On a breezy, sunny day, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are a beautiful, wild place. White-capped waves hide the teeming life below the surface as shifting winds keep boaters on their toes. Sailboats keel over with each gust of wind, and powerboats bounce through waves.
From the wheel of a world-class boat — like Bob and Phyllis Comeau's Sabre 456 — that view of the bay is even better.
Three years ago, when the Bethesda couple were ready to purchase a new boat, they teamed with Sabre Yachts, Annapolis Yacht Sales and the naval architect Jim Taylor to design a vessel that would sail beautifully, feel luxurious and be easy for just two people to operate.
The Comeaus' yacht, the Comocean, boasts electric winches for ease of operation and generously proportioned berths, to keep the couple comfortable. They spend their summers locally — this year they sailed to St. Mary's City and Smith Island — and will sail to Charleston, S.C., as the days grow chillier.
"Sailing is a release for us," says Bob Comeau. "When we designed the boat, we asked ourselves, 'How do you have a good life, entertain and enjoy your boat?' " The result was the Comocean.
Their enthusiasm is in keeping with a broader trend: an uptick in boat sales coupled with a continued interest in luxury fittings. In 2012, purchases of new sailboats increased by 29 percent and overall new boat sales rose 10 percent, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which values the economic impact of recreational boating at $121 billion annually.
In 2012, Maryland's 550 marinas boasted over 40,000 in-water slips.
"The market ebbs and flows," says Tim Wilbricht, president of Annapolis Yacht Sales. He says the market dipped in 2009, started to rebound in 2010 and saw a "strong uphill trend" starting in 2012. "2013 has been a very strong year," he says. "We sold as many new boats in the first half of 2013 as in all of 2012."
North Point Yachts broker David Malkin says that the higher end of the boating market is less susceptible to economic fluctuations. "Everyone had their incomes affected, but when you have a lot of income, it doesn't have the same impact. People were still buying at the high level."
Still, enthusiasts are quick to concede that boating is an expensive hobby. High-end boats range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars — and that doesn't include maintenance and fuel.
According to Joy McPeters, owner of Marinalife, a boater concierge service based in Federal Hill, some boat owners adapted to the economic downturn by limiting non-boat vacations or by cruising less but spending more time in port.
Though most people buy boats with grand aspirations, boat owners often don't use their vessels as frequently as they'd like. Doug MacMillan, who recently bought an MJM 40z from North Point, estimates that only about one-quarter of the boats at his marina are used once a week or more; he says another quarter "never seem to go anywhere."
Wilbricht notes that despite boat buyers' dreams of long cruises, they often stick close to home. "About 20 percent of buyers aspire to go cruising offshore," he says. "But only about 20 percent of those actually go off-cruising." Flohr confirms that at Harbor East, most boats coming into port are local to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
Even if they never leave the dock, new boats provide moneyed owners with sweet surroundings.
Over the past several decades, comfortable cabin arrangements have become a priority. "Boaters are more about the interior space now," says William Flohr, the general manager at Harbor East Marina in Baltimore. "There's more bang for the buck. Sometimes there will be three heads [bathrooms] and staterooms on a 45-foot boat."
Paul Jacobs, general manager the annual Annapolis boat shows, agrees that en suite heads and fine finishes have become more popular in recent years. "People are looking for opulent finishes," he says. "They have to have all the amenities of home, including a refrigerator, air conditioning and ice ... makers."
Recent advances in boating technology — like Bob and Phyllis Comeau's electric winches — also amp up the luxury level on watercraft.
"Features like joystick controls for easier docking and gyro stabilizers for a smoother ride are becoming commonplace now on high-end boats," says Chuck Meyers of Bluewater Yacht Sales in Baltimore.
MacMillan's new MJM 40z is a powerboat built for speed and comfort. The joystick controls and Sky Hook system, which simplifies docking, helped persuade him to buy a new boat instead of one that was slightly used, he says.
The MJM is the eighth boat MacMillan has owned; prior boats include a large trawler and six sailboats. When he purchased the MJM, MacMillan was downsizing in scale — he wanted something easier to transport than the trawler and quicker to operate than a sailboat. The MJM, with its focus on high-end finishes and state-of-the-art technology, "fit the bill of everything I wanted."
But boating isn't all about high-tech gadgets and posh staterooms. It's often about satisfying emotional needs for community and, conversely, privacy, boaters say.
"The best part about boating is the relationships," says Betsy Schreitmueller, an avid sailboat racer who has developed a core group of female friends during her years racing on the bay. "Doing something competitive together in all kinds of weather conditions — there's a lot of bonding that goes on."
Bluewaters' Meyers sees the opposite appeal.
"When you untie the lines and start your cruise, you become your own island. There's a real sense of freedom, privacy and relaxation."
What's new in boating
Some of the latest trends captivating upscale seafarers' hearts — and wallets:
Going big: First-time boat buyers are opting for bigger boats these days, reports Annapolis Yacht Sales' Tim Wilbricht. "We used to sell a lot of smaller sailboats," he says. "But now people are jumping to larger boats for their first boating experience." He says the new "sweet spot" for sales is in the 37- to 41-foot range.
Get catty: In the sailing world, catamarans have grown in popularity, says Annapolis Boat Shows GM Paul Jacobs. "They are wide and long and very comfortable. They don't tip. You can sleep four couples easily, and they don't have a big draft [the depth of the bottom of the boat]. so you can go shallow places."
Five-star marinas: Joy McPeters of Marinalife says that as the boating industry has grown, marinas have stepped up their games in terms of services and amenities. "Marinas need to go to the next level to keep boaters coming back," she says. "It's just like a hotel."