Wall Street Journal Weekender Section 22 May 1998 by Sam WalkerMYSTIC, CONN. -- Last year, Neal and Alix Van Rees spent $145,000 on the sailboat of their dreams, a glorious 38-footer with a queen-size bed and a microwave. They christened it "Nealix." They slipped on their topsiders and sailed it over to Block Island, off the easternmost tip of New York's Long Island.
Then they got rid of it.
"It made me a little queasy," says Mrs. Van Rees, citing the boat's tendency to rock and pound the waves "a lot more" than the couple's previous sailboat. Worse, the boat would careen too much in high winds. "I'd just stay down in the cabin gritting my teeth," says Mrs. Van Rees, a retiree.
All over the country, some of the fastest, most elaborate and costliest sailboats ever built are being consigned to the boatyard with "for sale" signs taped to their prows. The problem: They're uncomfortable, frightening, and even a bit nauseating.
"Prices are soaring, but the boats are only getting worse," says Peter Johnstone, president of Escape Sailboat Co., a Rhode Island firm that sells entry-level vessels. Adds Bill Padget, a used-yacht broker from Denver: "It's a lot of money for something that can scare you or make you sick."
Despite the rollicking economy -- and rapid sales in the much larger power-boat market -- sailboat manufacturers produced just 1,094 boats over 36 feet last year, according to the Sailing Company of Newport, R.I. That's a 12% decline, and the smallest output in four years. Industry studies show that 70% of the large sailboats sold in America these days are used.
Critics say too many sailboat manufacturers are concentrating on a new generation of high-performance luxury boats -- which start at $100,000 and run up to $2 million if customized. Lighter, sleeker and faster, these boats generate much higher profit margins than the heavy old crab crushers of yore. But owners say they're also nowhere near as steady.
Even many boat makers agree something is terribly amiss here. "We've always been a business that sells what it makes rather than making what sells," says Arlene Sloan Baxter, executive director of the National Sailing Industry Association. "Boat manufacturers don't like to hear that, but it's time we started to change."
Before the recent onset of lighter, carbon fiber materials and better sails, sailboats hadn't evolved much in decades. Older boats were made of wood or aluminum, with deep hulls that kept them steadier in rough seas. ("They were built like brick houses," says Mr. Johnstone, the boat maker.) Today's designs -- inspired by pure-bred international racing boats -- can attain speeds once unheard of in mom-and-pop sailing.
But these faster, lighter yachts, experts say, require a lot more sailing prowess to prevent the kind of excessive rocking and wild leaning that makes people sick. With flatter bottoms, the new experience that makes novice skippers want to spend $200,000.
"When these boats pick up speed, a lot of neophytes just basically roll around on deck," says Glenn Henderson, a performance-yacht builder from St. Petersburg, Fla. "They come home with bruises."
Jack Corcoran sure did. The 58-year-old Philadelphia accountant figured $100,000 would be enough to buy a new boat that he and his wife, Bonnie, could sail comfortably on the ocean. But he rarely got the nerve to leave the placid waters of Chesapeake Bay in his 36-footer, dubbed "C Breeze."
On rare occasions when bay winds have reached 30 knots, Mr. Corcoran says, the sailing yacht has tipped, heeled over on its side, and taken on so much water that he has been forced to strap on a blue safety harness and lash himself to the life rail. "I wouldn't dream of taking this thing out on the Atlantic," he says of the yacht, which he plans to sell in favor of an older, heavier used boat. "That wouldn't be my idea of a good time."
Chuck Bralver, a management consultant in his 40s from New York, recently traded his hot rod J-105 sailboat for a 34-foot Creelock cruiser with a teak cabin that looks as if it could have been built 50 years ago. The reason: He worried that his four young children would get tossed around like popcorn on the deck. Besides, he adds, "My wife said it wasn't for her."
To be sure, there's still a market for today's advanced designs. Chip Shea, marketing director for Hunter Marine, a large Florida boat company, says its new sailboats "are not for everyone" but are one of the few brands gaining market share. (Sales of its large yachts are up about 10% in each of the last five years, he says.) Robbie Robinson, a Seattle boat dealer, has sold a handful of $300,000 yachts to twentysomething "Microsoft children" who have promptly vanished to the tropics.
Built for Speed
And Chuck Paine, a yachtsman from Camden, Maine, who designs custom boats for a clientele that, in his words, "likes to go fast," says it isn't the boats' fault. Some sailors, Mr. Paine says, particularly those who "recently came into money" lack the experience to control modern boats in heady winds. They blame the boat for being uncomfortable, he continues, when the real problem is "they don't know how to slow it down."
Maybe so, but many boating experts worry about the long-term effects of sailing's obsession with speed. Unless manufacturers start building boats that don't jar their owners' chardonnay glasses, they say, they'll risk losing an entire generation of would-be customers to powerboats -- which already control more than 90% of the total boating market -- or (God forbid) to competing pastimes like golf. Already, the number of Americans who sail more than once a year has fallen 50% since 1988, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
"If the industry isn't frightened yet, it ought to be," says Jim Muldoon, president of the United States Sailing Association in Portsmouth, R.I.
The Van Reeses couldn't agree more. On a recent morning, the silver-haired couple donned cabled sweaters and drove their Toyota Camry from their condominium in Stonington, Conn., to the Mystic Shipyard to have a look at the hulking bone-white yacht they discarded, now perched on metal stays in the marina's expansive parking lot.
Mr. Van Rees, a retired New York lawyer, says he didn't mind the boat's waterborne manners so much, but he wasn't terribly fond of its tubby appearance. Meanwhile, his wife recounts stories about episodes of queasiness, staggering trips to the bathroom and abortive attempts to eat crackers at six knots.
"I'm sure this boat appeals to some people," Mrs. Van Rees says, casting a charitable eye at the fiberglass ship with its tinted windows and flat-as-a-pancake hull. "But I'm not certain whom."
Copyright © 1998 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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