PORTLAND – By 6 p.m. Saturday, about 5,000 people had walked through the Portland Company Marine Complex on the city’s waterfront to ogle some of the most exquisite pleasure cruisers, sailing yachts and dories made in New England.
While many boat styles were represented at the Maine Boatbuilders Show, every one of the 202 vendors shared at least one category: survivor of the Great Recession.
“A lot of the people who should be here got wiped out,” said one survivor, David Hulbert, who manufactures the Portland Pudgy, a combination lifeboat and dory.
Between 2005 and 2011, the number of sailboat builders in North America declined by 23 percent, from 146 to 113, according to a study released last year by Sail America, a trade group.
The study, however, found that the industry has since stabilized and is even showing some growth in the small daysailer and entry-level cruiser category.
There is no data available on how many Maine boatbuilders have closed up shop, but several boatbuilders at the show on Saturday said the number is significant.
“A lot of boat companies aren’t here anymore,” said James Allen, brokerage director at Morris Yachts, based in Bass Harbor. “That we’re here shows that we have done as well as can be expected.”
Unlike other yards that only manufacture boats, Morris Yachts is multifaceted, operating two full-service yards on Mount Desert Island. Steady business at the service yards brought in enough revenue to keep the company open during the recession, he said.
He said the sales of “middle market” boats, those costing $500,000 to $600,000, were particularly hard hit by the recession of 2007-2009, the longest and deepest recession in the United States since the Great Depression.
The market for superyachts built for the world’s financial elite – the so-called 1 percenters — remained strong, Morris said. However, those yachts are being built in Europe, not Maine, Allen said.
Morris is now trying to compete in that market with the company’s newly designed M46, a $1.2 million luxury sailing yacht designed for people who have a lot of money but not a lot of sailing experience. In its news release about the yacht, the company describes the boat’s cabin as a “penthouse you can take with you.”
Hulbert, whose Portland Pudgey is more downscale, selling for $2,600 to $6,400, said it’s disturbing that Wall Street bankers and “oil barons” seem to have gotten richer during the recession.
“Those guys were whining and complaining about losing money,” he said. “In fact, they are making more.”
The good news for Maine boatbuilders, though, is that business is up slightly from a year ago, particularly in sales of secondhand boats and in the business of servicing boats, said several boatbuilders. They said the public is showing more interest.
“There is a feeling of a little more confidence. It’s slowly coming back,” said Ted Smith, service manager at Lyman-Morse Boatbuilders in Thomaston.
Still, many middle-class people are cautious about spending too much money on a boat, said Doug Metchick, CEO of Morris Yachts. Besides the market for high-end luxury yachts, he said, there is a growing demand for boats that sell for $10,000 to $15,000.
“People who are into boating are not giving up the passion,” he said.
Phineas Sprague Jr., president of Portland Yacht Services, which organized the boat show, said Maine boatbuilders are eager for business to pick up again.
“Everybody is pretty fed up with the recession,” he said.
Admission to the boat show is $15. It will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: