Feeling the Big Squeeze
Chris Herman’s clients want luxury and space in their coastal getaways. They want expansive kitchens with granite countertops and bathrooms bathed in marble. Giant flat-screen televisions are standard, as are fine custom woodwork in the master suite and Italian-leather sofas in the salon.
Herman isn’t a real estate agent hawking ocean-view mansions. He is a yacht broker on Newport Beach’s Mariner’s Mile, where, by one estimate, half a billion dollars’ worth of floating condominiums were sold last year.
“It’s just like homes today: Bigger is better,” said Herman, a salesman at Bayport Yachts, where one customer recently bought and traded in three boats in just 18 months before he found what he wanted: 57 feet. “Buyers want more comfort. They want more status.”
Big vessels have long plied California’s coast. But in the last decade, a surge in sales of longer, wider and taller yachts has done more than satisfy the dreams of deep-pocketed people wanting to stretch their sea legs.
The trend has become a public policy issue. Homeowners complain that their views and docking space are invaded as aging marinas go upscale, reducing the number of small-boat slips to accommodate larger boats, which pay higher rents when they aren’t languishing on waiting lists.
“It is a key issue in all of the projects that have come up in the past year or so,” said Deborah Lee, senior deputy director of the California Coastal Commission, which must approve marina renovations and protect access to recreational boating. “There’s concern about keeping smaller boaters from getting pushed out.... But larger slips are where the demand is.... We hear it from both sides.”
California has a shortage of coastal slips because of environmental regulations that virtually stopped marina construction a quarter-century ago. Demand for this liquid real estate is expected only to grow as the state is projected to add as many as 23,000 boats a year through 2020.
“They can’t all go in the water,” said Harold Flood, planning supervisor for the state Department of Boating and Waterways.
Although big boats constitute a fraction of the market, a growing armada of posh vessels is having a profound effect on harbors designed with boats smaller than 25 feet in mind.
About 2,000 new powerboats longer than 40 feet were registered in California from 1998 to 2005, according to Info-Link, a Florida company specializing in the boating industry. Nearly half were longer than 50 feet.
“In 1960, there were probably no more than 10 boats over 60 feet in the harbor. Now there’s probably a couple hundred,” said Seymour Beek, 72, a sailor and member of the Newport Beach Harbor Commission. “It’s a different culture.”
Owners of super-yachts of 80 feet or more -- the average size of a blue whale -- have taken extraordinary steps to dock their multimillion-dollar trophy boats in Newport.
Philanthropist John Crean, who made a fortune in recreational vehicles as founder of Fleetwood Enterprises, bought a home on Lido Isle two years ago because it could handle his new 125-foot yacht, the Donna C. III.
“You’ve got to park it somewhere,” he said.
Sales of these luxurious leviathans are booming. In the 1990s, 150 to 275 were constructed annually worldwide, according to industry spokesmen. Now there are 688 at various stages of completion in the world’s shipyards and about 3,200 cruising the globe in high style.
Although there was a time when a yacht about the size of an aircraft carrier might have been seen as a tad ostentatious, we’re over it, said Doug Sharp, a San Diego yacht designer and president of the Florida-based International Superyacht Society.
“Now it’s OK to be wealthy and show your wealth,” he said, pointing out that a custom-built 100-footer -- “that’s considered quite a small yacht now” -- goes for about $5 million.
The trend has even been felt down in the mid-double-digits, where boat builders say 60 feet is the new 40 feet.
“It’s been kind of like ‘super-size me’ for the entire industry,” said John Freeman, a spokesman for Knight & Carver YachtCenter, a San Diego shipyard.
Super-yachts are more numerous in Florida than California, but smaller large boats chugging into port are enough to shiver the timbers of many a harbor official here.
In Newport Beach, officials regularly receive complaints from homeowners whose blue harbor vistas have been replaced by walls of white fiberglass.
The city has acted when a boat extends as little as an inch onto a neighbor’s berth. “If it’s not encroaching by that inch, then it’s just a matter of them not liking that boat next door,” said Chris Miller, Newport Beach’s harbor resources supervisor. “There’s nothing I can do.”
