When you are out of work, a yacht is the last thing you need. And when your paycheck has been cut, you don't need to pay high interest rates on a boat loan. These facts were driven home to the yachting industry last year as sales fell 15 to 20 percent. Most of the industry finished up the year awash in red ink, and some manufacturers had to cast a wary eye on the economic reefs waiting to snag them.
This year the industry is looking for a slow but steady recovery as consumer confidence improves. ''We see a flat first quarter,'' says Gordon C. Woodland, general manager of Pearson Yachts, a subsidiary of Grumman Allied Industries Inc., ''with some improvement in the second quarter. It may be a late season.'' David Parker, the president of AMF Hatteras, a subsidiary of AMF Inc., agrees, noting: ''We will follow the economy out of the recession, not lead it.''
Despite such modest expectations, the yachting industry can point to some recent improvement. Jeff Napier, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), said, ''As far as we can see, this is the strongest January we've had in three years.'' The association, sponsor of the New York National Boat Show, which opened here recently to moderate crowds, notes that its recent show in Chicago was more successful than most dealers anticipated.
But industry executives are being cautious despite the pickup. Last year, recalls James J. Doud Jr., president of Uniflite Inc., a manufacturer of power boats, a similar strong start ''stopped dead in March.'' Because the slump was so sudden, the industry ended up laying off employees too slowly and red ink spread quickly. For example, at Uniflite, which is publicly listed, the company reported a loss of $508,184 on sales of $25.86 million for the first nine months of this year, compared with a net loss in 1981 of $501,342 on sales of $17.88 million.
This slowdown affected almost everyone in the industry, including companies that had been pretty much recession-resistant in the past. At C&C Yachts, which normally has no trouble selling yachts because of its reputation, sales were off 15 percent from 1981's record year, despite efforts by the company to get buyers to give up their cash.
C&C's strategy this year is to introduce new models. Thus, at the show, the Canadian sailboat manufacturer is exhibiting a 35-foot and a 29-foot yacht - both fresh off the drawing boards. ''If we didn't have the new products,'' noted Michael H. Waters, district sales manager, ''We would be below last year.'' The same is true at Pearson, which is introducing at least four new yachts this year.
One major factor determining whether or not the consumer bites will be the direction of interest rates. At the New York show rates ranged from 12.8 percent to 143/4 percent. Fred Henninger, vice-president at First New England Financial Corporation, in Southport, Conn., said his company's 131/2 percent fixed-rate 15 -year loan ''is opening a lot of doors with the consumer.'' By June he estimates rates will be in the low teens.
In part because rates are still falling, Mr. Parker notes that consumers are trying to ''time their purchases.'' This creates problems for the industry. Mr. Woodland commented, ''You don't build a yacht overnight.''