No other composites end-market suffered more during the recession than marine. Data from the National Marine Manufacturers Assn. (NMMA, Chicago, Ill.) show that for powerboat dealers, retail sales over the last decade peaked in 2001 at 311,700 units. Sales hovered around 300,000 units until 2007, when they dropped modestly to 267,300 units, followed in 2008 by a more dramatic drop to 203,000 units. In 2009, the floor fell out as new boat sales plunged to 153,550 units. Meanwhile, the total retail value of new boats dropped from a decade high of $9.578 billion (USD) in 2006 to just $5.670 billion in 2009. In the span of just three years, the value of the U.S. new boat market was cut by 41 percent, and the shipment of new boats was reduced by almost half. The U.S. auto industry, by comparison, plummeted 35 percent during the same period. For boatbuilders — and for the same reason — it was worse. As sales of new boats dropped, boat production dropped even faster. NMMA says wholesale boat sales in 2009 were down 80 percent compared to 2008. Where boatbuilders went, their composite materials suppliers followed. For example, many resin vendors reported declines of 75 to 80 percent in 2009 marine business compared to 2008.
However, a market study from Research and Markets (Dublin, Ireland) predicts that annual sales of recreational boats, the recession notwithstanding, will reach $38.3 billion by 2013, with growth coming from Europe and Asia Pacific.
Boatbuilders who work with composites continue to move to closed molding. Although the market is still dominated by glass fiber-reinforced polyesters and vinyl esters, boatbuilders also are employing more carbon fiber reinforcement not only in sailing-yacht rigging systems (masts, shrouds, stays and spreaders) where it is now the standard, but also in megapoweryacht structures, primarily in Europe, to decrease topside weight and increase boat stability. For the same reasons, some observers see growth potential for carbon in the 20-ft to 40-ft cruiser boat and military boat segments. Estimates of current carbon fiber use in boats range from 450,000 lb to 590,000 lb (227 to 267 metric tonnes) per year.
One of the most notable achievements in marine composites in 2010 was the manufacture of the “sail wing” on BMW ORACLE Racing’s USA racing yacht, which won the 33rd America’s Cup yacht race in early 2010. Toolmaker Janicki Industries (Sedro-Woolley, Wash.) provided tooling for the sail wing, a technological breakthrough that reportedly improved the yacht’s maneuverability and speed by 20 percent. The 223 ft/68.6m tall structure — more than twice as long as a Boeing 747 wing — has a carbon and aramid fiber-reinforced frame, skinned with an aeronautical film material.