America: Still Number One
By Kenny Wooton
Batten down the hatches. Foreign nationals are headed for our shores and they’re out to relieve you of your assets. I’m not talking about foreign aid or anything unsavory. They’re coming to sell you yachts, and they’re bringing their “A” game.
For all the talk in the yachting industry in recent years about the appeal and untapped buying power of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) with their tsunami of freshly minted billionaires, North America remains the single largest yacht market in the world. That’s not news, of course, but builders around the globe appear to have rediscovered the western market and are going to unprecedented lengths to attract our dollars.
During the fall Monaco and Fort Lauderdale shows, builders from Europe, Asia and the anti-podes touted renderings of new models and concepts specifically tailored to the American market. The boats they’re creating are, for the most part, impressive products, and indeed reflect much of what they know to be true about us. We get the yachting lifestyle here—the sun, the wind, the water, the adventure, the value of escape. Many of their designs feature beach clubs, balconies and abundant outside space for acquiring skin damage. Further to our benefit and to that of our homegrown equipment suppliers, they are giving special attention to electrical and mechanical systems that are easy for us to use and service. It’s not that they’ve given up on the BRICS types, but they recognize that we have cash, we have the pent-up demand and we love our boats.
“They see you as a pond of hungry fish,” one yacht broker commented at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
For a variety of reasons, the BRICS countries have proved difficult markets to crack. Take China. With all its explosive wealth, boating as recreation has not yet taken hold. The country is just now developing some meaningful marina infrastructure, import taxes are gruesome and apparently many Chinese prefer to stay at the dock and sing karaoke—something you don’t exactly need a boat for. The Chinese have yacht-grade disposable income, but their spending priorities still lie in cars and other luxury goods. I heard a story at the Monaco Yacht Show about a Chinese man who called a designer looking for a baby bed. The designer was happy to create one for him, but the guy ended up calling Ferrari in Italy and having them fabricate one from one of their blaze-red car bodies. (When you think about it, that’s really a great mindset for owning a yacht, right?)
For the most part, the yachts and designs these overseas builders are making for us are pretty cool. What I wonder, though, is where our native yachtbuilders fit into this equation. Many have been struggling, especially since 2008, and many of our countrymen already have taken advantage of what the overseas builders have to offer. I’m a believer in the power of the market and may the best products with the best value win, but what the heck is wrong with us that we continue to pass over our homegrown products that have always offered superb quality and reasonable value?
If you’ve never been, the Monaco Yacht Show is an unbelievable affair that brings together several hundred of the finest new and brokerage boats from yards around the world. Typically, there is heavy skew toward yachts built in Europe. As I moved about the docks at the September show, however, I was stopped in my tracks—not by an Italian, Dutch or German build, of which there were many stunning examples, but by a boat built by Palmer Johnson in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
I toured the 213-foot Lady M with her Italian designer, who was quick to point out elements of her construction, finish and furniture, most of which was the handiwork of highly skilled American craftsmen. I was blown away. Lady M is a sport yacht, which is not really my thing, but I left Monaco with her solidly at the top of my list of favorites. In this issue, Editor-at-Large Jill Bobrow offers some in-depth insights into her design and execution.
Reports from American builders such as Christensen and Westport suggest the American yachtbuilding industry is starting to regain the attention it deserves. Christensen has a strong order book it says contains a preponderance of American clients. Westport says its current owners are more engaged in moving to new boats than they have been in quite a while. Other yards are showing renewed strength. Viking sold a dozen boats at the Fort Lauderdale show. That’s all great news.
The foreigners at our doorstep have much to offer and they deserve your attention, but nobody really knows better what we want than our own. Here’s hoping you give our native yachtbuilding industry a good hard look, too, as you liberate some of that pent-up demand.