About an hour before the start of the Desert Storm Poker Run last April on Lake Havasu in Arizona, Paul Ray, the president of noted high-performance marine engine builder Ilmor Marine, and I chatted about the future of the go-fast powerboat world. That’s what people tend to do—talk about the future—when the present isn’t so rosy, although you’d have never known it from the incredible fleet of big-buck performance boats we ogled during the event.
“If there is going to be a resurgence in the high-performance market—and obviously we think there is—it’s got to come from the entry level,” Ray continued. “We already have engines from 270 to 440 hp (built for the MasterCraft tow boat line) and those would be perfect for smaller performance boats.
“You can’t finance a big boat—you can’t finance almost any boat now,” he continued. “If you’re gong to have a chance of financing a new boat, which is where the new customers are going to come from, it has to be with smaller, more practical boats. Ultimately, those guys will move up to bigger boats. But this industry will die—it will die—if manufacturers don’t start paying attention to the smaller boat market.”
Strong words, especially for a man who heads a company that has made its made mark with 550- to 725-hp V-10 engines in the “big boat” market—but words I happen to agree with. The simple fact is that there are a lot more buyers for performance boats that cost less than $100,000 than there are for performance boats that cost more than $100,000, despite the concentration of the latter at Desert Storm.
At one time, the sport boats from Baja Marine filled that niche. Baja offered a slew of single-engine, production-built performance boats for less than $100,000. True, a Baja model was never going to blow you away with its construction quality or dazzle you with its performance, but Baja boats presented solid values and enough performance to hook entry-level buyers who might “step up.” And for those who never took that step, a Baja was plenty good—and that showed in the builder’s almost cult-like following.
A very long story made very short: Baja tanked several years ago, then went to Fountain, which tanked about a year later, and was acquired, along with Baja, by Liberty Associates, a venture capital group. Along the way, Liberty picked up the then-ailing Donzi and Pro-Line boat lines, and relocated all production to the Fountain plant in Washington, N.C.
In December 2010, the Liberty group announced it was relaunching the Baja Outlaw (sport boat) and Islander (open-bow runabout) models from 20 to 26 feet.
“Baja was at its best as a value product in the performance market,” said John Walker, the president of Baja and the head of all the boat brands under the Liberty umbrella, at the time of the announcement.
I couldn’t agree more.
Production of the relaunched Baja line was planned to begin in February. That didn’t happen, but to be fair to Walker and the rest of the folks at the Liberty boat group, they’ve had their hands full getting three other boat lines back on their feet—and rushing to meet a demand and flooding the market with inventory for which there was no demand was not on their agenda.
The first Baja, a 26-foot Outlaw, was recently released. That’s good news. Even better news is that the company reportedly has 12 orders for Baja models.
I know, I know, 12 production-built performance boats will not reignite the performance-boat industry. But it’s a start, and not all that long ago there wasn’t even demand for one new Baja, much less a dozen. What’s more, the brand appears to be regaining some traction.
“We have (Baja) dealers who are fussing because we are not ready to go into full production yet,” said Walker. “Yet they understand that and still want to sign dealer agreements anyway. There’s a tremendous amount of international interest in the Baja line.”
Of course, a turnaround in the consumer credit crunch wouldn’t hurt Baja’s cause, but even without it I believe the brand has legs. In fact, on the sport boat side, I think it could eventually outsell its competing sister brands, Donzi and Fountain. The price points of Baja models are such that they appeal to a much wider consumer audience.
And from those ranks eventually will come the future buyers of the kind of big-buck, custom performance that Paul Ray and I ogled during Desert Storm.
For more information, visit Baja Marine or read Betting on Baja.
Matt Trulio is the editor at large for Powerboat magazine. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Trulio’s daily blog can be found on speedonthewater.com, a site he created and maintains, which is the high-performance arm of the BoaterMouth group.