Inside Angle: State of the Union

I recently received a call from an Italian friend in Monaco who works for a German superyacht builder. Among the things opined during our far-ranging conversation, he lamented in his thick accent that, “Americans don’t know how to build boats anymore.”

That statement is far from true. Uncle Sam’s boatbuilders have got high-end center consoles nailed. And wakeboats and flats boats and Carolina flare and Downeasty-looking express cruisers. If you can trailer it or hang 600-horsepower outboards off it, you need look no further afield than America’s boatbuilders to fortify your fleet.

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But my Italian friend’s flippant remark did correlate with two recurring themes around our yacht design office. One, there is a distinct shortage of yards that can build boats, custom or production, over 45 feet in the United States. Two, America’s legacy yacht building brands are either shadows of their former selves today or have ceased to exist altogether.

For a reality check, I opened the most recent issue of Power and Motoryacht and tallied the advertisements for domestic and imported boats. You can do the same right now. I found 13 ads for imported boats for every five ads peddling American-made Pursuits, Tiaras, Vikings, Cruisers and Hinckleys. That’s almost a three-to-one ratio. I cracked open a 1992 issue and conducted the same count. American brands had 50-percent more marketing presence than imports back then, even during the idiotic “luxury tax” era.

The atrophy of capable custom yacht builders in the States can be partially attributed to the fact that there are far more production boat offerings in the 45- to 80-foot range today than there were 30 or 40 years ago. Who needs a custom 75-foot boat when there are two dozen off-the-shelf options and potentially little or no wait for delivery? But aside from a very few domestic sportfishing models, these production boats are overwhelmingly imported from the UK, Italy, Turkey, China, Taiwan or Australia. The guy who bought a 70-foot Hatteras in the 1980s would be 100 today. His 50 year-old grandson wants nothing to do with that old Hatteras so he buys a nice new Riviera from down under.

Which leads us to theme number two. Once the world’s leader in large fiberglass yacht construction, Hatteras has been nowhere to be seen in today’s marketplace. Bertram, the storied Miami builder known worldwide for rugged bluewater convertibles and motoryachts, is similarly Lilliputian. Two of America’s great boatbuilding brands, nearly erased from the marketplace. A shame! On the lower end, Sea Ray’s big boat market share has been assumed by Prestige and Azimut. Carver is defunct. Chris-Craft, the builder of 50, 60 and 70-foot American-made yachts for decades, pumps out tiny (albeit tasteful) runabouts and center consoles now.

As the yachts get bigger, America’s boatbuilding deficit is more pronounced. Our homeland lost Palmer Johnson, the world class custom builder who exported American-made yachts from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to the king of Spain and to the four corners of the globe. Trinity, Christensen and Derecktor are out of the game (although the latter still operates service yards). Only Burger, Delta and Westport thrive today.

Why? Economics? Style? Brand perception? Culture? On the latter, a salient observation comes from Power & Motoryachtcolumnist Michael Rybovich’s piece “The Torch” in the September ‘23 issue of this fine publication. In his thoughtful column Michael laments the thin skillset and poor work ethic of too many members of America’s workforce today. He says, “The old craftsmen are leaving us, folks. The torch is slipping from their bruised and weathered hands. When the government tells us that ‘productivity is up’, you’d best beware.”

Macroeconomics plays a role via currency exchange rates. Style is in the eye of the beholder, and I’d suggest that a lot of the imported blobs can’t hold a candle to a tasteful-looking Carolina sheer or a modern Wheeler. Brand perception is a two-sided coin. You might like the look of that new Italian job, but how much do you really know about its electrical system? Never mind the Chinese import down the dock.

Americans are buying foreign yachts, for now. I guess this is why some of my industry friends are Italians in Monaco who work for the Germans.

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This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


Boat Lyfe