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Sunshine State - The Boats of Florida - Soundings Online

Sunshine State - The Boats of Florida

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With its year-round boating season, favorable climate

and skilled work force, Florida is home to more than 200 boatbuilders, many of whom say they wouldn’t set up shop anywhere else

With its year-round boating season, favorable climate

and skilled work force, Florida is home to more than 200 boatbuilders, many of whom say they wouldn’t set up shop anywhere else

It happened in Florida. No one knows exactly when, or who did it. It could have been a backwater bayou boater out of Panama City with a flats boat. It might have been a family man in Miami with an express-style overnighter, or an offshore angler out of West Palm Beach with a glossy sportfisherman.

But sometime not long ago an unknown boater completed the

registration of a just-purchased vessel and turned the Sunshine State into America’s boating capital. The mystery vessel was registered boat No. 946,072, making Florida the boatin’-est state in the Union, according to Coast Guard figures for 2004 (the latest year for which figures were available). And in passing boating behemoths California and Michigan, the state bucked a national trend showing registrations down by 0.1 percent. In the boating-crazy west coast county of Pinellas alone, registrations soared to almost 60,000 recreational boats.

So the “No. 1” title is certainly fitting. Says Marine Industries Association of South Florida executive director, Frank Herhold: “Boating is the Florida lifestyle.”

But it’s a lifestyle that faces big challenges today. A spate of nasty hurricane seasons, along with high wind-storm insurance rates — the price of living in “paradise” — has taken some of the blush off the lifestyle that many go to Florida to enjoy, and driven up the cost of doing business there. The state’s very success as a magnet for people who love the water and buy boats has caused a residential building boom along its shores that leaves less and less affordable waterfront for marinas, boatyards and boatbuilders. That, in addition to high taxes and insurance rates on waterfront property, is pushing boatbuilders inland, and marinas may soon follow, hauling boats to the water by trailer.

Go-fast builder Cigarette, a fixture on North Miami’s Thunderboat Row for decades, lost its prime waterfront location to condominiums in 2003 and now operates out of a $9 million plant in Opa-Locka, Fla., miles from the water.

“When I bought Cigarette, I knew we’d have to move off 188th Street,” says Skip Braver, Cigarette president and CEO. The move put him on cheaper land and enabled him to triple his shed space.

“Land is getting very expensive,” says Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, speaking at a recent marine summit. “We’re running out of land.” He foresees some marine businesses moving inland, to the Bahamas, or “up” — as in high-and-dry marinas.

Boating’s popularity in Florida has collided with concern for some of the region’s endangered species, manatees and right whales in particular, giving builders an incentive to try more species-friendly design features, such as jetdrives, propeller guards and prop tunnels in the hull. Boat-related manatee deaths continue to challenge Floridians to “deal with the problems of manatee protection and also allow the industry to grow and thrive,” as Broward County commissioner Ilene Lieberman has described local planning efforts aimed at keeping boats out of prime manatee habitat.

Big, big boats — megayachts — are an increasingly common sight on South Florida waterways, reflecting the worldwide boom in megayacht construction. Some 1,400 megayachts (80 feet and larger) visit Broward, Palm Beach and Dade counties annually, 600 more than in 1997, according to a megayacht study commissioned by MIASF. And South Florida faces a shortage of megayacht slips. More than 200 megayachts turn out just for the October Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

The 2003 study found that each megayacht that visits South Florida generates $385,000 through boatyard billings, brokerage commissions and charter fees, which is why Carl Straw, a marina consultant for 20 years, predicts that most new wet slips in the region will be for boats larger than 50 feet. That means most “Joe Six-Pack” boats will have to be trailered or stored in dry stack.

Challenges aside, Florida’s boating industry keeps growing, to the tune of $18.4 billion in economic output in 2005. Two years ago 10 million visitors flooded the Fort Lauderdale area, yet the region’s $11 billion-a-year marine industry exceeded tourism as its single largest economic engine. “I think Fort Lauderdale will always be the yachting capital,” says Mayor Naugle. But now all of Florida can lay claim to “No. 1” as well.

In the eyes of MIASF’s Herhold and others, the state deserved top billing long ago. Florida history is steeped in pleasure boating, beginning with the seminal sportfishing boats from Rybovich, Merritt, Whiticar and others in the last century. Today, Florida boasts 200-plus boatbuilders and a work force of more than 29,000, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

It’s home to Hunter Marine, the nation’s largest sailboat builder and part of the Luhrs Marine Group, which includes Florida-based powerboat builders Mainship and Luhrs. (The other builder in the group, Silverton, is in Millville, N.J.) Industry icons Boston Whaler, Chris-Craft, Cigarette, Century and Donzi also call Florida home, as do Contender, EdgeWater, Intrepid, Pro-Line, Pursuit and Wellcraft in the fishing and family market. In the custom sportfishing niche there are Rybovich, Garlington and Smith — and Bertram, Broward and Burger in the larger, luxury and megayacht sectors (see story on yacht builder Lazzara on Page 27).

