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Wealthy buyers help keep boat sales afloat

More giant-size yachts than ever are bobbing on display at annual Newport Beach show. Just bring a fat wallet.

April 10, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

The economy is screeching to a halt and the housing market is melting down, but Gerald and Sue Vickers were popping champagne Wednesday at Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach, christening the 70-foot yacht they described as an impulse buy.

With customers such as the Vickers -- five-time boat buyers -- business was expected to be brisk at the 35th annual Newport Boat Show, one of the fanciest yachting get-togethers on the West Coast. This year, a record 350 or so vessels are bobbing on display through the weekend.

For the more modest seafarer: a 98-foot mega-yacht priced at more than $6 million, decked out with a hot tub, granite counter tops, duel Sub-Zero refrigerators, a 200-DVD changer and passel of flat-screen TVs.

Yacht shoppers "are not worried about the payments on their house," said Duncan McIntosh, who produces the event and publishes several boating periodicals. "They're not affected by what us mere mortals have to worry about every day."

Boat show spokesman Don Franken said there were more giant yachts on display than ever, with more than 60 boats greater than 60 feet in length.

One boat broker said likely buyers tend to own their own businesses -- hence the healthy foot traffic at noon on a weekday. About 10,000 visitors are expected through Sunday.

"If I had a time card to punch, I probably wouldn't be here," said William Saxton, 55, of Bellflower, with some understatement. He runs an industrial maintenance business and was shopping for his first boat -- aiming for the $500,000 range -- for weekend trips to Santa Catalina Island.

As with houses, boat prices have been slipping downward, making it a buyers' market -- if you have $1 million to spare, that is. And like high-end houses, extravagant boats are still selling to extravagantly wealthy buyers.

"People that are prepared financially to take advantage of that are getting good deals," said J.R. Means, owner of Bayport Yachts in Newport Beach.

Means said business had been booming, and although slightly fewer people are expected to visit the boat show this year, he anticipates more serious buyers.

In other words, what recession?

"Most of the people that we deal with have the ability to do what they want to do when they want to do it," said Chuck Hovey, who runs Newport Beach-based Chuck Hovey Yachts.

Retirees and young families walked the carpeted docks Wednesday, climbing aboard gleaming white watercraft straight out of a Jay-Z video. The smallest boats start at 14 feet, and the bargain-basement offerings begin at about $20,000.

The Vickerses' latest purchase, R Perfect Day, was closer to the $4-million neighborhood.

Sue Vickers said her husband, Gerald, owner of a wood products company in Eugene, Ore., suffered from "4-foot-itis": Each boat he buys is a bit bigger than the last.

Yet the Vickerses, who also have a home in Coronado, Calif., with a private boat slip, aren't immune to the vagaries of the market.

"The wood products industry is very closely related to the housing industry," Sue Vickers said. "These next few years are going to be tough times."

But her husband, she added, had worked hard and had earned the leather sofas and wine cellar aboard the couple's new toy.

Across the marina, retirees Jim and Kathie Parish were checking out the 98-foot behemoth for a friend. They were recommending that he snap up the mega-yacht, whose price had been slashed from nearly $7 million.

The pair recognized a deal when they saw it. As Orange Coast Yachts broker Morris P. Kirk described the vessel -- bigger than most apartments -- "That's a lot of boat."


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