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Change is in the air, and not just the seasonal type

At last, change - and a whiff of spring - are in the air.

For the last 2-1/2 years the marine industry, like the broad economy, has been struggling with recession and downsizing and change. Companies have disappeared. So have some brands. Others have changed hands. And more failures are likely to occur as businesses continue to right-size to fit reduced demand.

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The phrase "creative destruction" has been used to describe the upheaval the economic meltdown caused. But there's a positive side to that term as well - and that is the innovation and entrepreneurial drive that accompany these periods of great change. In that vein, new models and methods for designing, building, servicing, distributing and selling boats and equipment are being formed. That's all good.

As tough and challenging as this churning has been, it's also inevitable and necessary for survival and growth, for moving forward. Several trends have been emerging concurrently. There has been a downsizing move since the economy first fell off a cliff - the idea that when it comes to boat size and propulsion, a little less may represent a lot more. Expect that to continue.

We're also seeing a shift back to basics, where the focus is on quality and utility, rather than on gadgets that merely push the cost of a boat higher without improving the overall experience of being on the water. Wisely, more people are saying "pass" to doodads better suited to life ashore.

PT Skiff

And I expect continuing interest in hands-on projects, from kit boats to refits, repowers to upgrades. Many of us have fallen in love for a second (or third) time with our existing boats, improving, tweaking, even investing in a little Botox for our lovable tubs. At the same time, smart technology marches on. Innovation that brings value, safety, reliability and enhanced enjoyment to boating will drive product development, critical to improving the breed.

Here are a few recent examples of boats and propulsion that are part of the sea change under way.

  • The builder of Ranger Tugs recently introduced two single-diesel semidisplacement pilothouse cruisers that caught our eye. We're about to get our first look at the trailerable Cutwater 26 and 28, and we'll bring you a complete report. From what we've seen on paper, they certainly look as if they will find an audience.
  • The PT Skiff is a sweet-looking little center console. The stitch-and-glue 18-footer weighs just 350 pounds and cruises at 15 knots with a 25-hp Evinrude E-TEC. (Displacement with a 20-hp 4-stroke is still a svelte 550 pounds.) The fuel-sipper also can take on water ballast to improve the ride in choppy water. Best of all: It's available as a kit. Look for a full-length report on this boat shortly.
  • In the propulsion market, look for continued development in pod drives and joystick control systems. Miami boatbuilder SeaVee and ZF Marine, for example, recently teamed up to build the first pleasure boat with a single pod drive, a 34-foot center console with a heavy-duty bow thruster (see the February issue of Soundings). SeaVee is convinced that pods are the future. Advantages include maneuverability, fuel economy, and the savings from powering with a single engine and pod drive rather than two.,
  • North Carolina sportfisherman builder Caison Yachts is building a 52-footer with a single 1,150-hp Caterpillar C18 diesel tied to a ZF pod drive and thruster, which should be ready sometime next year. To date, Caison has built two other twin-pod boats, a 40- and a 49-footer. The company expects significant fuel savings by going with a single pod over twins.

"We would cut a path just 13 feet and 9 inches across this ocean, like a meteor wandering through the solar system."

- Ray Kauffman

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.