The state’s two major boat shows attract attendees from around the world. The Miami International Boat Show, held in February, displays some 3,000 boats, half of them from Florida builders, and spreads over 2.5 million square feet with an estimated total value of $800 million — and it may not even be the biggest boat show in the state. The Fort Lauderdale show claims to be the largest marine display in the world, covering more than 3 million square feet at six sites, with a boat value totaling more than $1 billion. (Megayachts are a specialty.)

“Florida sells to a worldwide market, and it’s a hot market, as evidenced by these boat shows,” says Herhold. “A third of the people at the Fort Lauderdale show come from out of the state, and a good percentage of those people come from out of the country, too.”

Florida exerts an influence on recreational boating that extends far beyond its own waters, too. Consider such design and technical contributions as the deep-vee hull, the outdrive, the outboard engine bracket, early forms of fiberglass construction — all developed or popularized largely in Florida waters and used on boats the world over.

The reputation for invention continues, as evidenced by these Innovation Award winners, presented by the NMMA.

• Everglades Boats, Edgewater, Fla. — Industry legend Bob Dougherty and his son, Steve, won kudos in 2005 for the 290 Pilot, a fishing boat recognized for its host of standard features, such as the Command Console. The company also won an award in 2004 for its RAMCAP foam-fiberglass sandwich construction method.

• Hunter Marine, Alachua, Fla. — The well-known sailboat builder was lauded last year for its proprietary thermoform construction method, used in the popular Hunter 216 daysailer.

• Digital Antenna, Sunshine, Fla. — The cell phone communications specialist won in 2005 for its mobile dual-band repeater/amplifier, which boosts cell phone coverage and signal clarity.

• Imperial Quality Machining, Pasadena, Fla. — The shop took an award at an international show in Europe in 2005 for its eight-way adjustable inboard engine mounts.

“A lot of talent is drawn to the area, and we have a healthy number of companies on the cutting edge,” says Herhold. “They’re not afraid to spend money on R&D, and they’re not afraid to try things. In fact, what we do here in Florida drives boating in other parts of the country and in Europe. You see Florida boats and products and Florida styling everywhere.”

There’s more to Florida’s title than sheer numbers; few states can match the diversity of its fleet. Walk the docks in St. Augustine, Stuart, Sarasota or on Lake Okeechobee and you’ll see jonboats, flats boats and bass boats, walkarounds, express cruisers and the signature center console “fishing machines” with as many as four outboards. There are go-fast boats, trawlers, motor-yachts, ocean racing and bluewater cruising sailboats, tournament sportfishermen, and mega-yachts known from Miami to Monaco.

Florida’s peninsular configuration nurtures that diversity. Dividing two major bodies of water, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, its 1,100-plus miles of coast are dotted with countless inlets, rivers, creeks and harbors. Scores of islands and cays make up the 60-mile-long Florida Keys, revered for its fishing (snook, redfish, bonefish) and wreck and reef diving. The Atlantic islands and fishing grounds (marlin, sailfish, tuna, dolphin) of Bimini and the Bahamas beckon some 50 miles off the east coast; the Caribbean islands loom to the southeast. Boating conditions range from the turbulent Gulf Stream and open Atlantic to the “thin waters” of the Keys and west coast, from open bays to the Intracoastal Waterway to coastal gunkholes. And Florida’s famous weather covers it all. In fact, beginning in 1967 St. Petersburg had a world record 761 straight days of sunshine, according to information at www.stpete.org .

“The plethora of boat companies has to do with the geography of the state,” says Donald Blount, a Chesapeake, Va., designer whose fishing and cruising boats are well-known here. “It’s surrounded by water, and the weather is such that you can boat year-round. A lot of the boating is driven by fishing, and there are a lot of different kinds [of fishing] in and around the Florida waters. But it’s also a good jumping-off spot for cruising the Caribbean and the Bahamas.”

With the fishing, scuba diving, day tripping and cruising opportunities Florida affords, boaters have plenty of choices as to what to do on the water, says Michael Peters, a Sarasota, Fla., designer. That leads to different boats for different roles.

“There’s three basic kinds of boating in Florida: going out in the morning and fishing, then you have day trips and short overnighters, and then you go out to the islands or up and down the ICW,” says Peters. “Each of these requires a different size and type of boat, so if one boater is thinking about those three activities and distances, then he’s going to be dealing with three different boats.

“You start with a flats boat or a small center console, move up to a bigger open console or express for the longer stuff, and then to a convertible,” he says. “In fact, a lot of people around here own two or three sizes of boat just so they can do those different things.”

Florida might offer more on-water diversions than any other state, its advocates contend. “We did a collage for the cover of a local phone book a few years back, and we used 22 boating pictures,” says Herhold. “In each one, there was a different kind of boat and a different kind of boating; everyone was doing something different. There are so many boats in Florida because there are so many ways to use them.”