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Boating enters the new age of ‘affordability’

I received two letters recently on the same day that addressed the same subject: the cost of boating. The first writer wondered — a bit tongue-in-cheek — why the list price of a new 150-hp outboard was about the same as that of a new Honda Civic sedan with a 140-hp engine. Good question.

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“Is it just that the tooling costs are spread out over so many more units, or simply because it is a marine product and, therefore, can command a higher price?” he asks.

The second writer complained about boats and engines “that only a rocket scientist can work on,” and large outboards costing in the neighborhood of $24,000. “Get real,” he extols. “Whatever happened to an entry-level boat package?”

When jobs were plentiful, 401(k)s fat as puppies, and housing values rocketing skyward, perhaps cost didn’t matter quite as much. It matters today.

There have been several trends and developments of late in response to the cost issue that are worth noting. They range from downsizing to a renewed emphasis on smaller boats to improved fuel efficiency. Boating has never been cheap, but there are different levels of “affordability.”

Pro-Line Boats, the 40-year-old builder from Crystal River, Fla., last year introduced a value line of fuel-efficient boats under the Pro-Lite brand. The new series includes six non-liner models from 17 to 22 feet. All are priced less than $25,000, including the outboard, and all come with a 10-year structural hull warranty.

Company president John E. Walker says the new boats are designed to get families back on the water in these “challenging economic times” by providing models that are “light on cost and light on fuel.” Soundings senior reporter Chris Landry tested a Pro-Lite 22 center console in February at the Miami International Boat Show and was pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a back-to-basics boat,” Chris told me. “It will clean up quickly and gives a pretty smooth ride in choppy water. For a lightweight 22-footer, it was impressive.”

In another sign of the times, Nordic Tugs has reintroduced its 26-footer, powered by a 110-hp Volvo D-3 common rail diesel that burns 1.1 gallons per hour at 6.8 knots and about 2.1 gph at 8 knots, with a top speed of 13.5 knots. The little tug debuted in 1980 and was built until 1997.

“With the current state of the economy, we’ve seen a shift in consumer interest from our larger to our smaller models,” says Nordic Tugs president David Goehring, explaining the decision. The 26 also should prove popular in Europe, he says, where the smaller size will be an asset for cruising in shallow canals and with low bridge clearances.

EdgeWater Power Boats introduced a new 335 Express in Miami, and much of the interest in the new model is from folks moving down in size, says company president Peter Truslow. “This is small for a guy who owns a 45,” he says.

The company builds boats from 14 to 38 feet and has always maintained a strong stable of small boats in its lineup, unlike those manufacturers who galloped down the bigger-is-better road and eliminated entry-level boats. EdgeWater produces boats that fill a number of small-size niches, including a 14, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24 and on up. And small has proven successful for the builder, according to the president.

“We’ve done well in this economy because we’ve built small boats that are the build-quality of large boats,” says Truslow. “I think we’re seeing a real return to small boats.”

Truslow says he could have a 38-footer tied up behind his house, but instead keeps a 17 at the ready. “We use it all the time,” he says. “Just hose it off. It’s as simple as it comes.”

I was poking around on the new Ranger Tugs R-29 in Miami when I met George and Minnie Osteyee of Punta Gorda, Fla. The retired couple has owned an Albin trawler and two larger tugs, including a Nordic Tug 42. Now they’re looking to go smaller.

George Osteyee, 77, told me he and his wife have cruised 5,000 miles on the Great Loop in addition to voyages to the Exumas, Abacos, the Keys and the Marquesas Keys. As they trim back their cruising horizons some, both say they’re looking for a small but versatile boat, which brought them aboard the Ranger.

“We’ve found that big water doesn’t require a big boat as long as you pick your weather,” Minnie says.

Fuel economy also was a topic of conversation aboard the R-29. Powered by a 260-hp Yanmar 6BY2 diesel, she burns 1.5 gph at 7 knots, 7 gph at 15 knots, and 11 gph at 20 knots.

No sooner had I left the little tug and wandered down the docks than I came upon a 39-foot Midnight Express high-performance boat backing into a slip after a sea trial. The four 300-hp Verado outboards bolted to the transom made me stop.

I waited until the boat was secured and then talked to the operator, who told me the boat burns about 60 gph at a cruising speed of 50 mph, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 92 to 95 gph at wide-open throttle, about 70 mph. And he noted matter-of-factly that he’d seen the burn rate go as high as 100 gph running full-out in sloppy conditions.

Take it for what it’s worth.

“And the sea was a crinkled sheet of silver.”

                                                     — Ernle Bradford

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.