Sales of personal watercraft, including the Sea-Doo Spark, and jet boats are at some of the highest levels in years as buyers emerge late in the summer.
Industrywide sales of recreational boats were up more than 5 percent in July, according to estimates from 30 states representing 70 percent of the U.S. boat market, said Statistical Surveys, a Grand Rapids, Mich., firm.
Jet boat sales climbed nearly 25 percent from a year earlier, while personal watercraft sales were up about 17 percent, with those categories offsetting modest or slight growth in some other product areas, including larger powerboats.
Especially with personal watercraft, there are “impulse buys” this time of year, said Ryan Kloppe, Statistical Surveys’ national marine manager.
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“I use the term ‘steady, moderate growth’” for the industry overall, Kloppe said.
Makers of personal watercraft, such as the Spark, have given a nod to an affordability trend. At $4,999, the Spark sells for about one-third of the price of a more deluxe Sea-Doo, making it attractive to boaters wanting more than one way to get on the water.
“A lot of personal watercraft are owned by people who own other boats,” said Thomas Dammrich, president of the Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Sales of small to medium-size fiberglass boats were up 4.6 percent, while aluminum boat sales climbed 4.3 percent from a year earlier.
Those aren’t bad numbers, Dammrich said, given that a 5 or 6 percent increase would be what’s expected in an exceptionally good year for the industry.
Higher interest rates and some weakness in the economy could take the edge off boat sales by year’s end. Still, the industry is enjoying one of its best times since the recession.
“We are expecting continued growth in recreational boating at least until the middle of 2018,” Dammrich said.
If there’s one area of concern, it’s in the category of pontoon boats.
Sales of pontoon boats, which have been strong for several years, slipped about 2 percent in July, although the category led the other segments in total sales.
“I have been told that the explosive growth in pontoon boats is starting to fade. They’re still selling, but not like when the market for them was really hot,” said Charles Plueddeman, a freelance marine industry writer.
Modest-size pontoons, between 20 and 22 feet in length, have been popular because they’re versatile and less expensive than other boats of comparable size.
Some of the most popular boats now, including pontoons, can be customized for many purposes, including fishing and scuba diving.
“People prefer what we call a ‘day boat.’ You can spend the day pulling a skier with it or you can go fishing with it. A day boat is a platform for a lot of different activities,” Dammrich said. “Even center-console fishing boats are starting to get more amenities to make them more family friendly, so they can be used by hard-core fishermen and also by the family to go out on the water for a day.”
Earlier this year, Mercury Marine unveiled some of the most powerful engines that it has ever produced, including a 1,550-horsepower, sterndrive unit that can push a boat at speeds up to about 150 mph.
That engine alone is priced at more than $163,000, not including the sterndrive.
At the same time, however, Brunswick, the nation’s largest manufacturer of recreational boats, has said every new model of boat should cost the same or less than the model it replaces.
Brunswick is the parent of Mercury Marine. The company has nearly a dozen boat brands, including Bayliner, Crestliner, Lund, Lowe and Sea Ray.
A few of those models cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But even at the high end, there’s more emphasis on reducing the price so people will buy new boats rather than used ones.
“A lot of boat builders are recognizing that boats have become way too expensive. They’re making an effort to go after the entry-level, younger customers,” Plueddeman said.