- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

MANITOWOC, Wis. — David Ross slips off his loafers and climbs aboard the giant boat floating on the Manitowoc River.

Shoes can scuff the deep red onyx flooring on the Mirgab V, a 144-foot yacht built by his company, Burger Boat, for a family from Kuwait. All workers must remove their shoes — those making final tweaks on a glass elevator, or ensuring the lighted treads on a three-story bronze stairway stay bright, and others hooking up DVD and stereo systems to a projection screen.

In the next two weeks, the yacht, with its 8,100-square feet of living space, is expected to depart for the Mediterranean. The culmination of two years’ work, the vessel marks a turning point for Burger Boat — it’s the biggest yacht ever built by the company. And the projects only get bigger from here, said Mr. Ross, the company’s president.

Boat builders across the country are making larger ones and moving into the yacht category, which is anything exceeding 28 feet, said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the trade group for the recreational boating industry.

For Burger Boat, the average boat size has stretched to 147 feet from 104 feet in 2003. Now business is booming at the 143-year-old company’s shipyard in Manitowoc, about an hour north of Milwaukee. There are seven yachts in various stages of construction — a process that can take two or more years — and four other projects are in the works, he said. The boats will sell for $15 million to $50 million when they are finished.

Customers who already own boats want larger ones, and often they want to stick with the same brand, so companies at all size points are lengthening their boats, Mr. Dammrich said.

“It’s what the customer is demanding, so you’ve got to do it,” he said.

People often start with smaller boats then move up to larger ones as they become more involved in the sport, said Dusty McCoy, chairman and chief executive officer of Brunswick Corp., the world’s largest manufacturer of pleasure boats and marine engines, based in Lake Forest, Ill.

“There is a phenomenon in boating where people do come into boating in smaller sizes, really enjoy it as a recreational activity and things get larger,” Mr. McCoy said. “They begin to understand the family possibilities, the entertainment possibilities, the enjoyment possibilities, and they begin to buy larger boats.”

Ralph Horn and his wife, Pat, owned a 65-foot boat for two years but decided to go bigger two years ago after they realized how much time they spent on water.

Mr. Horn, 65, had retired early after a career in the banking industry and the couple couldn’t decide where to spend their retirement.

“We didn’t have a place to go to in the winter and we couldn’t find a spot,” said Mr. Horn, of Memphis, Tenn. “Both of us agreed this is what we really want, so I said, ‘Let’s try a floating condo.’”

In two years, they have gone boating at least one week a month to places such as the Grenadines, Maine and the Caribbean on their 98-foot Burger Boat, which has five staterooms, granite countertops in the kitchen and a full-time crew.

Powerboat sales, which include any boat with a motor, were $9.4 billion last year, but while units were down less than 1 percent from 2004, spending was up 4.4 percent, according to the NMMA’s annual report. Sales are expected to be flat this year, Mr. Dammrich said.

Considering that the average American boat is 25 feet long and costs $25,000, megayachts still make up only a small part of the American boat market. There are between 12 and 20 such manufacturers nationwide, Mr. Dammrich said, and there are only 250 of these boats produced worldwide each year.

And new rivals are appearing. Cobalt Boat, which makes boats in the 20-foot to 30-foot range, recently built a factory in Tennessee for its new venture into yachting. It will make yachts between 42 feet and 52 feet initially and then gradually increase size, possibly into the 70-foot range, said Shireen Fitts, a spokeswoman for the company based in Neodesha, Kan.

Burger Boat has more than doubled its number of employees to 450 since 2003. It also opened a sales office in Monaco last year, invested in new equipment — with the help of a state grant worth more than $1.1 million — and expanded its 143-year-old hull shop.

Viking Yacht is bracing for a similar expansion to make way for its new, larger boats, said Peter Frederiksen, spokesman for the yacht maker, based in New Gretna, N.J. Customers are continually buying larger boats with an eye to reselling them, often in a matter of a few years, he said.

Five years ago, the company’s most popular boat was a 61-footer. Today, its strongest-selling models range from 64 feet to 74 feet, with prices of $2.6 million to $3.6 million, and the company plans to make two 82-foot yachts in the coming years, Mr. Frederiksen said.

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