TAMPA — The boat business, like many other industries, has suffered as a result of the Great Recession.
Some established boat builders failed to weather the storm and shut their doors. Others have scaled back production and now only offer their top-selling lines.
But if there is a phoenix that will rise from the ashes of this economic meltdown, it will not be in the form of a high-priced luxury yacht. No, people still want to boat. They are just boating on a budget.
"The past two years have been hard," said Larry Berryman, manager of the Tampa Boat Show. "But the industry has adapted. It is a lot leaner, and manufacturers are willing to do more to get people on the water."
For the first time in its 45-year history, the premier boat show on the west coast of Florida is making a concerted effort to attract the entry-level and even non-boating public.
"We are trying to take some of the mystery out of boating," Berryman said.
First-time boat buyers will find dealers eager to do business at this year's Tampa Boat Show. The Discover Boating Dock is geared to shoppers new to the sport.
"Many people think boating is something that is just too expensive," Berryman said. "But you would be surprised at how easy it is to get into an entry-level boat."
You could spend $1,000 or more a month on a boat payment, but for that kind of money, you could also pay the mortgage on a small vacation home in the mountains.
But a boat payment of less than $250 a month, similar to what you might spend on an economy car, is realistic for many people. (That theoretical payment is loosely based on a 10 to 20 percent down payment for 10 years at an interest rate of 7.5 percent.)
A recent study by the National Marine Manufacturers Association showed that three out of four boaters have household incomes of less than $100,000 and that 95 percent of all registered boats on the water measure less than 26 feet in length and can be pulled by a trailer.
Dollars and feet
The Discover Boating Dock has more than a dozen boats that fall into this category.
For example, if you are looking for a great party boat to cruise local lakes and rivers, check out the 2010 Sylvan pontoon boat for $249 a month from Thunder Marine (down payment of $4,500 on a $29,970 boat).
Freshwater anglers will like the Alumnacraft MV Tex aluminum bass boat for $140 a month from Outcast Watersports (down payment of $1,495 on a $13,900 boat).
Outcast Watersports is also offering an entry-level saltwater fishing boat, the Palm Beach 161 center console, for $120 a month (down payment of $1,285 on a $11,900 boat).
Other options for saltwater fishing include Key Largo's 1800 center console for $197 a month from Sunray Marine (down payment of $2,100 on a $18,995 boat) and Sea Hunt's Triton 177 sport fisher for $186.75 a month from Land O'Lakes Marine (down payment of $2,000 on a $20,900 boat).
Finally, you will find a great, general purpose, family boat in Sea Ray's 185 Sport bowrider for $233.38 a month from MarineMax (a down payment of $4,400 on a $22,107 boat).
"There are a lot of options," Berryman added. "This list is being updated daily."
Test drive and learn
But before you buy, you might want to get on the water and give boating a try. If you stop by the Discover Boating Dock, you can sign up for one of several, free, on-the-water experiences.
Options include a 30-minute ski boat adventure on a Mastercraft. Rides are available from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Do you get a little nervous about docking? If so then hone your skills aboard an outboard-powered vessel in the Close Quarter Boat Handling class from Outcast Watersports. Classes will be offered at noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.
If you own an outboard boat but are thinking about moving up to an inboard-powered vessel, sign up for the Advanced Docking Experience presented by Sailing Florida and the Recreational Power Boating Association. You can work on precision maneuvering and docking on a 40-foot, twin-screw, inboard powerboat at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
For you non-powerboaters, check out the Introduction to Sailing seminar, presented by Sailtime Tampa Bay and the American Sailing Association, a 11/2-hour trip aboard a Hunter sailboat at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
All classes and seminars require preregistration at the Discover Boating booth.
"This is a big change for us," Berryman said. "But we are doing what we can to introduce boating to the people who just don't know what they are missing."