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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    As boat registrations sag in Connecticut, will dealers drop prices on nautical vessels?

    Four years after Connecticut residents escaped cabin fever for pandemic outings on Long Island Sound and other waterways, interest in boating appears to be ebbing as registrations declined the past two years, and slips became more readily available after a squeeze at marinas.

    Following an extended run through 2006 in which Connecticut boat registrations peaked at more than 112,000 vessels, the tide turned with 14 successive years of a downward trend to less than 87,200 statewide, according to annual counts tallied by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. In the aggregate, that equated to a 22 percent drop in Connecticut boat registrations over that period.

    Under Connecticut law, boats must be registered prior to launch if they are 19 feet, six inches in length, or longer. That exempts a number of smaller recreational vessels, such as kayaks and canoes that remain popular in Connecticut and nationally.

    The pandemic reinvigorated interest in larger boats, however, with registrations cresting at nearly 6,000 vessels in 2021. But Connecticut registrations waned again over the two subsequent years to just 89,700 registrations in 2023, according to DMV data provided by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

    Inflation's impact on household budgets remains an unknown wild card, along with higher interest rates that have made loans more expensive to finance the purchase of boats.

    Brunswick Corp., whose brands include Boston Whaler, Sea Ray and Mercury outboard engines sold through dealers, reported a 10 percent decline in boat sales in the first quarter of this year.

    To spur greater interest in boating, Brunswick has been building out a Freedom Boat Club membership service that has eight Connecticut locations today in Stamford, Stratford, Branford, Clinton, Westbrook, Deep River, New London and Mystic. And the company continues to bring new features to market, such as joystick-style steering for its Mercury outboard engines and those designed for pontoon boats, for better control of a boat at dockside.

    "Our first-quarter U.S. boat pipelines declined versus the end of the fourth quarter of 2023 — which is unusual given the first quarter is commonly a period of building pipelines ahead of the selling season, underlining the caution being exhibited," said Brunswick CEO Dave Foulkes, speaking last month on a conference call with investment analysts. "Our pricing will be very modest this year, and we'd expect that across the industry."

    Connecticut dealer revenue totaled $314 million in 2021 for boats, engines and trailers tracked by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, with 2022 data not yet available on its website.

    Early this year, NMMA reported it expects unit sales of new boats to be flat this year. The market for used boats trended downward in 2022, NMMA reported last fall.

    Storage rates vary from marina to marina. At Don's Dock Marina in Stonington, the 2024 rate is $96 a foot, which equates to about $2,500 a year for a 26-foot power boat or sailboat. At Norwalk Cove Marina, dock space for that 26-foot boat starts at $4,575 for the season, with the price escalating for larger boats.

    But the overall cost of boat ownership is higher, with estimates ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $7,500 annually or more depending on year-to-year upkeep, slip rentals and other costs. For those who choose to winter their boat at a yard, seasonal costs can hit $40 a foot or more, and twice that rate for a rack in an indoor facility. Other ongoing costs include maintenance; fuel which is pricier dockside compared to gas stations; and boat insurance. Progressive lumps Connecticut and other Northeast states among those where premiums are highest, at an average of $584 a year as of 2022.

    For those considering a boat it all adds up — which could prompt manufacturers to drop the price to bring buyers back to boat shows and dealerships. The CEO of MarineMax, which has outlets in Norwalk and Westbrook, told investors in late April that U.S. boat registrations were down the first three months of this year.

    "If dealers have too much inventory, they won't order as much product as the manufacturers want them to order," said MarineMax CEO Mike McLamb. "My guess is there could be some increased promotional activity."

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