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There are still people buying boats

Today’s buyer has good credit, a stable job and passion for boating

There’s no doubt there are fewer boat buyers out there, but contracts nonetheless were being signed at several boats shows this winter.

The CMTA Hartford Boat and Fishing Show saw roughly 16,000 attendees, and the organizers were calling it a “great show” in this economy. Meanwhile, the Providence (R.I.) Boat Show in January actually saw about a 10-percent increase in attendance over the typical turnout of 20,000. (See stories on Pages 10 and 6.) “We estimate we’ve sold close to 20 boats between the Providence and the Hartford shows,” says Diane Bassett-Zable, president of Bassett Boat Co., a dealer with locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. “We are very encouraged. The consumer is being reminded to go out and enjoy life again.”

So who is out there buying boats in this economy? The answer, it seems, is consumers whose jobs are stable and have good credit. Some are downsizing, others are looking for a boat better suited to their lifestyle, but in all cases these buyers have chosen to make boating a priority in their lives.

Not everyone who bought a boat was anxious to talk about it because of the difficult times and the impression their purchase might make on friends and neighbors. “They are happy they bought the boat, but there was a little bit of guilt because they know others aren’t doing so well right now,” says Doug McKenzie, vice president and general manager of Boats Incorporated in Niantic, Conn. “They’re feeling some peer pressure, and I understand that and respect that.”

What follows is a snapshot of your neighbors who are buying boats right now, and what they’re buying.

Nordic Tug 32

Doug and Lynne Stebbins of Port Washington, N.Y., bought a new Nordic Tug 32 late last year from Wilde Yacht Sales, in Essex, Conn., after trading in the 25-foot Chaparral they had owned for a year.

Lynne and Doug Stebbins

“The Chaparral had a 380-hp MerCruiser I/O that really went pretty fast,” says Doug Stebbins, 58. “Neither Lynne nor my son, Gregory, who is 12, felt comfortable at the helm when the boat was planing at higher speeds.”

The couple became interested in the Nordic Tugs line last fall and contacted Ben Wilde to make an appointment. “We both come from an avid sailing background, and we wanted something slow and steady,” says Lynne, 55.

The gas engine on the Chaparral typically burned about 12 to 13 gallons an hour. The Nordic Tug’s 280-hp Volvo Penta diesel gives the boat a range of 700 miles with its 205-gallon fuel capacity, according to Lynne.

Why did they choose to buy a boat now, in the midst of a recession? In part because they feel comfortable with their jobs and financial situation. Doug is a trial lawyer, and Lynne is an insurance brokerage lawyer in New York. They also said they got an offer they couldn’t refuse: three years of free fuel, dockage, storage and maintenance.

“It was something we couldn’t pass up,” says Lynne. “They also offered two weeks of training on the boat with the purchase. … If we had gotten more training with the Chaparral we would’ve realized it wasn’t the boat for us.”

List price for the Nordic Tug 32 was $399,000, according to Lynne.

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The dealer stepped up and played a key role in the sale, arranging for a sea trial in early December, when the Connecticut River was littered with ice. Doug says Wilde was very knowledgeable and managed to get the boat in the water with assistance of Brewer Dauntless Shipyard, also in Essex. The Stebbins bought the boat that very day.

“Doug and I have very good credit, so it was easy for us to get a loan,” says Lynne. “We’ve been married for 30 years, and we’ve always had a stable income.”

Lynne says they were able to negotiate a 20-year loan at an interest rate of 6.87 percent, with a negotiable down payment. The couple declined to say what they paid upfront.

“The bottom line is if we personally thought we were in real trouble [financially], there’s no way we would’ve done this,” says Lynne.

Skeeter ZX190

Essex, Conn., resident Greg Gondek bought a Skeeter ZX190 bass boat from Reynolds’ Garage and Marine in Lyme, Conn., at the Hartford show. “It’s got a 175-hp Yamaha on it, and I’m having it built,” says Gondek, 54, president of a company in Cromwell, Conn., that provides office equipment and management services. “I traded in a 20.5-foot Skeeter with a Yamaha 225. Things have changed for me; my son’s in college, and I just need something small.”

Greg Gondek

Gondek, a boater since childhood, liked Reynolds’ low-pressure and professional attitude. “I’ve dealt with another Connecticut dealer before Reynolds, where I had to chase parts I ordered, calling them constantly,” he says. “These guys are true boaters and have a true love for the sport.”

The base price of the Skeeter ZX190 is around $48,000, according to Gondek. He says he did not have to put a down payment and got a decent trade-in for his previous boat, since it was only 2 years old. He has yet to decide on whether or not he will finance the new boat, though he has good credit. He says he likely will finance around $10,000 if interest rates move lower than 7 percent; otherwise he’ll pay cash.

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“Last summer people used their boats less because of the price of gas, but now it’s become more reasonable, so that may change,” he says. “The point is, if people want to do something, they will do it.”

Pursuit C 310

Michael Boudreau bought a Pursuit C 310 with twin 250-hp Yamaha 4-strokes in January from Striper Marine in Barrington , R.I. He bought the center console after looking at one at the Hartford show.

“We had seen the Pursuits online, but my wife, Jeannie, and I wanted to see one for ourselves,” says Boudreau, 58, of Glocester, R.I.

Boudreau says they’ve gotten into tuna fishing and wanted something they could comfortably fish on at night. He has a stable job at the State Department of Corrections and figured since his investments were going down anyway, he might as well get the boat of his dreams.

Michael and Jeannie Boudreau

“We have very good credit, and I was planning to get a boat like this before the downturn,” he says. “We had a 26.6 Sailfish with Yamaha 4-strokes, but it was just getting a little too small for us. We were ready for a bigger boat.”

Al Elson, president of Striper Marina, says the retail price of Boudreau’s Pursuit is about $206,525, but the buyer declined to say exactly what he paid for the new boat.

Boudreau says he easily got a 20-year loan with a 4.8 percent interest rate. The only difference was that the bank was looking for a higher credit score than before — 680 versus 620. “Fortunately, we were fine,” he says.

Boudreau says boat shows are essential to the marine industry in that they give customers a good sense of what is available. “Without boat shows, the whole system would go down the tubes,” he says. “They open up all avenues to prospective buyers.”

Regardless of the economy, Boudreau believes that people who love boating and fishing will continue to do so.

“I tell my wife that I would sell blood to pay for the gas on my boat,” he says. “I think the media is scaring people to death. Life’s going to go on, and we’re going to have good and bad times. … This is just a tough time right now.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.