Lead, Follow . . . or Go Away?

As I write this, gas is around $4.00 per gallon at my local station. This means it is likely closing in on $5.00 per gallon at the local marina. If this wasn't bad enough, diesel fuel is even more expensive! Considering how much fuel the average planing power boat burns, many current and potential boaters are going to find themselves priced out of the sport.

For years now, boat builders have been selling speed combined with the idea that you can not only have it all, but take it with you on your 21' center console! This has led to 21' center consoles with 8 1/2' beams, deep-V hulls, and 2,500+ pound weights. To push all this across the water you need a $20,000, 225 hp, 600 pound outboard motor. Since this motor can burn over 20 gallons of fuel an hour ($80 or more an hour!), the boat needs to carry 85 gallons of fuel or more, which weighs at least 520 pounds. Add all this up, add some gear and your 21' center console weighs close to 4,000 pounds!

Am I alone in thinking this might not be the best boat to be selling at this time? The current conditions should not be a surprise to any boat builder who has been sober over the last few years. The writing was on the wall when gas hit $2.50 per gallon . . . and stayed there. Most experts are saying the days of cheap gas are over. With the Democrats and environmentalists teaming up to fight any new exploration or production, they are probably right!

Boat designers use a number of methods to calculate how fast a given boat will go with a specific engine. Most of these are very involved, but there are some simple formulas that have been used for years to give a rough estimate of the speed a boat will achieve. One of these is a formula created by a designer named George Crouch. Crouch's formula basically uses the power/weight ratio of the boat multiplied by a constant derived from similar known boats. Taking our typical boat described above, adding in a couple of average guys and using a Crouch constant of 165, we would get a top speed of about 37 knots. If we could simplify this boat and use more advanced construction techniques to get the weight down to 3,000 pounds, our speed would jump to 42 knots. If we reduced our horsepower to 170, we would still have the same top speed of 37 knots and our max fuel burn would drop to about 16 gallons per hour (2.3 mpg).

Now lets take this a step further and modify the hull. Years ago, boats were much narrower than they are today. When I was a kid in the early 70's, a typical 20 footer would have had a beam between 7 and 8 feet. Lets say we build our new boat with a 7'-3" beam, less deadrise aft, simplify the deck and reduce the number of "features". Our fuel tank would be 40 gallons. With cored hull laminates we could build this boat at 1,200 pounds. Power would be a 115 hp outboard weighing 420 pounds. With our two guys aboard using the same Crouch number, our top speed would be 37 knots. Fuel consumption would drop to a max of 11 gallons per hour (3.36 mpg). This is actually a conservative number, because our narrower hull with less deadrise would have a higher Crouch number due to its greater efficiency. If the new Crouch number were 175, our top speed would be nearly 40 knots (3.6 mpg)!

Probably the most important consideration when you are thinking about efficiency is speed. How fast do we need to go? Is 40 knots fast enough or must we go faster? How about 30 knots? Out in the open ocean or gulf, can we use much more speed? If we were to equip our above boat with a 90 hp outboard, our top speed with the 165 Crouch number would be 33 knots. Frankly, I could live with that, especially the sub 9 gallon per hour max fuel burn! Think of it in terms of dollars per hour. Even at 9 gallons per hour you are still burning up $40 or more in fuel, but that is a lot better than $80! As an added bonus, a 90 hp outboard costs around $10,000, half the price of that 225.

In my experience, most boat companies are run from the sales department. The sales staff will not recommend building anything much different than their competitors for fear of the competition using the differences to sell against them. I can't tell you how many boats have been designed by looking at the competition and trying to build something with just a little "more". These salesman will only embrace something really new (or old in this case) when the customers start demanding it in large numbers. But what happens if the customers don't know that there is another option? How many salesman know there is another way?

Where does this leave those of us who are trying to make a living in the boat business? It leaves us one of two places, out of work or creating the future. Taking advantage of the cheap gas, we have spoiled and enabled our customers for years. Now, like the parents of adolescents who have come home drunk, we have to tell them that things can't be the way they were any longer. Things have changed and it is time to grow up, whether they like it or not. No, they can't have everything any longer, they can't afford it. But they can still have fun out on the water and spend some quality time with their family. It will take an industry willing to change to get this message across, a message that isn't relevant to just the small outboard market. Do 40' sportfisherman really need twin 700 hp diesels? Do 60' sportfisherman really need to cruise at 40 knots? It wasn't that long ago that 30 knots was really honking along in a large sportfishing boat.

Unfortunately, I am not confident the marine industry is ready to change. The large boat builders are risk averse and will have to be drug kicking and screaming into the future. They will probably be drug there by some entrepreneur with a vision for the future. They will then copy his ideas and act like they were on the bleeding edge. The smaller companies who can't afford to re-tool or don't jump at the chance to lead, will be stuck trying to sell boats very few average families can afford to buy or use. If you are a boat builder, now is the time to decide. Will you will lead, follow . . . or go away?

Timm Smith
June 19, 2008