Boat upgrades on the horizon

Published On: September 1, 2018Categories: Features

Boat owners favor quality materials over ostentatious improvements. Style considerations do play a role, particularly LED lighting and pops of color against neutral backgrounds. However, basic concerns, such as comfort and durability, are driving many interior upgrades.

Driven by comfort, durability and a splash of color

Henry Ford is famous for promising back in 1909 to make the Model T in any color, “as long as it’s black.” The same could be said (more or less) of white in the boating world, as least for most of recent history. But today, in both new vessels and upgrades of older crafts, it’s becoming more and more common to see a splash of color in seating, cushions, center consoles and other components.

That’s the word from a variety of fabricators, manufacturers and suppliers we recently polled to find out what’s new in the world of decor, lighting and accessories in the marine trade.

While industry veterans we spoke with agreed that a healthy economy is helping drive a robust market in both new boat sales and upgrades, they say most boat owners who are changing things up are not necessarily hungering for elaborate or ostentatious improvements. Yes, they want their boats to look nicer—hence the interest in color, as well as other style considerations—but more basic concerns seem to be behind most upgrades.

“The basic concerns are comfort and durability,” says Greg Carman, sales and marketing manager for Llebroc Industries Inc., a boat seating business in Fort Worth, Texas. “And that’s a big part of the all-around trend toward picking better materials when upgrading the interior of a boat.”

Let’s take comfort first—while acknowledging that what’s comfortable often looks good too.

A plusher look—and colors besides white—are increasingly popular today among boat owners. The custom seating on this yacht, designed and made by William Marriott of Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC in Charleston, S.C., is an example of both.
Photo: Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC.

A plusher look

“The old flat cushions in a boat are a thing of the past,” says William Marriott, who operates Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC in Charleston, S.C. “Everything today is three-dimensional, with a lot of contouring and thicker foam. Boaters like the plusher look.”

“And if you’ve got a seat that’s plush, it feels good,” adds Mark Henderson, strategic product category manager with TACO Metals Inc., which designs, manufactures and distributes marine products out of Miami, Fla. “You want to be comfortable whether you’re sitting fishing or cruising a waterway—you want support for your back and sides, with a nice armrest.”

“If you’re cruising for a full day, you’re looking for something with a little more to it than the old leaning post cushion with 2-inch foam,” Carman says.

Then there is the move to more color. According to Marriott, some of that has been driven by fabrication issues. “Manufacturers are not going with the white anymore because of the well-known pinking problems,” says Marriott, who designs and builds prototype interiors for 10 boat manufacturers, as well as doing custom work on private yachts. “Instead, what I’ve been building has a lot of tans, beiges, browns and grays.”

Color selection in boats is also driven by trends in the residential market, says Krisha Plauché, owner and principal designer at Onboard Interiors LLC, a design firm in Marblehead, Mass. Color, she explains, is just part of a move toward “a more modern, simplistic, clean look on boats.”

The color she sees most associated with that modern clean look right now is gray, but with a caveat—it’s not for everybody.

“Gray has to be used correctly,” Plauché says. “You can’t just throw in a bunch of gray fabric on a classic looking yacht that might have brown and wood tones. The design process has to be thought out from beginning to end.”

Thicker foam and contouring are two aspects of today’s boat cushion designs, according to William Marriott of Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC in Charleston, S.C., who made these prototypes for Carolina Cushions Inc. Photo: Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC.

Color extends to stitching as well, according to Carman. “We’re seeing a lot of two-tones,” he says, “with stitching colors added to seats. It used to always be white, but now there is blue, black, red, orange —anything you want.”

In conjunction with more color is more attention to textured upholstery, which, Marriott says, “makes everything look nice and more expensive looking.”

Difficulty with patterns

Patterns, on the other hand, haven’t caught on as much because of the difficulty in producing them. “The only fabrics you see where patterns are changing and increasing are from Sunbrella®,” says Rick Hirsch, president of Manart-Hirsch Co. Inc., a large marine products wholesaler in Lynbrook, N.Y., and Pompano Beach, Fla. “They can do it because of the weaving process they use. That’s not in the cards with the other products we carry because it’s a different process.”

And then there’s the option to eschew vinyl altogether, brought about in large part from the ability of manufacturers to produce more durable versions of popular natural fabrics.

“Two years ago we started selling Luxor Leather™, a simulated leather,” Hirsch says. “It looks and feels like leather—it’s soft and supple, and a very nice product to sit on. But it stands up against the sun and resists mold and mildew.”

Plauché says her company has also been working with faux leather for seating, using a product from Brisa®. At this point, Hirsch says, it’s a “very small minority” of boat owners who are using simulated leather for seats and cushions, but he expects further adoption. “It’s not the standard boat you see on the lake or fishing in the bay,” he explains, “but it is starting to trickle down from the high end.”

It’s not just seating that is getting upgraded in today’s boats—flooring is getting the treatment too. What’s especially hot?
Vinyl flooring that looks like teak. Photo: Onboard Interiors LLC.

Teak flooring getting hot

And speaking of faux, vinyl flooring that looks like teak has become a hot product, according to Plauché. “It saves manufacturers money because they don’t have to put in real teak decks,” she says, “but it’s nice looking, very durable and easy to clean. A lot of powerboats are using it in place of carpet, and it can be used in cockpits to transition from interior to exterior.”

There are a few other trends in boat upgrades to note, our sources say:

  • In sport fishing, Henderson says, carbon fiber “is the hot product right now,” especially in outrigger systems for center consoles. The strength and light weight of carbon fiber are especially beneficial, he explains, when people want to go fishing offshore in difficult conditions: “Their boat can take it, so they need to have equipment that can take it too.”
  • Henderson also says the popularity of LED lighting continues to grow, for both functional and decorative purposes. “The LED deck lighting can be really, really nice,” he says. “It doesn’t use a lot of amperage so it doesn’t draw your battery down, and it’s really clean light. It’s a good opportunity for people to dress up their boats.” He says lighting in blue, red, green and purple are popular choices these days.

LED lighting is increasing in popularity because it’s both functional and decorative.

In the end, the fabricators, manufacturers and suppliers we spoke with say the current strong interest in upgrades will continue as long as boat production remains brisk. “Every boat company I work for is running at full capacity,” Marriott says. “Their biggest problem is trying to figure out how to build more boats. And as people start seeing what’s on those newer boats, they say, ‘I want that on mine too.’”

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.