Easily-handled vessels give owners options of traveling, fishing; Full range of boats meets various budgets, lifestyles, changes in motoring habits; Express cruisers


As the boating population ages, significant numbers of empty nesters are finding they no longer need larger sailboats or cumbersome trawlers or motor yachts and are looking for smaller, more easily-handled vessels.

"Not everyone is the same," said Ted Robie, vice president of sales for The Alden Group, a top-of-the-line, semicustom builder of sail and power yachts in Portsmouth, R.I. "But there is a group of folks, largely the Boomers, who find their boating time is limited but still like to go places for day trips or weekends."

The alternative of choice in that portion of today's market is the express cruiser, an expanding group of moderately fast and very seaworthy vessels that can take their owners day-tripping, cruising or fishing with ease.

For anyone contemplating a change in their boating habits, a full range of express cruisers to fit any lifestyle or budget will be on display at the United States Powerboat Show in Annapolis Oct. 14-17.

Express cruisers have been built for years by many manufacturers, including Sea Ray, Cris Craft, Wellcraft, Tiara and Bertram, which recently has introduced the Moppie 36, a reincarnation of the small, open cockpit sportfisherman that dominated the offshore charter fishing industry more than 30 years ago.

But don't confuse the new versions of the express cruiser with your daddy's old Sea Ray or Bertram.

"Certainly these types of boats have always been part of the market," said Bentley Collins, marketing manager for Sabre Corp., a respected builder of power and sail yachts in South Casco, Maine. "What's up and coming is a personalized motor yacht with a heavy touch of class to it and just enough accommodations for a weekend or a week aboard.

"We are not in the white, plastic boat business."

Many of today's express cruisers have the traditional look of New England picnic boats, an evolution of seaworthy working craft with added influences of bronze and varnished hardwoods and modern electronics and drive systems.

In many cases, the helm station is open and accommodations include one or two cabins with basic galley and plumbing.

"What has been in the market has been a more modern, contemporary look," said Robie. "But those types of boats didn't appeal to everybody."

Instead, increasing numbers of upscale buyers are looking for down-sized yachts that are traditional in appearance, can be operated by a couple and are easily maintained.

Builders such as Little Harbor (Whisperjet 38), Hinckley (Picnic Boat 36), Alden (40, 44 and 46), Grand Banks (East Bay 38 and 49), Sabre Corp. (Sabreline 36), Freedom Yachts (Legacy 34 and 40) all have made inroads in the top end of the express cruiser market.

But, then, these high dollar yachts are not for everyone. Base boat prices run about $275,000 for the Legacy 34 and rise quickly.

"Certainly the people who are at the stage that they can come to us or Hinckley or Little Harbor know our reputation and know what they want," said Robie, whose company will have the new Alden 40 at the Annapolis show. "These boats are custom, they are expensive and they are perfect."

There are, of course, many alternatives to the custom or semi-custom express cruisers, and one of the more popular traditional models the past few years has been the Pilot model manufactured by Mainship, which this year has added a 34-footer to the 30-footer that debuted in 1998.

Ed Carroll, sales manager at Lippincott Marine in Grasonville, said the Pilot has been drawing a crowd because it is strong, reliable and inexpensive when compared to the top-end boats.

"The 30 starts at around $94,500 for the base boat and the 34 starts at around $155,400, and someone should be able to come away with one fully outfitted for $165,000 or so."

Virtually every major manufacturer will be at the Annapolis show, and dozens of express cruiser models will be on display.

Check out the polished bronze and varnished hardwoods, then balance the checkbook and, like most of us, settle back to earth and search for the "white, plastic boat" that fits your needs and budget.

Powerboat sales, Collins said, traditionally have accounted for 90 percent of the market because powerboats are "simple to operate and easy to get out in and get going."

"The traditional yacht club member, who views his boating as both a sport and social pastime, certainly these people are more interested in power boating," said Collins. "And certainly most of our customers have been at it for 15 to 20 years.

"They are at the point where the kids have moved away and they just want the pleasure of boating, rather than being concerned with how many berths there are and how many people will be aboard."

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