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Riding a wave

Feature, Marine | June 1, 2014 | By:

Marine fabricators are swamped with projects for boat owners, from vintage renovations to custom upgrades for new boats.

The boating market has always been a good indicator of economic health and consumer confidence in the U.S. Nearly 90 million Americans participate in recreational boating, generating some $83 billion in annual spending. Even while sales of new boats slowed during the recession, the used boat market maintained a steadier pace. Across the country, marine fabricators report a backlog in jobs from long-term customers who are upgrading their boats or trading in for new, and new, younger customers who either took advantage of the used boat sell-off or inherited a parent’s boat and want
it refurbished.

“Since I split off a partnership three years ago, I’ve been averaging 25 percent growth every year,” says Chris Ritsema, owner of Canvas Innovations LLC in Holland, Mich., which specializes in custom marine canvas enclosures. “I know that people said the economy was down, but I haven’t laid anybody off. This is my second year where we were in overtime in February. There’s so much work right now.”

Ritsema spends 70 percent of his time at the marina on nearby Lake Michigan servicing large (33–90-foot) cruising and pleasure boats. In the spring, his shop takes in a lot of trailerable fishing and ski boats. The jobs involve upgrades on all areas of the boat, and on larger boats, that includes carpentry, drapery, mattresses and bedding.

“A lot of the cruiser boat owners go out on one- and two-week trips, traveling from port to port. We’ve grown to the point where we need to offer all aspects of interior and exterior work,” says Ritsema. “People want things updated and that’s why we’re so busy. On average, people change boats about every four years, usually upgrading to something bigger.”

Ritsema also has more demand for rigid polycarbonate and acrylic windows, which have an R-value to maintain comfortable temperatures in air-conditioned or heated enclosures.
“It’s a much nicer window—cleaner, thicker, and the longevity is better.”

Renewed demand

Faith Roberts, owner of Banner Canvas in Ham Lake, Minn., sees pent-up demand among boat owners to spend money. “They’ve used their covers two years longer than they should have. And we’re seeing a lot of pontoons. That market is a growing area. The other thing I’m seeing is bimini tops. I know we’re on the cusp of that upward trend; sun protection is getting stronger.”

Robert’s biggest profit center is 1–10-year-old fishing and pleasure boats in the 16–30-foot range, which easily fit in her shop. The cost of insurance premiums required to work at marinas has kept her away from the bigger boats, but she does an occasional project and does canvas work for a boat dealer.

“What you’ll often find that when the economy is bad, people will fix up their boats and they will price shop heavily. They often don’t have enough money in their budget to do everything, so they may opt for a bimini top but not do the side panels. People who have a generic cover often find it lacking in quality and they’ll entertain the idea of doing a custom cover, so it’s almost like a sale for us too.”

Old boats, new customers

Vonnie Hummert of CYA Canvas in Helena, Mont., says 60 percent of her business comes from long-term customers that are at or near retirement age, but recently new customer referrals have grown, and she is seeing more young families.

“We really weathered the downturn pretty well; 18–24-foot lake boats have been our bread-and-butter,” Hummert says. “In past years, we only saw a couple of boats per year over 28 feet, almost never over 30 feet. The last two years we have completed full enclosures on about eight 29–36-foot boats.”

The more extensive renovations are coming from new owners of older boats who want them gutted and are replacing headliners, flooring, upholstery and canvas. Last year Hummert restored two runabouts that the owners had growing up in the 1960s and had inherited. This year she is committed to doing several more.

“Those are fun projects because the owners have such fond memories of the day their dad brought the boat home,” she says. “The gratification comes from their expressions when they see the finished canvas, and they say how much Dad would approve. I found it interesting that all these customers can easily afford to buy new if they want but choose to restore.”

