BUILDER: Island Packet Yachts, Largo, Fla. Phone: (727) 535-6431.
LINE: cruising sailboats and power cruisers from 37 to 52 feet, and ranging from $300,000 to $800,000.
OWNER: Bob Johnson, who started the business in 1979 after serving as designer and production manager at Irwin Yachts
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 200
BEST KNOWN FOR: cutter rig (on most cruisers) and its integral, one-piece Full Foil Keel
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT BUILDING BOATS IN FLORIDA: “Florida has a high-quality work force for boatbuilders and a business-friendly state government. Largo also used to be a hotbed for recreational boatbuilders, with Morgan, Gulfstar and Irwin. Besides, my wife and I have family ties to this area.”
THE FLIP SIDE: “Florida’s low unemployment rate, the scarcity of skilled or trainable employees, and a 400-percent increase of property insurance rates following last year’s hurricanes.”
There are few designers who are as closely identified with one brand as Bob Johnson is with Island Packet. Little surprise, since it’s his company and he has managed to stay on the course he plotted more than three decades ago by producing boats that appeal to those who choose the cruising lifestyle.
“It is a designer’s job to find out what kind of features people want, and incorporate them in the next product,” says Johnson. “We spend approximately $1 million every year to bring a new model to market, so it better be done right.” His next frontier is capturing a sliver of the clientele that migrates from sail to power, most notably to trawlers.
“When I look back at my beginnings and remember the discussions we had about roller furling and other features that are common today, I dare predict that we are moving toward the boat that sails itself,” Johnson says, expressing a strong belief that products are driving new markets. “Look at the car industry, which created SUVs, minivans and now hybrid cars. If you have the vision and introduce the right product, you start a trend.”
The trend Island Packet wants to start might take sailing to a new level of comfort. “We are working with Lewmar to introduce a self-stowing electrical winch that automatically trims the sails and winds the slack sheet on a drum like a fishing reel,” says Johnson. So sailing will go robotic? Not entirely. “Of course, there will be a manual mode if someone wants the real thing and sail the boat by hand, but it won’t be the only option anymore.”
Most recently, Johnson introduced the SP Cruiser, a 41-foot motorsailer with an open forward cockpit and a protected aft cockpit that is addressing those baby boomers who are done with hard-core sailing but not ready to give up the stick altogether. He also offers a power version — the PY Cruiser — that is built from the same mold and represents the company’s foray into the trawler market.
“I had sketches for the SP Cruiser in my drawer until I delivered a friend’s Island Packet up the ICW in spring,” says Johnson. “The weather was nice, but it was in the 40s, so we felt the cold in the unprotected, open cockpit. That’s when I decided it’s time to go ahead with the motorsailer concept.”