Those who supplied the rich in the boating industry got richer in 1998, while those supplying smaller-size boats got poorer.
That essentially was the incoming wave of the marine industry last year — sales of larger-size yachts and cruisers moved full steam ahead, while demand for smaller boats capsized.
``The choice is bigger-ticket items,'' said Dick Clark, president of plastics processor Tecla Co. Inc. in Walled Lake, Mich. ``Some larger boat lines are sold out to the year 2000. We supplied a lot of products for high-end boats.''
Overall in the industry, the news was mixed, according to the Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association. Production of inboard cruisers — those boats over 24 feet long — grew by 9 percent last year, while larger speed boats with outboard engines grew by 4 percent.
Yet, both the smaller, stern-driven boats and personal watercraft tailed off in sales and production volumes. Sales of stern-drives actually declined by 1 percent in 1998, according to the figures.
Much of that growth came from boats with an average retail price of $264,000, said James Petru, manager of market statistics for the marine association.
``You have your graying baby boomers who are starting to send kids away to college,'' Petru said. ``They are becoming empty nesters and have extra money to spend. It doesn't take too many of them to affect sales for the industry.''
In fact, the number of boats in use last year increased to 16.8 million, from 16.2 million in 1997. However, total retail sales — mainly predicated on the decline of smaller boats — fell from $19.34 billion in 1997 to $19.15 billion last year, according to the association's figures.
The good news for plastic: It has arrived in the marine industry. Plastic is found on all sections of larger boats, from the decorative trim in the cabin to the fiberglass composite hulls on many yachts and pleasure craft.
Within the past five years, teak and plywood have disappeared from most boats in favor of plastic, Clark said.
Plastic applications are continuing to evolve. New trends in plastic marine products include color-coordinated accessory items — many made from ABS or acrylic materials — used to adorn the deck and cabin, Clark said. Product changes also include engine bulkhead doors made of plastics, as well as new table tops and drink holders molded from a variety of resins, he added.
``We've become more sophisticated with detailing,'' he said. ``It's not just a plain hull or a plain door anymore. We give it a better look with plastic decorative materials. It never used to happen before.''
Many of those details have come from the expanded use of thermoforming on boats, Petru said.
``It's a great tool for styling on the interior,'' he said. ''Exotic curves and shapes are being formed for new parts.''
Many processors are starting to use computer numerically controlled machining centers to fashion the tooling for sophisticated plastic parts, Petru said.
``We don't see any revolutionary trends with plastics,'' Clark said. ``A lot of that took place five years ago, when manufacturers stopped using teak. But we're still evolving and coming up with the products for our customers.''