What I Learned at a Boat Show in the Midst of a Boating Boom

The nautical community is welcoming an unprecedented wave of new members — and they're more diverse than ever before

November 17, 2021 8:32 am
Sea Ray Sundancer 370
The Sea Ray Sundancer 370 in action.

It was an unseasonably warm autumn day in Connecticut when I saw the shirt that made me do a double-take. “I’m the reason they say ‘Curse Like a Sailor,’” it read. In the distance, a man offered to buy his friend a sandwich. “You want a muffaletta?” he said. “I’ll get you a muffaletta.” To my left were a series of docks at which very expensive boats were berthed.

What’s it like to take in a boat show during a pandemic? Both very similar to attending a boat show during the Before Times and entirely different. But even at a time of crisis, you could still stand on the Connecticut waterfront and look at expensive boats while eating one of New Orleans’ greatest culinary achievements.

I was in Norwalk for the first day of this year’s Progressive Insurance Norwalk Boat Show, an annual event located on Long Island Sound. According to the show’s organizers, the 2021 iteration represented a slightly scaled-down version of what a visitor to the boat show would normally see. Both the number of vendors and boats were about 20% below what they’d be in a non-pandemic year. Balancing that out? A heightened number of educational and experiential offerings — more on that in a moment.

Hand sanitizer pumps stationed throughout the marina hosting the show and a few piles of face masks in the vendor tents were the two main signs that this was happening during a pandemic; the bulk of the show was held outdoors, on two long docks that extended into the water and allowed prospective buyers to take in the vessels for sale. And, in some cases, possibly regret what they’d missed out on — a 2022 Jeanneau NC 1095 with a price tag of $365,712 had already found a buyer.

That might well be because of the increase in recreational boating the nation is currently experiencing, and has been since not long after the pandemic began. That’s why there were more educational booths set up at this year’s show, and why vendors had come from all over not just to exhibit their wares, but to make sales. When looking through the program, I wasn’t surprised to see companies from nearby states like New Jersey and Maine represented. That vendors had headed to Norwalk from Florida, Ohio and Minneapolis came as more of a surprise.

The tents that housed most of the accessories covered a lot of ground, from sail repair to shock-absorbing seats. (There were also, for whatever reason, a whole lot of people selling knives.) One of the vendors, the Sakonnet River Company, specializes in high-end wine trays made from wood or carbon fiber. As the company’s co-founder, Charles Tansey, explained to InsideHook, the pandemic had forced them to adjust their business.

“We do not detect that sense of adventure and risk-taking in the cruise business that existed prior to COVID – and that’s what is needed to plop down a large amount of money for an innovative product,” he said.

I asked whether the boom in recreational boating had benefited his business. It had. “While there is more of a sense of adventure among caterers, our primary focus is on the individual consumer who finds him or herself in regular situations where a high quality wine tray is needed. So while the cruise line business is still moribund for us, there is quite the upside in the individual boat owner realm.”

Norwalk Boat Show
Some of the boats docked at the 2021 Progressive Insurance Norwalk Boat Show.
Tobias Carroll

But what does the overall state of American boating in 2021 look like? I learned more after reaching out to Ryan Gwillim, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Brunswick. As Gwillim explained, he’s largely seen two types of people buying boats during the pandemic. Some are doing so for the first time; others could be described as “somebody who was a boat owner five or 10 years ago who has been out of the space” since then. 

Gwillim went on to explain that that’s had an effect on the larger boating world. “So what that resulted in, as you can probably imagine, is a more diverse boating community — more racially diverse, a younger group, more women,” he said. “It’s kind of a democratization of boating.”

And depending on what you’re looking to buy, boats might be more affordable than you think. “93% of the boats that we sell are under $100,000, and 80% are under $50,000,” Gwillim said. “Most of them are financed for seven to 15 years. It’s an easy way to get into boating.”

For many boat buyers, the vessel you buy now might well be the same one that takes you on expeditions in the decades to come. “Right now, the average life of a boat is a long time,” Gwillim said. “It’s 30 to 35 years.” He went on to note that some boat owners opt for a repower after four to five years.

“You can take the engines off and put a new engine or engines onto your craft and that freshens the entire experience,” he explained.

Another type of vehicle — RVs — have also seen a pandemic-era boom, and have updated some design features accordingly. Has Gwillim seen the same thing happening in the boating world? He said that he had — but with a few caveats. 

“You don’t just run off the street and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go captain a boat.’ So [we’re] making boating as easy as possible and accessible,” he said, going on to cite a recent system that allows “you to pilot the boat using, literally, a joystick, like a video game.” 

“Even with a half-hour of practice in the harbor, you would be able to fax a 30-foot boat into a tight slip,” Gwillim said. 

He also mentioned that the company has found that younger boaters might be looking for their boat to be optimized for daytime social activities rather than overnight stays. “We’ve made larger boat products that allow a group of 12 or 14 to be on the boat at the same time, enjoy a day swimming in the lake or wherever they are,” Gwillim said.

Demand for boats has been high, he said — and not confined to any one location or class of boats. “We thought that we’d see it more in the the low end, or the low-to-mid tier, but folks are coming back to boating all the way up and down the scale and all over geographic regions,” he noted.

Boat show dock
Taking in the sights at the 2021 Progressive Insurance Norwalk Boat Show.
Tobias Carroll

Back in Norwalk, I thought about the number of booths and signs I’d seen advertising boating classes. Gwillim mentioned the work that the Brunswick-owned Freedom Boat Club has been doing in terms of offering classes to boaters of different experience levels. It’s understandable: if the nation’s waterways are going to run amok with boaters taking to the seas for the first time, it’s helpful to have them entering with as much knowledge as possible. 

As I left the pier, I passed two men, one of whom was urging his friend to “go look at expensive shit.” But while having a high-powered, luxuriously crafted boat sounds great, so too does having a sense of all that it’s capable of. The last thing boaters both new and experienced need is an influx of boaters who don’t know what they’re doing, after all. Otherwise, an activity that offered respite from a pandemic could turn into a source of frustration and danger all its own.

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