Dale Clarke's future is riding on a little sport boat that zips along at 50 miles an hour--tops. For Clarke, that's low-gear. A one-time motorboat racer, Clarke owns Lavey Craft, a Southern California company whose high-powered racing boats once tore up lakes the way bulldozers rip the earth.
Lavey no longer makes those speed machines--monsters that ride like Sherman tanks and roar like an army of lawn mowers. Clarke switched gears three years ago. "We're trying to be a family boat company," he now says.
The phrase is echoed by other small California motorboat builders, many of whom have specialized for years in building racing boats. Now workmen who used to produce just a few custom racing boats each year are turning out dozens of smaller, slower and less-expensive sport runabouts.
In doing so, these small companies hope to capture a share of the highly competitive family market that is dominated by such giants as Bayliner Marine, Sea Ray and Murray-Chris Craft, all based outside of California.
Olga E. Badillo, editor of respected Boating Industry magazine, published in New York, maintains that "there is room for both." The smaller companies will flourish, she said, if "they stick to their niche--generally those customers who pay extra for extra styling or performance."
It's not clear how many companies build racing boats because most firms are small and privately owned and operate out of cramped warehouses and sometimes even family garages. There are about two dozen well-known race boat manufacturers located primarily in Southern California which industry sources say comprise the backbone of the industry.
The small California boat companies are changing course at an ideal time. The motorboat market--which includes fishing boats, ski boats, runabouts, cruisers and racing boats--has recovered from a severe recessionary slump and is now quite healthy. Boating industry executives say that today's buyers are looking for boats with style and zip--precisely what the California race boat companies claim to offer.
Lavey Craft, and other similar boat companies, would like to avoid the fate of California's sailboat industry, which has all but disappeared due to increased costs and a dramatic drop in sales.
The powerboat makers have good reason to broaden their appeal. Speeds of more than 35 miles an hour are outlawed on most large California lakes and the same restrictions exist in many other states. A number of major insurance companies will not insure boats that travel faster than 45 m.p.h. because "the potential for accidents is much greater," said a spokesman for Cigna, one of the world's largest marine insurers.
Although there are no figures available indicating the size of the race boat market, it is, by all accounts, extremely small. And, for a variety of reasons, independent boat dealers do not sell race boats.
Garden Grove motorboat dealer Ken Kuklish said he cannot sell enough race boats to justify the floor space in his showroom. Additionally, the boats can create "great liability problems" for dealers if they break down, Kuklish said.
California's race boat companies are hardly a major economic force--they produce only a few thousand boats each year--but their influence on the industry is vast. The small, family-owned boat shops located in the state are regarded as "the leaders in exotic styling--miles ahead of anybody else," champion motorboat racer Bob Nordskog said.
Nordskog and others attribute this leadership to California's legendary free-and-easy life style. Race boats offer "freedom and adventure," said Larry Smith, a boat designer for Sarasota, Fla.-based Wellcraft Marine. "They are very California-type boats."
Ron Spindler, owner of Schiada Boats, a Gardena builder of race boats, recited the elements of the legend: "fast money, fast cars, fast boats." Indeed, the industry's devil-may-care image is, to no small degree, enhanced by the boat company owners' fuel-injected personal style--a number of them race airplanes, boats, cars and motorcycles. The business "tends to attract people who are a little eccentric," said a salesman for one of the leading race boat makers.
The family boats of the type now being offered by Lavey and others--though fancy by the standards of the motorboat industry--do not quite live up to the legend. Ice chests and tasteful cushioned seats have replaced horsepower and chrome.
Lavey's Clarke says this evolution sadly reminds him of the stylish dinosaurs of the automobile industry--the Stutz Bearcats, the Duesenbergs. "I think that's the way cars are supposed to be. But look--we're all stuck with Fords and Chevys."
Nordskog acknowledged, however, that California's race boat makers "have got to widen their markets" to include family boaters. "That's their salvation. The smart ones are doing it. The others won't survive," said Nordskog, who also publishes the respected Powerboat magazine in Van Nuys.