Sitting down to write this article, I was interrupted by the roar of a helicopter low overhead. Poking my head out a hatch, I saw a sleek-looking machine lifting off, pivoting, and swooping off over the lake — our new neighbors on the 314 foot Vava II, heading out for an afternoon spin. I ducked back inside to work. Suddenly, 36 feet no longer seemed like the lap of luxury.
Later this month, on May 28th and 29th, a collection of yachting industry buyers and vendors will gather together in Vancouver to attend the Pacific Yacht Conference. The primary topic of the event? Megayachts!
The event will be held aboard the M/V Magic Charm, moored in Vancouver Harbor. Magic Charm is billed as a harbor cruise vessel, but at 110 feet, she’s smaller than most of the megayachts that attendees hope to cater to.
The definition for “megayacht” is nowhere cut and dried. Wikipedia thinks it is anything over 164 feet, but for many smaller boat owners it may just be “anything my boat can fit on the deck of.”
Megayachts represent the tip of a $56 billion industry worldwide. That figure is itself the estimate of a megayacht trade group, so it may be suspect, but it’s beyond contention that many independent operators in the maritime industry are scrambling for a slice of that pie.
Although the Pacific Northwest is not traditional megayacht territory, we’ve seen a few here in recent years: Stolichnaya vodka titan Yuri Schefller’s Serene was on the Seattle waterfront last fall, and Ethereal, Erica XII and Tamsen, all sailing megayachts, have been on Elliott Bay in recent years. A few megas head up the Inside Passage each year, to the occasional trepidation of locals.
The folks putting on the Pacific Yacht Conference would like to increase that number.
Our region has some significant challenges when it comes to attracting megayachts, whose owners generally have their pick of luxury destinations. Weather and distance are two of them: our climate is not what you would call balmy for much of the year, and we are a long haul away from anyplace where it is.
That combination of factors both limits the cruising season for the owners, and reduces their market for putting the boats into charter (as many owners do to help cover costs when not using the yachts themselves). Lack of existing facilities in the Pacific Northwest for such large vessels turns this into a vicious circle, and complex port clearance requirements along the border create further obstacles.
Discussing restrictions on foreign-flagged yachts entering Canada is in fact on the agenda for the conference, as are the availability of services for megayachts, marketing efforts, and other regulatory concerns.
Why is it worth so much effort to attract megayachts to the Salish Sea?
Well, you see the acronym “UHNWI” tossed around quite a lot when looking into these conferences (“Targeting Asian UHNWIs and other prospective Owners in the Pacific north-west” as a session title, for example); after a bit, you realize it stands for “Ultra-High Net Worth Individual.” The scale of spending that goes along with such individuals is staggering: $10,000 Costco runs, $400,000 tabs at the fuel dock. More megayachts means more profits for businesses providing those, and other, services.
Would such an increase be good news for recreational boaters in the under-60 foot range? Or will the inflation and focus on megayacht scale services squeeze out more affordable services and moorage for the little guys?
There are arguments for either position. In an industry that has been hit hard by the global recession and demographic declines in the number of boaters overall, megayacht revenues represent a ray of sunshine for vendors trying to stay in business even as their traditional customer bases have dried up.
At the same time, owners of smaller vessels can feel edged out in terms of both price and availability when marine services are built to cater to megayacht owners. And there is that sneaking sense of inadequacy the small boat owner feels when they realize that no matter how hard they try, they’re just not going to be able to squeeze that helicopter platform in on top of the radar arch.
Boat US contends that improvements to boating infrastructure frequently benefit cruisers on smaller boats, but the effects are far from universally beneficial. The “enhanced waterfront facilities” that Boat US cites often have enhanced price tags to go along with them, and the enhancements aren’t always what small scale cruisers want or need. Cruisers in the Caribbean can be heard to complain of price inflation engendered by an influx of big boat operators with deep pockets. Marinas devoting water space to megayacht facilities don’t have as much space for small vessel moorage.
It’s hard to quantify these effects locally, but you can see some of the trends at play. The only new marina development in Victoria Harbour (a popular and busy destination for small cruising boats), for example, is a megayacht terminal: the Victoria International Marina will add only 29 slips total to the harbour, exclusively for vessels 65 feet and larger. Meanwhile, 30 and 40-footers are hard-pressed to squeeze in at the Causeway Floats on busy summer afternoons.
Similarly, the newest, and currently the only, marina on the downtown Seattle waterfront, Bell Harbor, built in the mid-nineties, is conspicuously overweighted toward larger slip sizes, with only 16 slips out of 70 under 40 feet (and that number generously assumes not all the larger slips are filled, which blocks out some of the smaller spaces; otherwise, there are only five slips under 40 feet available).
Considering that there are still wait lists at many Puget Sound marinas for smaller slips, boaters might scratch their heads at these design decisions … the demand seems to be at the other end of the market from what is being built. But building big can pay off, as Seattle’s Salmon Bay Marine Center (SBMC) proves.
Since its opening in 2009, the megayacht terminal and service center has done land-office business. But although the center caters primarily to megayachts, its tenants include plenty of vendors that smaller boat owners use also: S3 Maritime, Kadey Krogen, Grand Banks, and others. Even if small vessel owners don’t directly appreciate the constant outflow of dollars from megayachts at SBMC, or care about the resulting tax revenues, the megayachts help subsidize those businesses.
The economics of over-water development in the Pacific Northwest may continue to favor projects catering to larger vessels: with scale comes profit, and the increasing costs of waterfront property and environmental compliance with shoreline regulation demand a significant return for any investment to be financially feasible. Two 30-foot slips are more costly to build and maintain than a single 60-footer, and bring in only about 3/4 the revenue.
There is also the uncomfortable reality in the United States that the middle class, traditional owners of small boats, is shrinking. Although boat sales numbers have been improving of late, they are doing so in a way that is less profitable for manufacturers. “The boating ‘middle class’ is doing so in smaller, more affordable boats,” said Northwest Marine Trade Association president George Harris earlier this year. What businessman wants to target a market that is steadily shrinking and spending less from year to year?
In an era where both shoreline residential development and regulation increasingly edge out waterfront property from traditional marine uses, having allies with truckloads of money and powerful connections may help win some political battles that the relatively small constituency of recreational boaters otherwise seem bound to lose. The interests do not align exactly, but when you are a minnow swimming with sharks, sometimes you just have to hope they’re hungry for something else that day. Maybe five slips under 40 feet are better than none at all. And a neighbor with a helicopter is a conversation starter, even if they never let you borrow it.
The relationship is bound to be more complicated than friend or foe. The megayachts, if they come, will bring some benefits for all boaters along with them, and will create some impacts that small boaters would not otherwise have to bear. And in the meantime, I believe it’s still polite to welcome new neighbors in the cruising world, no matter what grungy old tub they happen to sail in on. So I’ll be heading over to the Vava II with my bottle of Night Train shortly … just as soon as I hear that helicopter come back in.