Skip to main content

Future in flux

Here are 10 issues and trends that will affect boating for years

Here are 10 issues and trends that will affect boating for years

Green marketing, recycling

Energy-efficient lights, environmentally friendly bottom paint, more fuel-efficient propulsion, and lighter, stiffer hulls are just a few indicators that point to boating’s new color. Marinas, boatyards, manufacturers, retailers and service providers all are spending top dollar to affix a “green” label to their goods and services. What used to be considered a personal virtue is now a vital part of the boating business, which relies on clean water and air like many other leisure industries.


 Hurricane-proof storage

But going green doesn’t necessarily require giant leaps; it can happen in a series of small steps. Products that help reduce the carbon footprint of boaters include solar panels, wind generators, energy-efficient LEDs, biodegradable cleaning products, electric outboards, copper-free antifouling (Interlux Pacifica, Pettit Vivid Free) and long-lasting tools that stay out of the landfill. Festool, for example, makes high-end electric tools that are cherished by craftsmen for their longevity and the green shadow they cast, because fewer replacements mean less waste.

Service evolution

Boats have always needed yards that launch, haul and service them. The difference now? In a service economy, where people tend to have more money than time, do-it-yourself is going out of style, so more boat owners pay professionals to tend to their toys. With boats becoming bigger and

For more stories in this Future of Boating section see:

Coming of Age The Baby Boomer Profile Best of both worlds

more complex, that’s often the only choice. But boatyards are changing, too, becoming bigger and vertically integrated so they can offer more specialized services. Prices are on the increase ($50 to $100 per hour, depending on the job) because the cost of doing business is going up. Tighter environmental regulations require clean sanding, air filtration and complex management of a yard’s waste streams, from paint chips to engine oil to storm runoff.

Other challenges for boatyards include higher taxes and zoning laws that favor residential and resort-type waterfront developments. As a result, consolidation is taking place. Smaller operations sell out to bigger onesor to developers, because they are short on capital to make necessary improvements or can’t grow their businesses to remain competitive. Last but not least, boatyard managers are grappling with personnel shortages, trying to find, educate and retain quality workers and prevent them from getting lured away by better-paying jobs. The evolution of the boatyard from a predominantly small mom-and-pop business to a large, sophisticated, full-service operation is expected to continue.

More power, more options

The demand shock that has pushed prices at the fuel dock to record levels — and tighter environmental regulations — has brought about more efficient engines, such as direct-injection 2-stroke outboards and 4-strokes that are cleaner, more powerful and more reliable than the old carbureted 2-strokes. Common rail diesels with sophisticated electronics that allow engines to operate at lower loads are cost-effective solutions available now. Supposedly “sexier” concepts like diesel-electric hybrids, battery power and fuel-cell

systems are still being developed to make them more

appealing and affordable for mainstream use. Diesel power also could show up in outboards if the technology finds enough backing from commercial builders.

But fuel efficiency is only one aspect of innovation. The others are convenience and performance. New pod drive systems like Cummins MerCruiser’s Zeus and Volvo Penta’s IPS boost performance and maneuverability and are rapidly gaining acceptance with builders and consumers alike. Another game-changing innovation is MerCruiser’s Axius system, which uses sophisticated hydraulic and electronic technology to control independently articulating sterndrives for simple, intuitive joystick docking and maneuvering. In this segment of the market, the future is now.

New-age fuel

The best way to insulate your wallet from high fuel bills is to burn less of it. That doesn’t mean all boaters will become kayakers, but those who continue to rely on some sort of internal combustion now must understand new types of fuel. Biodiesel, a cleaner-burning brethren to the crude oil derivative, does the trick for some, but it is difficult to come by, except for rapeseed and soybean farmers or owners of restaurants that produce cooking grease, which can be used as a source.

The fuel additive MTBE, a known carcinogen, was found to contaminate ground water, so it’s been replaced by ethanol. While that seems to work fine in cars, ethanol does not agree with older boats and their fiberglass gas tanks, which can deteriorate when exposed to the additive, leading to clogged fuel lines, mucked-up engines and leaky tanks. Perhaps of greater concern is phase separation, which occurs when ethanol absorbs water and drops out of the fuel, causing a layer of sludge and/or water to form at the bottom of the fuel tank. This mixture can get sucked into fuel lines and cause engine problems. The solution for now: monitor your fuel system closely, carry spare filters and use a quality fuel/water separator. The fuel story isn’t over yet.

Made in China

Many manufacturers of luxury goods have followed the trail of cheap labor to China, hoping to preserve both profits and product quality. Boats are no different. Megayachts, trawlers, sailboats, runabouts and rigid bottom inflatables already are manufactured there. While the marine industry is waiting for China to become a consumer market (with a boost from this summer’s Olympic sailing events in Qingdao), the fact is it remains a place where boats are being built for export. Prominent companies like Nordhavn, Marlow Yachts and Mercury have opened manufacturing facilities in China, and many others are following, lured by the low cost of labor and materials.

But despite China’s sustained double-digit economic growth over the last decade and the acceptance of boats that are built there, it is not all smooth sailing. Pollution, rising energy costs, inflation, toy recalls because of lead content and a government that is quick to crack down on political dissent while tolerating questionable labor practices have all dealt setbacks to the “Made in China” label. In many ways, China

remains an enigma, a place where anything’s possible but nothing is a sure bet.