There was little the city could do when, in 2001, a 50-foot-plus yacht owned by former Arco Chairman Lodwrick Cook landed on Balboa Island to protests from homeowners who complained that the Carole Diane blocked views, limited public beach access, was unsafe for swimmers and harmed sensitive eel grass.
“I’d like to introduce you to the Carole Diane,” Richard Ashoff told City Council members at a meeting recounted in the Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. “She weighs in at about 20 tons, and she hasn’t eaten today.”
The Carole Diane wasn’t the first large boat docked on the island. But Cook’s proposal to modify a pier in front of adjacent homes he owned so the boat wouldn’t encroach over the lot line galvanized residents.
City officials denied the dock modification, but a year later they decided there was nothing they could do to prevent the Carole Diane from sitting in front of Cook’s two homes.
One day, the boat was gone. But the incident still resonates.
“It sent a message to me that certain rules apply to certain people,” Ashoff said.
A hundred miles up the coast, in Ventura County’s Channel Islands Harbor, a clash of a different kind portends the future of California’s aging marinas.
In May, the Coastal Commission approved a $12-million plan by the harbor’s largest marina to demolish its wooden slips and replace them with fewer, but generally larger, concrete ones.
The project is the first step in a broad overhaul that backers hope will resuscitate the county-owned harbor, an eclectic place where pricey cruisers bob alongside sturdy backyard-built sailboats and weathered buckets.
“It’s tired,” said Lyn Krieger, director of the Ventura County Harbor Department. “It’s functioning, but like a lot of 40-year-old centers, it needs a face-lift. We want an up-to-date, competitive marina environment.”
At Channel Islands Harbor Marina, achieving that -- and complying with new state safety standards and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act -- will mean the loss of 255 slips for boats of less than 36 feet in favor of 174 slips for boats longer than 38 feet.
That has rankled small boaters who say the project and others to come will mean rising slip fees that will price them out. Half the harbor’s marinas will propose similar renovations in the next few years, Krieger said.
“This whole harbor was built for the enjoyment of everybody, not just the wealthiest persons,” said Michael Salvaneschi, 65, who said he pinched pennies for years, buying clothes at the Salvation Army so he could afford to sail solo around the world for seven years.
“We’re building this for millionaires in L.A.,” Salvaneschi said.
Today, there is a waiting list for large-boat slips in the harbor while small-boat spaces lie vacant as rising slip fees lead some to choose the cheaper alternative of storing their craft on land.
But some say that after the harbor is remade, the situation will flip and many small-boat owners who have no interest in dry-docking will be forced to.
“It’s all about the almighty dollar,” said Dominick Mercurio, 80, whose squat, 1970s-era tub with a cramped cabin and garage-sale decor is docked across from a gleaming new sailboat more than twice its size and selling for $438,000.
” ... They’re trying to push people like me out of the water.”
Similar concerns have been raised in harbor renovations elsewhere, including Redondo Beach, Long Beach and Marina del Rey, the last of which has lost hundreds of small-boat slips in recent years.
Although the shortage of large-boat slips is undeniable, demand is expected to increase for large- and small-boat slips, said Gary Timm, the Coastal Commission manager in Ventura. “We’re trying to come up with a balance ... while protecting some amount of smaller spaces,” Timm said. “We’re still struggling with what that is.”
But with state officials estimating construction costs as much as $40,000 per slip, marina owners are looking to bring in big boats on waiting lists to recoup their investments.
“For the Coastal Commission to socially engineer a facility ... isn’t right,” said Brad Gross, San Francisco’s harbor master, who expects opposition to a planned makeover of two city-owned marinas that will eliminate most small-boat slips.
“As an industry, we’ve seen the writing on the wall.... Things have changed.”
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.
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From dolphin to whale
Over the decades, marinas have responded to the super-sizing of boats by designing slips to accommodate vessels that are longer and wider.
Then and now
In earlier decades, the ratio between the average boat’s length and its width, or beam, was much higher than it is today as stronger materials allow wider boats to be built.
Average boat size*
*--* Decade Length Beam** 1950s 29 ft. 7.0 ft. 1960s-70s 32 8.5 1980s 36 12.5 1990s-2000s 43 17.5
*Based on sizes of boats being built and existing boats stored in water
**Widest point of boat
Source: Corrough Consulting Group