Batten down the hatches

The Baltimore Sun

Boats, as the old saying goes, are holes in the water into which you throw money.

But with money in scarce supply, fewer people are tossing greenbacks, forcing manufacturers and dealers to find ways to lure newcomers into their first boat and veterans into an upgrade.

Sales, down 30 percent last year, aren't expected to rebound this year, and boat shows around the country are sinking without a trace.

Into the storm sails the Baltimore Boat Show, which begins today and runs through Sunday, with two "Affordability Pavilions" featuring boats that can be purchased for $250 a month or less - a direct appeal to the 75 percent of boat owners who have a household income of less than $100,000.

On top of that, dealers looking to liquidate inventory are offering incentives and accessory packages while banks that specialize in marine loans are prepared to arrange credit.

"Now is one of the best times to buy a boat," said Ellen Hopkins, spokeswoman for the trade group National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The difference this year is that lenders have gone back to basics, requiring 20 percent down and a good credit grade, said Karen Trostle, president of Annapolis-based Sterling Acceptance Corp. and vice president of the National Marine Bankers Association.

"There's no doubt sales are down, but money is available," Trostle said. "A boat loan is one of the best kind to make. Banks like to do it because they have one of the lowest foreclosure rates."

Trostle said borrowers can get a 15-year, $25,000 loan for $225 a month.

"When people see the terms that are available, they'll be surprised," she said.

The Baltimore show will feature more than 500 powerboats, sailboats and personal watercraft, ranging from 45-foot luxury yachts to inflatable kayaks.

Ravens cheerleaders will be at the show Friday evening, and linebacker Jarret Johnson will sign autographs Saturday afternoon. Youngsters can take paddle boat rides and meet SpongeBob SquarePants on Sunday. (Details are at

The show's producer, Michael Duffy, said that though economics plays a part of the business, he's banking on the Baltimore area's passion for boating, coupled with the closing this winter of two shows: the Washington Boat Show and the Chesapeake Fishing and Outdoors Expo in Upper Marlboro.

"We saw a 6 percent increase in attendance last year, and that was with four fewer show days. Matching that could be a challenge, but we're counting on picking up a fair number of attendees from the other shows," he said.

But even with nearly 200,000 registered recreational boats in Maryland, it's a tough sell, as last fall's Annapolis sailing and powerboat shows indicated. The sailing show attracted about 51,000, down about 2 percent from 2007's record attendance. About 33,000 attended the powerboat show, a 15 percent decline from 2007.

Boat manufacturers have been hard hit, first by soaring fuel prices and now by the economic downturn. The marine publication Soundings Trade Only polled analysts who predicted this year will see "an unprecedented number of dealer bankruptcies."

Last week, Rhode Island-based Pearson Composites, maker of powerboats and sailboats (the Naval Academy is a customer), laid off half its 120 employees.

But with predictions of gas prices staying below $2 a gallon this summer, the boating industry remains optimistic. And new strategies, such as "fractional ownership," which operates like a vacation home time-share arrangement, are popping up.

Hopkins says the NMMA has not had to cancel any of the 23 shows it produces, and exhibitors are still signing up to appear.

"We're hoping to get more people involved in boating," she said. "As the population increases and the number of people exposed to boating increases, sales will increase."


When: Today-Sunday

Where: Baltimore Convention Center

Cost: $10 adults; youth (13-15) $5; children (12 and younger) free if accompanied by an adult

Highlights: Special preview tonight benefitting Wish-A-Fish Foundation, 6-9 p.m., $20 ... "Affordability Pavilion" with boats under $250 a month


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