Unlike the powerboat business, which has enjoyed three years of recovery after a recessionary decline, the American sailboat industry remains in deep trouble. Since 1974, sales by domestic sailboat manufacturers have dropped 73%.
"Only a bad hurricane that destroys a lot of boats" would revive sales of new boats, said Jack Turner, publisher of the respected Soundings magazine, published in Essex, Conn.
The sailboat industry has all but disappeared from Southern California, once considered the industry's hub. Many companies have fled to more lucrative markets, especially in Florida or the Northeast, where land is cheaper and marinas are more plentiful. Others have simply faded away.
Boating industry employment in Orange County, once the center of the state's activity, has steadily fallen to 1,100 today from a peak of 2,800 in 1973, and much of the decrease is believed to have occurred among sailboat manufacturers.
Shifting Toward Yachts
Those companies that remain continue to evolve. For example, Lancer Yachts, a former Bally subsidiary that is now privately owned, is moving away from smaller sailboats to big-ticket luxury yachts.
Rowan Henry, president and chairman of Marina State Bank in Marina del Rey, said the most stable market is in yachts that cost more than $100,000. Luxury yacht buyers, he said, are "large wage earners, the well-to-do and, to a large extent, the heirs to large estates. Even in down times, those boats always moved."
Domestic sailboat makers face increased competition from stylish imports from Canada and Europe, which now account for 10% to 30% of luxury yacht sales. Wells A. Darling, president of Pearson Yachts in Portsmouth, R.I., said his company's sales improved considerably after the firm "took a lesson from the Europeans" and equipped its yachts with such amenities as bigger heads (bathrooms).
Meanwhile, "the entry-level market is in terrible shape," according to Olga E. Badillo, editor of Boating Industry magazine, who believes that buyers are turned off by sailboating's "clubby, elitist image." Greg Proteau, a spokesman for the National Marine Manufacturer's Assn., said new customers may also be discouraged because sailboats move more slowly than motorboats and because sailing appears to be "hard work."
Soon, Southern California-area boat makers may face another difficulty.
The South Coast Regional Air Quality District, which sets air quality standards for Orange and Los Angeles counties and parts of San Bernardino County, is developing standards aimed at reducing the harmful emissions related to the fiberglass fabrication process. The standards are expected to go into effect later this year and would require boat makers who use fiberglass to modify their production processes to reduce emissions.
It is not clear how costly those modifications will be, but Myrna Elliott, one of the owners of Californian Yachts of Tustin, said the company plans to move to the San Diego area, where environmental regulations are not so restrictive.
"It's clear they don't want us here," she said. "So we're going."
The decline in sailboat sales has created a glut of used vessels at depressed prices as many of the boats bought during the sailing's boom years now are up for sale.
"Used boat prices have really been dropping," said Randy Nulle, a salesman with Eddie Arnold Sailboats Inc. of Newport Beach. "It's absolutely a buyer's market. Some unbelievable offers are being accepted."
Still, some sailboat dealers say they are doing well and contend that dealers who are reporting falling sales are simply not hustling enough. "If you are not moving forward, someone is going to walk over your back," said Michael Wiest, sales manager at Jack Dorsee Sailboats Inc. in Newport Beach. "Some dealers aren't doing well because they are asleep."