First-Time Boaters Lead Boat Sales Boom

More boaters than ever are hitting the water this summer, and the demand is being propelled by first-time boat owners.

Last year, the market for boat and marine product sales surged to $47 billion, up 9% year-over-year, while it’s already up another 30% this year. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), new boat sales remain at elevated levels, and dealers are selling new boats as fast as they receive them at the start of peak boating season.

"Coronavirus was the perfect venue for boating because you could be off on your own, protected and socially distanced," FOX Business’s Jeff Flock told FOX Business’ "Varney & Co."

Part of what’s driving the growth within the recreational boating industry is the surge in first-time boat buyers of new and pre-owned boats. New data from the NMMA reveal that 415,000 first-time boat buyers entered the market in 2020. Overall, these buyers are averaging younger and are 1.5 times more likely to be women than other buyer groups. 

"As the country returns to a new normal, people are reassessing how they spend their quality time with loved ones, and many are continuing to choose boating as the preferred choice in recreation," NMMA President Frank Hugelmeyer said in a statement. "All signs point to boating demand and boat sales remaining strong as more people discover the mental health benefits, joys and freedoms of being outside and on the water."

Freedom Boat Club, a members-only boat club that offers unlimited use of watercraft in exchange for an annual fee, has also seen its 2020 membership double from 2019.

The club’s subscription model has grown in appeal to not only an older demographic that’s aging out of wanting to own their own boat but don’t want to exit boating entirely — but also among millennials. 

"The boat club model in general is doing a good job of not only expanding boating participation, but also diversifying it," Cecil Cohn, president of Freedom Boat Club, told FOX Business. 

One of the club’s missions is to expand and diversify boating participation by offering a platform to captain a vessel in almost 290 locations around the world, all without the hassle of owning a boat. Owned by the large boat maker Brunswick, the club charges an initiation fee that ranges from $5,000 to $7,000, with monthly dues of $350 to $450.

Kathleen Winter, a member of the Freedom Boat Club’s Chicago branch since 2019, told FOX Business that joining a membership-based club has enabled her and her husband to experience an array of different boats without having to deal with maintenance, upkeep costs and marina fees that come with owning a boat. A boating enthusiast herself, Winter tells FOX Business she has referred more young people to the platform who are looking to get into boating for the first time. 

Other boating platforms are also gaining traction among new-boaters and especially young people. 

Over the past year Click&Boat, the leading online boat rental platform, has seen an increase in boat rentals in the U.S. domestic market due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions.

"As the interest in boating continues to rise, we are also witnessing a surge in new boat owners looking to join the platform with both professional and private owners," USA Marketing Officer Camille DeLong told FOX Business. 

Meanwhile, Discover Boating, the industry’s resource hub for those interested in getting started in boating, has reported a 56% uptick in traffic year-over-year through May. Although millennials make up the largest user segment, Gen Z traffic has ticked up, with the traffic from the 18 to 24-year-old segment skyrocketing 90%. Moreover, the amount of women visiting the site is also up 41%. 

Although the rise in boating activity quickly became a pandemic tailwind, continued interest and demand is ginning up a long-term boost for the industry.

"Rental boat sales, new and used boat sales and the whole gambit have experienced a real peak," Freedom Boat Club's Cohn said. "As vaccination rates go up and we move past the pandemic, there is growing optimism that the boating and marine industry and this ‘return to the great outdoors’ is here to stay."

The boating boom is not without setbacks. In addition to increasing demand, supply chain bottlenecks and a shortage of parts and supplies have stifled the industry with backlogs and sticker shock.

"Inventories continue to be at an all time low, with customers waiting weeks to get the boat they want," John Adey, president of the American Boat and Yacht Council, told FOX Business. "Used boats are also fetching a premium."

Despite the obstacles that stand in the way, boating continues to be a top choice in recreation, according to Adey. Even higher gas prices haven’t curtailed the crowds. Moreso, the new generation of boaters has overcome previous barriers to participation, including no prior experience or information about affordable equipment, according to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. Nonetheless, 94% of the new generation of boaters plan to keep boating in the future.