How was the boat show for you?
Anyone in or around the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last month has heard the question a hundred times. It gets a little repetitive, but it’s what everyone wants to know. Who was there? Who did you meet? What did you sell?Is business finally coming back?
The biggest buzz in captain circles come when a European builder signs a contract to build a new yacht, especially 70m or larger. Apparently, there were three signed during FLIBS. And numerous stories were told and retold of yachts — big ones as well as smaller ones — being bought and sold. It’s like an electrical current running around the docks.
“Nine times out of 10, my career changes have been because the boat sells,” a captain said.
While sales are a good barometer of the success of a boat show, yacht captains look for something a little less tangible. The captains assembled for our monthly From the Bridge luncheon agreed with the hype that it was a good show. But it went further than that.
“It was one of the biggest boat shows I’ve been to, and one of the busiest boat shows I’ve been to,” one captain said. “And it was some of the best networking I’ve done in a long time.”
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in a photograph on page xx.
The attending captains were fairly evenly split between those who worked on yachts displayed in the show, those who walked around the show as an attendee, and those who missed the show proper but were in Ft. Lauderdale immediately after.
“There were fewer tire kickers,” one captain said. “Maybe it was less crowded on Saturday and Sunday, but the people were good. The boat I’m involved with sold during the show.”
“I made the post-boat show rounds, and [one manufacturer] had twice the showings they’ve had in recent years,” said another.
“FLIBS is the best show in the world,” said a third, after more attributes were pointed out. “It’s laid out well. You can be specific and you know where to go to see exactly who you need to see or what you want to see.”
“Another thing it’s really good for is looking at new technology,” a captain said. “You can demo stuff right there.”
“And you have access to the people who know how to use it, and the service guys you can actually talk to and say, ‘give me your phone number’,” another said.
Although one captain who worked the show the past couple years and missed it this year on purpose, another was sorry to have missed it.
“I try to go so I can network with people you haven’t seen in a year,” this captain said. “You always see them in Ft. Lauderdale. If they don’t see you, they wonder where you are. You want them to know you’re still alive.
“I feel like I missed something this year,” he said. “I was finishing up the season. I should have left the boat and flown in and then brought it down [the next] week.”
While everyone is buzzing in the hours and days after the show, we wanted to know how yacht captains measure a boat show’s success in the weeks and months that follow. And the answer is (naturally) that it depends.
“The weeks after the boat show are good for the community in South Florida,” one captain said. “There’s such a good influx of work. It’s good for everybody. The yards are busy, the contractors are busy.”
“It seems like everyone is getting hauled for surveys and interiors are getting done,” another said.
What about for captains? This is where the “it depends” part comes in.
“Some of us keep our jobs when the boat sells, some of us don’t,” one captain said.
“That’s part of the job, though,” noted another.
“The boat show gives yachting a shot in the arm,” said a third. “I want people working so I can keep a job. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes it gets a little lopsided, but it all comes around again. We’ve got to keep each other busy.”
“Post boat show, you get into the aftermath of a yacht for sale,” one captain said. “If it doesn’t sell, now the owner has to make a decision — is he going to charter it or use it? Most owners don’t make that decision until the last minute, waiting as long as they can for the sale. And that makes it hard on us.”
“If it doesn’t sell, there’s uncertainty for the crew, that’s the downside,” a captain said. “But the upside when it does sell is that it’s swap time. Whole new crews come in.”
This sparked a discussion about the value of a boat show in educating crew about the boats around them.
“The show reveals to all crew what conditions are like on the boats around them, what the captain is like, the owner, the food budget,” one captain said. “I don’t care what you say, they all talk to each other. There’s a massive sharing of information and crew find out real quick which boats are great to work on, and which ones aren’t.”
“And it doesn’t take long for everyone to learn which boats swap crew all the time,” said another.
Several captains noticed was that there were not a lot of crew walking around looking for work this year. One captain attributed that to the fact that placement agencies are so plentiful that the new generation of crew don’t need to walk the docks anymore.
While a yacht sale has positive industry effects in several directions, they also signify the end of something. Why are owners selling their yachts? Are they getting out, or are they simply moving around? Again, it depends.
“Prices have come down tremendously so there are great deals out there, and the market is getting better,” one captain said. “But yes, some owners are getting out. They’re fed up with the expense of boating and they’re getting out.”
That fueled a simmering fire.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” another captain began, “and it’s not just in yachting but in other industries I’ve worked in, too: You hire a professional with the credentials, the experience, the education you want for the position. You hire them, and then you don’t listen to them.”
“It’s a $20 million investment,” said a third. “You can’t run it with four crew, we need six. Nope, they say, four will do. Then they get frustrated when things break down or wear out because they aren’t properly maintained and they get out.”
“Their broker is not giving the buyer an accurate reflection of the costs of running a boat,” a captain said.
“They can’t, or no one would buy a yacht,” another said.
This sparked a conversation about owners.
“We need a class 101 for owners,” one captain said. “You take this highly polished, highly mechanized piece of equipment and put it in the harshest environment on the planet and you expect it not to cost much to maintain.”
“But look at the owner base,” said another. “It used to be old school guys who have always had a yacht. They started small and moved up. They started taking care of it themselves and when they hired someone to take care of it for them, they knew what it took to take care of it.
“New guys never owned a yacht,” this captain said. “They have no idea what it takes.”
The captains discussed how the older generation of yacht owners are getting out of yachting not because they are frustrated, but because they are older and their health is deteriorating, or perhaps they have passed away. The newer owners replacing them don’t have the same understanding of yachting.
“The old guys tip everyone,” one captain said. “Then the son comes up and takes over, and the tips stop.”
“It is what it is,” another captain said. “It takes time for them to learn it all. The first crew are gonna go. They are the sacrificial crew.”
“If you think about it, it takes a captain 5-10 years to build a reputation in the industry,” one captain said. “It takes owners 5-10 years to become a good owner. They have to learn.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.