Crisis? What financial crisis?

Niche craft for those who can still afford luxury have led the way in 2011, writes David Lockwood.

Niche craft for those who can still afford luxury have led the way in 2011, writes David Lockwood.

It's only a matter of time before 2011 becomes a fading memory. On and around the water, it will be intentionally forgotten by those afflicted by the lingering global financial crisis.

Bill Barry-Cotter, who has built boats for more than 40 years, reckons this has been the worst year for his businesses. Rising utility and labour costs, a high dollar and weak demand due to the GFC have dealt his business a massive blow.

But where there are troughs there are commensurate peaks. And it's in tough times that the tough get going. Barry-Cotter has been involved in some serious naval gazing of late and unveiled his new releases to a clutch of media. The Maritimo M45 Cruising Motoryacht and the Mustang 43 will feature unprecedented levels of design input, Barry-Cotter told this writer during a visit to his factory last week.

Meantime, 2011 will go down as the year Maritimo built its 100th M48 Cruising Motoryacht. It was also the year Barry-Cotter released a neat GFC-proof weekender, the Mustang 32, which sleeps four and sells from $215,000. Already the yard is up to boat 15, with the more affordable petrol model outselling the diesel variant. At this end of the market, buyers seek keen pricing.

For rival Riviera, it's been a tough but comparatively better year. While the Gold Coast yard remains in receivership and lost its CEO, John Anderson, who returned to the US, its brand remains strong. Riviera will have sold 80 to 90 boats, led by the new 53- and 43-footers sporting Volvo Penta's IPS pod-drive systems.

But in many ways, this has been the year of the niche boat. The scatter-gun approach of building for the masses doesn't seem as relevant as carefully targeted designs aimed at those who still have the wherewithal to go luxury boating. The market for motor cruisers pitched at grey nomads remains, while baby boomers with a social conscience are gravitating to easy-to-sail cruising yachts and single-engine plodders.

Passage makers from Grand Banks, Hampton and Outer Reef found homes with retirees realising their motor-cruising dreams. These Asian-made craft offer good value but it's the Asian-made displacement and semi-displacement "trawlers" that those seeking economy have bought. We drove jaunty little boats from Alaska, Arvor, Beneteau, Clipper and Integrity, to name a few.

Other builders adopted automotive cues and focused on (nautical) style, tradition and cool retro lines. Among them are the multi-award-winning Palm Beach picnic boats from the central coast, the Back Cove and Sabre lobster-style boats from Maine and the new Belize 52 built in Taiwan by local industry figures Lee Dillon and Wes Moxey. The New Ocean sport yachts and flybridge sixtysomething footers were successful for long-serving Keith Hanson.

Value has been the tenet for French juggernaut the Beneteau Group. Aggressive pricing has worked well for its Beneteau, Jeanneau, Lagoon and Prestige powerboats, yachts and catamarans.

Not to be outdone, German giant Hanse enjoyed a stellar year in Australia with its new 5 Series easy-sail yachts. Indeed, the sailing business has not suffered the same decline as the powerboat sector. While German marque Bavaria has been ticking away, the quiet achiever in Britain is Princess. It has enjoyed strong support in Australia from those still prepared to pay for five-star standards.

Small boats and fishing tinnies sold well and can be seen zooming around. Offshore, the more robust plate-aluminium boat remains the catch. That said, imports of used American sport fishers have flourished. With Asian-made fishing tackle cheaper than ever before, everyone was wetting a line this year.

My drive of the year was the $180,000 Austrian-made Frauscher 717 GT. This V8 runabout modelled on a 1930s day racer is pure pleasure.

We look forward to 2012 and especially the release of the Buizen 52 pilot-house yacht built in Terrey Hills.

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