Receptive to the best

Unlike some marine areas in California that are struggling, the San Francisco Bay area has a lively and diverse boating market, from sailing and cruising to fishing, commercial and government markets. Alameda Canvas and Coverings located in Alameda, Calif., has a 2.5-month backlog in jobs, according to owner Jeff Viehmeyer. Activities such as events at nearby Lake Tahoe, last year’s America’s Cup and cruising groups bound for Mexico add to the need for custom canvas. The area is also home to Twitter™, Facebook and other tech giants that draw a clientele who want the latest and greatest on their boats.

“These are people that are receptive to new materials and are not afraid to try new things because that’s what they do all day at work. They have a real appreciation for craftsmanship because of the historical maritime community. Nothing works like saying, ‘We put it on so-and-so’s boat and they love it.’ That stimulates the market. You don’t look down on the small, simple repair because you never know who you’re dealing with,” says Viehmeyer.

Across the board, his customers want good value for their money. If it’s a low-budget project, he will suggest practical solutions to extend the boat’s life. Owners of cruising boats want strong, durable products to withstand long trips. They’re willing to invest more for the Teflon® thread so they don’t have to restitch in a few years. Others are entertaining for business and want custom, high-end solutions and creative ideas.

“There’s buzz to what’s new and trendy. There’s also a counter to that, so if something’s ugly, it’s noticed and it gets a thumbs-down. Even utility has to look nice,” he says. Viehmeyer stays up on the latest materials and what works best in the climate where the boats are heading. Sunbrella®, Weathermax™, Stamoid®, Aqualon® and Rainier fabrics are staples in his shop.

More people are opting for semi-rigid windows—even the smaller boats—for their ultraclear view. “This is a high-tech product but you really have to know how it works, otherwise you can have early failure,” says Viehmeyer. He has switched to a vendor that ships the product flat because if it’s rolled up it can cause microcracking that isn’t noticeable right away.

Color and flair

New Jersey is home to Viking Yachts and other top sport fishing boat manufacturers, which allows Kennedy Custom Upholstery & Design in Ocean City to be at the forefront of what is happening in the industry. The market is waking from its long slumber since the previous peak in 2007. “Initially after the recession started, there were some great deals to be had on used boats from people who couldn’t afford to keep them anymore,” says owner Rebecca Kennedy. “Now that the used stock has been bought up, the new boats are selling again and the improved economy is helping as well, but last year was a little bit of ‘lost year’ because of Hurricane Sandy. It took everyone an entire year to get back to normal.”

The shop serves a customer base of second-home owners who fish, coming mostly from the Philadelphia area. They have a small window of about eight weeks to use their boats, so time is precious.

Kennedy also has a growing niche market of new cushion packages for center-console fishing boats like Regulators and Jupiters. “Since these boats are expensive, yet rugged and open to the elements, they seem to hit at a nice intersection of need for our product, due to harsh wear and the type of customer that can afford custom work,” she says. “In sport fishing yachts the trend is to have a neutral interior so that all the custom woodwork doesn’t compete with the fabrics. We’re seeing a lot of cool leatherlike vinyls for the dinettes and salon sofas. I’m also seeing more high-end fabrics from Kravet® and Robert Allen throughout yacht interiors.”Â

Color trends have changed for Signature CanvasMakers LLC in Hampton, Va., according to owners Charlene and Chandler Clark. “For years, our most popular colors for exteriors have been the darker blues, black, dark greens and neutral tones,” says Charlene. “This year, we have seen a big shift to the brighter shades of blue and lighter greens. Same with interiors, where traditionally our customers have tended toward more neutral tones; the majority of our orders have been for bright and vibrant fabrics. Perhaps the long, cold winter has had an effect on people!”

Today’s Market

The last three or four years have been the best years for Hood Marine Canvas Co. in Merrimac, Mass. Owner Mark Hood attributes it to staying focused on the higher-end market: 22-foot and larger boats—that and jobs that come through his brother, a boat builder and owner of CW Hood Yachts, keep him busy.

“We’re in a protective ‘igloo’ where there’s a lot more demand and there are not as many fabricators in total volume as other areas of the country,” he says. “When people aren’t buying new boats they’re putting money
into fixing up their old boats. That’s part of the reason
we’re so busy.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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