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Boat builders exhibition in Tampa shows industry rebounding

A 34 SeaVee triple engine sits docked on display at the International Boatbuilders Exhibition & Conference, an industry trade show with more than 500 vendors, at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon.
A 34 SeaVee triple engine sits docked on display at the International Boatbuilders Exhibition & Conference, an industry trade show with more than 500 vendors, at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon.

TAMPA — Like many at the International Boatbuilders Exhibition & Conference, Steve Schoderer is optimistic about the future of the nation's marine industry.

"We had some rough years," said Scho­derer of Mercury Marine, one the country's leading outboard motor manufacturers. "But things are looking up. One reason — technology."

Schoderer, while standing on the dock outside the Tampa Convention Center, said he thinks high-tech features such as his company's new "joystick" operating system will be the next big thing in every new pleasure cruiser.

"It makes docking a boat so simple that even a kid could do it," he said. "And that is going to bring more people into the sport."

About 50 manufacturers offer Mercury's Joystick Piloting System for outboard motors. It's Schoderer's job to persuade boat builders — there are dozens of them from all around the world in Tampa for the three-day trade show — to take a chance on the new technology.

"This is not a consumer boat show," said Ann Dunbar, the IBEX director. "This is where the engineers and boat builders come to find out what's new to put in next year's boats."

When it comes to boat sales and participation, Florida leads the nation. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the state ranks No. 1 in total sales of new powerboats, engines, trailers and accessories, up 16 percent from 2012, generating $1.9 billion in 2013.

Florida's 5,539 boating businesses employed 43,859 people in 2012. Those numbers include everything from high-end boat builders such as Tampa's Lazzara Yachts to smaller companies such as JL Marine Systems, which makes the "Power Pole," an anchoring system popular with flats fishermen.

"Everybody wants to stay on top of the technology," said Dunbar, who brought the show to Tampa this year because the convention center offered access to the water. "You can't stay competitive in this business unless you have the latest and the greatest."

Florida has more registered boats — 870,031 —than any other state. That means about one boat for every eight households. According to the latest economic data, from June, powerboat sales were up 8.7 percent compared with the previous year. Sales of ski boats showed the greatest increase, at 16.7 percent. Personal watercraft have also seen a surge in sales, up 25.7 percent.

In 2013, the ratio of preowned boat to new boat sales decreased for the first time since the recession, indicating a shift in consumer demand for new boats.

This year's IBEX has 573 vendors, including 142 that did not display products in 2013, as well as 80 companies that are new to the show.

"We think the industry has really turned a corner," Dunbar said. "The manufacturers are feeling confident. People want to buy boats."

One of the highlights of this year's show is the "Connected Boat Display," which shows how a vessel's various marine electronics and operating systems can be connected via cloud computing.

"You can control everything from your iPhone," said Joe Burke, chief technology officer for Chetco Digital Instruments, IBEX's partner in The Connected Boat. "And the great thing is that it works any time, from anywhere in the world."

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