boat, too. These are the fundamentals.

Some in the industry already have taken this to heart and have begun positioning themselves for the tsunami. Bob Johnstone, co-founder of J/Boats, of Newport, R.I., one of the great success stories in performance-sailboat building, started a new company, mJm Yachts, to market his latest boat for boomers. It’s not a sailboat but a traditional New England-style powerboat (www.mjmyachts.com).

Johnstone says his 33-year career building and marketing boats has shadowed the changing tastes of the boomer. From his start selling Windsurfers for Hoyle Schweitzer, Johnstone has ridden the boomer wave. A passionate sailor and sailboat marketer, he migrated from Windsurfer to AMF Alcort, where he promoted its Sunfish brand. Then, in 1977, he founded J/Boats with his brother, Rod, and developed a sailboat line ranging from the ubiquitous J/24 racer/daysailer to a 50-foot racer/

cruiser. Johnstone says his designs tracked the boomer progression from small dayboats and raceboats to big family racer/cruisers.

Twelve years ago, Johnstone, who is now 75, and his wife, Mary, 74, an Episcopal vicar, eased out of sail into power and downsized to a Dyer 29. He believes boomers (both powerboaters and sailors) will want to do the same in growing numbers. They’re going to want to buy a smaller, comfortable, stylish, high-end, easy-to-run, easy-to-maintain and — as fuel prices skyrocket — efficient powerboat. That’s mJm’s stock-in-trade. The company — its initials stand for “Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat” — markets a 29-, 34- and 40-footer with an older buyer in mind, one who wants to be able to comfortably single- or double-hand the boat.

“You can explain just about every trend in boating [in recent years] by where these people [the boomers] were in their age cycle,” says Johnstone.

Johnstone offers the two smaller models with a single engine to save on fuel and bow thrusters for easy maneuvering. The 40-footer — due out in November — comes with joystick-controlled, fuel-saving twin Volvo Penta IPS or Cummins MerCruiser Zeus pod drives for “fingertip” control. Some models have a transom door that opens onto the swim platform. Passengers board and debark through 30-inch-wide, wheelchair-accessible, side-opening doors on both sides of the cockpit.

The pilothouse and cockpit are on one level — no steps — and the hull is constructed of a high-tech Kevlar and E-glass composite that lends strength and saves weight, again for fuel efficiency. The cockpit is roomy for socializing and can be enclosed and temperature-controlled. Styling is traditional, and the two-cabin interior is comfortable, with plenty of handrails throughout.

The boats aren’t cheap — $850,000 for the 40-footer and $340,000 for the 29 — but Johnstone says it should be very affordable for someone downsizing from a larger boat.

“If you retire in your mid-50s or 60s, you may want to get a trawler and do some exploring,” Johnstone says. The mJm may come later. “People coming down from bigger boats expect a certain amount of comfort,” he says, and are willing to pay for it. “And they can afford a piece of art. They want a good-looking boat.”

Grady-White Boats, of Greenville, N.C., which builds high-end family/fishing boats, also has been riding the boomer wave and plans to keep riding it into the baby boomers’ retirement years, says Joey Weller, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales (www.gradywhite.com). Weller says Grady keeps tucked into the wave’s curl by listening and finding more ways to listen to its customers.

Winner of J.D. Power and Associates’ customer satisfaction awards in coastal fishing boats for six of the last seven years, Grady responds to what its customers tell the company. When middle-age boomers in the 1990s asked for more “creature features” on its fishing machines — a more comfortable cabin and seating — Grady delivered a more comfortable, more “family-friendly” boat. Now it offers an express model that is tricked out for fishing but also has three berths, a 96-square-foot cockpit, and plush surround-seating at the helm, with a folding table and two seats to starboard. It’s a more sociable boat and more accessible and manageable with a transom door, bow-thruster and hydraulic power-assist steering.

Weller says Gradys also have other basic features attractive to an aging buyer — a soft-riding C. Raymond Hunt-designed hull, low maintenance and high resale value. It’s a boat “you can pass down to the kids,” he says.

Some work, some play

When boomers will be ready to buy their unretirement boats is the big question. Patterns of retirement are changing. Baby boomers expect to work longer than their parents, suggesting a reversal of the century-long trend toward earlier retirement, according to the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study done every two years. Compared to 1992, a substantially larger proportion of people (around 40 percent) in their early to mid-50s who were surveyed in 2004 expected to work full time after age 65. That expectation of a later retirement may be even greater now with business activity slow and stock prices low.

“If we go back 10 years ago, when everyone thought the financial boom times were never going to end, people were going to be retired by 55,” says Bentley Collins, vice president of marketing and sales for Sabre Yachts, the South Casco, Maine, builder of high-end sailing and Down East-style power yachts (www.sabreyachts.com). Many did retire, and that was good for Sabre’s business. “But people are in a bit of a holding pattern right now,” Collins says.

Many who had hoped to be retired by now aren’t. And after looking at their stock portfolios and anticipating $5-a-gallon fuel, they may be downsizing their dream boat, as well, Collins says. A buyer who was eyeing a $350,000 Sabre 34 might now be looking at a $265,000 Back Cove 33, a less-expensive power cruiser built by a sister company (www.backcoveyachts.com). Powered by one 380-hp Yanmar diesel, the 33 gets almost 5 miles per gallon at 8.5 knots and might be a little easier to swing on a retirement budget.

Not all who plan to work longer will do it because they have to. Many successful businessmen and high-end professionals buy their Grand Banks yachts at age 50 or 55 so they can begin “throttling back” at work and enjoy their families and grandchildren on board, says David Hensel, the builder’s marketing director. But that doesn’t mean they are ready to quit working anytime soon.

“Retirement age isn’t 65 anymore,” Hensel says. “Baby boomers aren’t slowing down yet.” They don’t want to. That means many are running their businesses or offices from their yachts as they cruise, which is feasible now with satellite and cellular communications and WiFi Internet access.

If an owner still is working or is semiretired, that likely will influence his or her choice of power options. Hensel says a Grand Banks with larger engines and a semidisplacement or modified-vee hull makes good time and good sense for an owner who has to get back to the office. He says these “trawler-type” yachts offer flexibility to customers who “still have ties to their work or business and have some time constraints.” They also are attractive to retirees who look forward to cruising with their children and grandchildren and must keep to a schedule to get family home on time. So-called fast trawlers can zoom yet still deliver reasonable fuel-efficiency at slower speeds, Hensel says.

Like mJm, Grand Banks is introducing a new model this summer, the 41 Heritage EU, with joystick and Cummins MerCruiser Zeus pod drives (www.grandbanks.com). “The joystick gives you pinpoint control and station-keeping ability,” Hensel says. “A wife can take over this boat and drive it, it’s such an intuitive system to use.”

Boomers are open to new technology, says Sabre’s Collins. Starting with radio, growing up with television, learning to use computers, messing with iPods and Blackberries now, boomers are willing to embrace change. “Technology is selling,” Collins says. “I’m a marketing professional. I’ve found that if you give them technology, they’re willing to try it. You can make boating more accessible to more people through technology.”

Whether it’s joysticks, pod drives, electronic charts, VHF digital selective calling, collision avoidance technology (AIS), WiFi, e-mail or the Internet, the technology makes boating easier and more convenient, and enables boaters to keep in touch with family and business. Boomers love it. They use it. Many can afford it.

The journey into high technology is far from over. Like self-parking cars, sooner or later we’ll see boats that dock themselves. Manufacturers are working on it.

Editor’s note: Part II of our look at the future of boating will appear next month, in the July issue.