ST. PETERSBURG — You know marine manufacturers must be feeling good about the economy when the hottest thing at a local boat show is a 27-foot yacht tender that costs more than most homes.
"We are definitely going after that upscale market," said Ken Rawley, spokesman for the Hacker Boat Company, manufacturer of high-end, mahogany speedboats in Silver Bay, N.Y. "We are targeting people who have an appreciation for classic or retro styling."
The Hacker-Craft, a longtime favorite of European princes and movie stars, looks like it would be more at home on a northern lake than the fickle waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But Rawley said the special Tommy Bahama edition Hacker-Craft, with a price tag of $329,000, could be a big seller in a market such as St. Petersburg, which is hosting its annual power and sailboat show this weekend.
"This is a beautiful city with a great waterfront," he said. "We think it holds great promise for us and that is why we are here."
Others are also optimistic about Florida's marine industry. Danny Grant, spokesman for Show Management, which produces both the Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg shows, said momentum is building for a rebirth of boating after a recession that saw many boat dealers go out of business.
"We are coming off a very strong Fort Lauderdale boat show, which despite a little rain and wind from Hurricane Sandy, saw a real increase in sales," Grant said.
"Overall, new boats were up 14 percent. And boats under 80 feet, which suffered the most during the economic downturn, were up 13 percent, which is very good news for the industry as a whole."
Hacker-Craft, which has built boats for the King of Siam (now Thailand), movie star Donald Sutherland, NASCAR driver Kurt Busch and John Walsh, host of TV's America's Most Wanted, has been in business since the 1930s. Once described as the "Steinway of Runabouts," the Hacker-Craft also has been named by Forbes magazine as one of "50 of America's Best Products."
Tommy Bahama, a maker of high-end resort wear, is synonymous with the island lifestyle, and both companies hope the signature-edition Hacker-Craft will prove popular on both coasts.
Hacker-Craft plans to open a showroom in January in Fort Lauderdale, Florida's top boating market. It takes about 1,400 hours for craftsmen to make each wooden boat by hand. The company builds a variety of runabouts, sport boats, launches, yacht tenders, utilities and custom boats, which range in length from 24 to 35 feet.
For boat lovers, the Tommy Bahama model is well worth the price of admission to the show. The custom-colored mahogany hull and decks gleam with 15 coats of hand-brushed varnish. While it may look like a piece of art, the Ilmor MV8 6.2-liter 430-horsepower engine gives this 27-footer plenty of pep, making it a pleasure to drive.
But once you're done dreaming, this year's show will have plenty for the average boater, including 10,000-square feet of new exhibits on everything from depth finders to man-overboard equipment. Show organizers have several new manufacturers, including several new bay boats and flats skiffs, the most popular watercraft in fish-happy Tampa Bay.