Lighter, faster, safer

Boats are better than they were five, 10 or 20 years ago because of modern design technologies that include tank testing, velocity prediction programs and finite element analysis. They have benefited from better materials, ranging from resins to fabrics to cores, as well as modern building techniques, such as resin infusion and vacuum-bagging or closed-mold lamination. That means the customer is a winner in more ways than one: lighter, stronger boats that are faster, safer and more fuel-efficient. That trend should continue.

There are many different ways to build boats, and no technology is the killer application. One-offs or custom-built boats might be perfect candidates for traditional building materials, such as wood, or space-age stuff, such as preimpregnated carbon composites that have to be baked in an autoclave. What’s best depends on purpose and budget. Traditional open-mold construction with hand-laid fiberglass is still going strong for many production boats, while small and robust dinghies are increasingly made from rotomolded or thermoformed plastic.

While boat and engine quality will continue to improve with advancements in materials, engineering and building techniques, it is incumbent on the consumer to buy from a reputable builder that understands the advantages and limitations of the materials and the construction methods employed.

Extreme weather

After a couple relatively quiet years, it is easy to forget 2004 and 2005, when seven named hurricanes ripped across Florida and Katrina made landfall near New Orleans. But make no mistake: We are only a dozen years or so into a 25- to 40-year cycle of increased hurricane activity. This means the recreational boating industry should brace for more years of hurricane-related damages, which in 2005 alone added up to approximately $1 billion.

One countermeasure is retrofitting older marinas to withstand winds of 140 mph or more with extra-robust dry stack buildings, wave attenuators, breakwaters and dock pilings that can handle large surges. However, boaters already are paying bumped-up boat insurance rates in the hurricane belt because of increased storm activity, and now they face the prospect of higher slip fees and club membership dues to help pay for marina improvements. Alternatively, they could store their boats in safer inland locations, trading the convenience of quick ocean access for a higher safety margin. Bottom line: there’s no substitute for preparation, prudence and vigilance on the part of boat owners living in active storm zones.

Going — and staying — green

Pump it, don’t dump it. The designation of large areas as no-discharge zones requires boaters to do their share to keep the water clean while they brace for the (proposed) construction of controversial liquefied natural gas terminals on Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay and near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. If built, these facilities would impose safety corridors on recreational boating traffic on top of the existing security zones already in place around Navy vessels and military or commercial installations on shore. No less controversial is the proposed CapeWind project that calls for 130 turbine towers — each 417 feet tall — to be installed in a 24-square-mile area on Nantucket Sound, where recreational boat traffic would face restrictions.

In places that are shared by boaters and endangered marine mammals, authorities issued speed limits and rerouted shipping lanes to reduce the risk of boat strikes on manatees and migrating whales. A different calamity is the collapse of the salmon stock on the West Coast, which might force the cancellation of the 2008 salmon season from Mexico to the northern border of Oregon, impacting not only commercial fishing but the boating habits of recreational anglers. Expect more resource conflicts in the coming years in both coastal and offshore waters.

All-purpose marinas

Using more recycled, renewable and energy-conserving building techniques and adding amenities are two big changes sweeping through the marina business. In an effort to generate more revenue, marinas leave behind the image of boat parking lots by embracing the concept of “green” and the cachet of resorts with hotels, yacht clubs, restaurants, pools, bars, shops, spas and condos that include a boat dock (aka dockominiums).

Another way to make marinas more attractive is integration with a working waterfront, which has been successful at Pier 39 in San Francisco, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa, and many other places around the world. The caveat: Slips for Joe Q. Boater, who only wants to dock a center console, are becoming scarce. Hence, more owners are keeping their smaller boats on a trailer, which they park at the curb or under the apple tree in their back yards.

Other options are dry-storage lots or putting the vessel in a dry stack, which is becoming popular in crowded areas like South Florida. Some boaters bite the bullet and rent a larger and more expensive slip, while others hold out hope that marinas will offer more swing-mooring pontoons that can accommodate more small boats.

Finding a way to the water

While the number of vessels in top boating states like Florida, Michigan and California is expected to grow, the number of places to launch or dock them is not. Marinas lose slips to more lucrative residential developments. Public launch ramps that fall into disrepair are rendered dangerous, even useless. Parking is tight at popular launch ramps, especially during peak boating times and on long weekends. While state and federal grants for the improvement of boating infrastructure are available, they often come with strings attached, such as being limited to facilities for transient, non-trailer recreational vessels.

Supporters are developing a multitiered approach to ensure water access. They’re educating the public and government officials about the importance of no-loss policies, strengthening the Coastal Zone Management Act, supporting the proposed Working Waterfront Preservation Act of 2007, asking the Army Corps of Engineers to consider recreational boating needs for dredging projects, creating tax breaks and other economic incentives for water-dependent businesses and land acquisition programs, and taking clean marina programs national.

A bright spot: the federal Wallop-Breaux fund provides about $500 million a year in federal motorboat fuel taxes to such projects as sportfish restoration and boating access.

Organizations such as the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the American Sportfishing Association and companies such as Brunswick are actively cooperating with municipalities, state governments and marina owners to help preserve or expand boating access. This is one issue that is not going away.