Dock Lines: From superyachts to mid-size recreational boats

The migration of innovation.

When Arv and I first attended the Miami Boat Show in the early ’90s, I recall being blown away by the technology: sophisticated navigation, communications and entertainment systems, all computerized. Most retailed in the mid-five to low-six figures and were targeted at the superyacht market. I recall being fascinated by my first view of a large flat-panel display hooked up to a nav system – and thinking how wonderful it would be to have that for our boat, but not at an unreachable $25 to 50K.

Fast forward to 2016: All those systems and more are not just affordable but common equipment for mid-size recreational vessels. While many of these devices were first developed for large commercial ships, it was their adoption by the superyacht market, yachts over 80 feet, and still larger megayachts that made them increasingly accessible to the recreational industry.

Who, 20 years ago, would have envisioned the availability for the recreational market of specialized yacht security and tracking systems? Individual yacht internet networks? Or wireless yacht controllers?

A few years ago I covered the discontinued YachtFest boat show. In touring a Lazzara superyacht I was surprised to see many design elements and features Richard Lazzara, who designed our Viking while at Gulfstar, had translated into our much smaller boat. Yet the design similarities were unmistakable.

Superyachts, I realized, are innovation incubators for mid-size recreational boats, just as luxury cars pioneered now-standard features for automobiles. Who now doesn’t take for granted our cars’ automatic transmissions, power steering and windows and hydraulic brakes?

Recently I spoke with yacht interior design specialist Patti Walker-Palanza of Point Loma’s Walker Interiors, who’s designed boat interiors ranging from 27-foot sailboats to 288-foot custom yachts. She identified several design elements now common in recreational boats first introduced in superyachts: the now-ubiquitous LED lighting, motorized blinds and exterior sail shades. Other original superyacht features? Retractable televisions disappearing into cabinets; luxury galleys complete with granite counters and high-end appliances, including dishwashers and icemakers; washers and dryers. And don’t forget air conditioning!

And how many mid-size vessels now boast wine coolers? Or watermakers? Both started as superyacht amenities.

More important than migrating design features and more affordable electronics is the fact that the luxury yacht industry is a genuine job generator, too – about 28,000 American jobs. I recently attended the Superyacht Summit, sponsored by the U.S. Superyacht Association, in San Diego. There I learned that the maintenance/operation costs, including crew salaries and training, agent and management fees, provisioning, refits and repairs, dockage, fuel, etc., for a superyacht average 10 to 15 percent of its value. For a $40 million superyacht, that translates to an annual expenditure of $4 to 6 million, a sum that helps support numerous businesses that smaller recreational vessels depend on for their own upkeep.

We bought Burgundy in Florida in 2008, just as the Great Recession took hold nationally. She lived most of her prior life in Florida, enduring the buffeting of numerous hurricanes. In sum, she needed a variety of repairs, replacements and TLC.

Once we brought her into San Diego and began making upgrades, I remember talking with the principal of the firm that made our new mattress. He said he hadn’t had a recent order from the owner of a boat smaller than 55 feet. Our canvas guy had similar stories: superyacht owners, with independent means, were still making discretionary purchases, while recreational boaters were delaying them.

So, next time you encounter a superyacht, look at it as an innovation laboratory for your current and next boat — and a job creator for American marine businesses we boaters depend on.

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Capt. Nicole Sours Larson

Capt. Nicole Sours Larson has spent more than 25 years boating in Southern California and Mexican waters as well as throughout the East Coast's Chesapeake Bay. A freelance writer, she holds a USCG captain's license and has been writing about boating since 2009. Previously she lobbied on boating safety and education issues for boating organizations at the federal, state and local levels.

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