By: Scott Way
A new trend is emerging as the industry adapts to a wave of new boaters. With so many manufacturers across the globe, the logical progression for many is to become both increasingly specialized and progressively modular. While that may seem like a contradiction, it means each manufacturer is developing products for an increasingly specific market segment (i.e., for a certain activity, or for a certain geographical region) while at the same time making their products as versatile as possible. If you live near inland lakes or in cottage country, there are specialty pontoon boats designed for cottaging. But those same pontoons also offer a comprehensive fishing package that will turn your cottage joyrider into a viable fishing platform as a secondary feature. If you're a hardcore fisherman with a family, there are specialty boats designed literally for one species of fish, but they are also offer a ski tower for family wakesports. There are offshore racing boats that double as luxury overnighters, so you can win a poker run on Saturday and anchor at the sandbar on Sunday. If you're a wealthy yachtsman who also enjoys fishing for marlin, there is a 171 foot sportfishing superyacht for that exact purpose. You get the idea.
As each company mines down to its core customer base, there are countless choices for every body of water, geographic location, vessel function, and type of boater. The focus is on multi-function, versatility, and modularity. But what about the new boaters entering the market? Statistics show that the coronavirus pandemic has caused the average age of first time boat buyers to drop dramatically. It's also caused a surge in sales of secondary accessories like paddleboards and wakesports gear. The new demographic is younger, urban, and active. They have different priorities than traditional boaters, and their market share is still undefined. One could rightfully call them 'active boaters' since they seem to have secondary interests centered around an active lifestyle. Who wouldn't want to combine the joys of boating with the potential for other adventures? But who will build these boats? Thankfully the industry has never shied away from experimentation.
So who are active boaters and what do they want? Based on the products getting fanfare over the last 18 months, it appears they want an enjoyable boating experience mixed with secondary capabilities. Boating is an adventure in its own right, so why not expand upon its potential? Several designs that entered the market in 2021 catered to campers, mountain bikers, hikers, climbers, kayakers, and paddleboarders. The question is: how well can they balance a traditional boating experience with secondary adventure needs?
One example is Finland's Axopar. Their new "one world, one boat" marketing mantra is a clear attempt to broaden the horizons of recreational boating. Their latest Resolve XXII model comes with a built-in watersports package including paddleboards, waterskiis, wakeboards, tubes, and a sea scooter. If you are a new boater with interests in paddleboaring, wakesports, or snorkeling, such a concept would have obvious appeal.
Their other new release, the 22 Spyder, is a compact trailerable package that gives the owner the ability to dabble in everything from fishing, to wakesports, to recreational day boating, to big water cruising. According to Axopar, "whether serving as a daily commuter in the Arctic, a dive excursion boat in the Mediterranean or as a fishing boat in Northern British Columbia, our ‘one world, one boat’ design & manufacturing philosophy means that every Axopar is built to serve its purpose, admirably, in any environment, anywhere in the world." That's a broad list of possibilities for just one boat.
But Axopar isn't the only one following this route. A growing collection of upstart manufacturers are promoting an active lifestyle alongside the boating experience. The most notable is Sweden's X-Shore, who build electric center consoles made specifically to include recreational equipment. Their Eelex 8000 is not only geared toward the environmentally conscious, it also appeals to those looking to mix boating with things like canoeing, kayaking, and mountain biking. With features like a canoe rack, mountain bike rack, and impressive modularity, it caters to urban adventurers who may not be interested in, or appreciate, more traditional designs.
X-Shore CEO Jenny Keisu explained that concept in an interview with Forbes magazine, stating “We have a lot of modularity, so you can design the boat the way you like it. It comes as a just open, bare boat, and we have different modules. So you can opt for a social module, like sun beds, sofas, tables. You can also opt for diving modules, fishing modules, and you can swap. Like two people can just flip up those modules, change, and then put them back on. So you can have lots of modules if you want to, or just take them off and have lots of friends on the back.” X-Shore is on the upswing, too. The company just took in $18 million in funding to increase production to meet overwhelming demand.
There is also something to be said for the marketing of these brands. The message is clear: these boats aren't for traditionalists. It's a page from the Silicon Valley playbook. Electric brands like Tesla, Taiga PWC's, and Zero Motorcycles aren't designed for the traditional market. They're designed mainly for new buyers who have limited knowledge of (or consideration for) conventional styles from established brands. Trendy accoutrements like Montague folding bikes and Oru folding kayaks only reinforce this new modernity. A Tesla will never look like a Ford F150, and an X-Shore will never look like a Boston Whaler. X-Shore has even been dubbed 'The Tesla of the Sea.'
There could be a geographic undercurrent to this cultural trend, as well. X-Shore is Swedish and Axopar is Finnish. Both come from countries where the prevailing design mindset is one of efficiency, modernity, and eco-consciousness. Tesla is based in Fremont, California, nearly the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Zero Motorcycles and Oru Kayaks are both adjacent to Silicon Valley in Scotts Valley and Emeryville, respectively. Perhaps the growing trend towards avant-garde innovation has made its way into boating.
Even then, the traditional boating market won‘t be left behind. Iconic brands like Formula Boats are highlighting the utility of their new designs by showcasing paddleboarders alongside their new 380 SuperSport Crossover. Chris-Craft, one of the oldest and most respected boat brands in the world, has partnered with a SUP manufacturer to build a custom Chris-Craft Edition paddleboard that matches their design aesthetic. Popular accessory brands like Jobe are offering SUP racks for boats. There are even SUP racks designed specifically for fishing boats.
Is this a trend with staying power? Only time and sales figures will tell. Maybe the media infatuation with these ultra-modern concepts is proof of a larger consumer demand, but that's far from a guarantee. Nevertheless, it's good that new boaters are entering the fold, and it's good they want to experience all that boating has to offer. They may have different needs than those that came before them, but the industry will be happy for the chance to design new products that push the limits of what's possible in recreational boating.