Wood is no longer welcome in the boating industry.
At a recent marine trade show in Chicago, engineered thermoplastics and composite materials dropped anchor as never before. The use of plastics — whether in extruded sheet or injection molded form — ruled the waves at the International Marine Trades Exhibit and Conference.
Several parts suppliers propped up signs signifying the shift from wood to plastics. Some had placards with the word wood, surrounded by a circle with a slash mark through it. Composite supplier Kayco Inc. of Grand Prairie, Texas, admonished booth visitors to let Kayco ``get your wood out.''
Meanwhile, several leading makers of yachts and pleasure craft — including Sea Ray Boats Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., and OMC Boat Group Inc. of Waukegan, Ill. — adorned their latest models with a heavy cache of plastic parts.
On one of Sea Ray's 54-foot yachts, the customized cabin and deck used thermoplastic materials in areas that once had been the domain of teak and plywood. They and other manufacturers were considering changing their hulls from fiberglass to acrylic or new composite materials.
``The point we're making is that we really see plastics in our future,'' said Sea Ray spokesman Michael Hungerford. ``It's lighter weight than wood and it doesn't cause a problem with corrosion. Our boat owners don't want to spend a lot of their valuable weekends maintaining the wood on their boats.''
The boat business hopes the switch to lower-maintenance plastics can help drive sales in a fragmented market. Larger boats rode the crest of a strong U.S. economy in 1997, said National Marine Manufacturers Association spokesman Greg Proteau.
However, smaller sport boats and pleasure craft dropped in unit sales, Proteau said. Competition for leisure time and dollars contributed to the dropoff in the entry-level market, he said. In addition, used boats have become a viable alternative, contributing to lower demand for new, small boats.
``A large segment of prospective small-boat owners are younger families with children,'' he said. ``These younger prospects are active outdoors, [maybe] enjoying a friend's boat, but are also into camping, fishing and hunting, skiing and hiking. This group may be too busy to buy now.''
However, with a boom in pricier luxury lines, total retail U.S. marine sales are expected to rise 9 percent this year to $19.3 billion, according to association estimates. Of that total, the high-end boat buyers — mainly over-40 baby-boomers without children at home — spent $1.7 billion, a 38 percent increase in retail dollars, and bought 6,300 boats, an 18 percent rise.
The small-boat market dropped 7 percent to 200,000 new units sold, while sales in that category rose 4 percent to $1.4 billion, the association said.
The plastics market has not experienced the same sales yo-yo as has the boat industry, said general manager Jeffrey King of Venice, Fla.-based King Plastic Corp. at the trade show. Boat sales have ebbed and flowed in the 1990s, partly wounded by a federal 10 percent excise tax on boats, in place from 1991-93.
However, King and other plastic-product makers have thrived in an environment where wood has become the enemy, King said. Industry sources tag the company as the leader in wood-replacement sheet marine products.
King did not divulge annual sales but said his company's proprietary calendered and extruded sheet products have taken off for the family-owned business as it attempts to replicate the deep-grained, burled look of teak.
``One of the buzzwords in the industry has become `wood-free boats,''' King said. ``Wood means problems and wood means maintenance, while teak has become more expensive and difficult to find. The market has gotten much larger for companies like ours.''
The 29-year-old firm's sheet is manufactured in polypropylene, high and low density polyethylene and engineered polyolefins. The company, which introduced its signature King Starboard sheets in 1987, produces 23 types of plastic boat accessories.
It took some time before the material caught on — before boat owners were ready to switch, King said. Today, the use of plastic materials has become an industry standard, he said.
``Boat manufacturers were a little stand-offish at first because they weren't sure that plastics would give the same quality and finish,'' King said. ``It's been a 180 degree turnaround, and we're only beginning to find all the boat applications for our products.''