Like many luxury business owners, boat dealers have been holding their breath for the past couple of years. Not only was there a poor economy to think about, but recently there was also the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But with the well plugged and the bay area coastline relatively unaffected, boat dealers are slowly starting to exhale. People want to get back on the water, even if it's not the flurry of activity of a few years ago.
"It seems like things are on the upswing," said Jon Reinke of Outcast Marine in Tampa. "I think some of it is people wondering what was going to happen with the oil in the gulf. Once the oil started flowing, things started slowing down. They seem to be pulling the trigger now."
But potential boat buyers are aiming a little lower.
The most popular boats remain the "bay" boats, which are smaller and less expensive than offshore boats. They handle nicely in shallow water but can still withstand choppy bay water. On a calm day, the boats can run to nearshore artificial reefs.
Center console inshore flats boats and ski boats seem better suited for boater's budgets. These boats can range from $13,000 to $25,000, depending on size and engine setup.
"People have hit the reset button," said David Bair of Quality Boat Sales in Clearwater. "If they were looking at the 50-footer, now they're looking at the 35- to 40-footers. If they were looking at the 35-footer, now they're looking at the 25-footers. I don't think we're seeing people getting out, just downsizing a little."
Although some retailers say that's not necessarily true of people who already own boats.
"People who own boats are still generally looking to upsize," said Lou Vinci, owner of Indian Springs Marina in Largo. "What we're seeing at least is the people who are entering the market for the first time are generally looking for one size down from what they might have bought three or four years ago."
Reinke said he has noticed another trend at his shop. Pontoon boats, which are used mainly on lakes and rivers, have been selling well. They are mostly popular with older boaters, and are easier to handle than other boats.
"It's better than we've seen it in years," Reinke said. "I think people are feeling more confident (with the economy) than they have in years."
Reinke, Vinci and Bair will join several other boat dealers starting today at the Tampa Bay Boat Show at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. It's an opportunity for boat dealers to show off their new lines, and it's a chance for perspective buyers to see what's available before the holiday season.
And, according to Bair, it's easier than it has been in years for people to start boating.
"The cost of entry into boating is the least expensive it's been in years," Bair said. "Storage rates are lower, interest rates are at an all-time low. Gas prices are stable. It's almost like Wall Street. People like it when it's good or bad. But if it's uncertain, they don't like it. I think that time of BP was the uncertainty that affected things more than anything else."
Still, Vinci said boaters don't settle for just anything. It's a great big ocean, and buyers are looking for something they feel comfortable with.
"Boaters are basically irascible people,'' Vinci said. "My wife always hates when I say this, but when you leave land surrounded by a piece of fiberglass with some heavy weight around it, and you venture 20-30 miles out into the water to catch fish you could buy a lot easier at the fish market, you have to be a little different."