POWERBOATS HAVE been the growth sector of the yachting market in recent years. For every sailboat that takes to the water, four powerboats are launched. It is British builders that are leading the world in the design and technology for this exciting market. Every day, at least ten powerboats are completed in British yards, but there is a growing challenge from both American and European builders as the strong pound starts to bite.

By car industry standards the numbers are small but then you have to remember that a top of the range Sunseeker can cost a cool pounds 2 million. Even the more moderate flybridge cruisers from the top builders such as Fairline, Marine Projects and Sealine can cost upwards of pounds 200,000 so that boat building is now big business.

Who can afford to buy these luxury yachts that gleam under the boat show lights? You might think that they are just for the very rich who want to sit in the sophistication of Monte Carlo, the tax exiles who want to run to the sun. Well these represent some of the customers, but the majority are successful businessmen or executives who have sold up or are earning enough to have a powerboat as part of their new world where they start to enjoy life. Sunseeker have supplied powerboats to many of the Grand Prix racing drivers including Michael Schumacher. But powerboats are not just for the rich and famous, there is a new adventure market developing, and the rigid inflatables which serve this market are the fastest growing sector of the marine industry.

Rigid inflatables or RIBs were first developed 32 years ago as rescue boats for the RNLI. Then they were adopted by many professional operators and now they have expanded into a vast leisure market with probably over 100,000 new boats every year worldwide. If the big Sunseekers are the Rolls Royce of the yacht market, then the RIB is the 4-wheel drive equivalent, a boat which can go anywhere and do anything. Not all owners of RIBs want to go out in rough seas and explore remote coastlines, just as 4-wheel drive owners don't all want to go off-road, but it is the image that counts. The RIB looks professional and it is also a safe and forgiving boat and this is what makes it attractive to many new entrants to the power market.

Picton Boats in South Wales is one of the few builders operating in both the sportsboats and RIB sectors and they report that for every sportsboat they build these days, they build three RIBs. This shows how the small powerboat market is changing. The RIB industry is reaching maturity and it supports its own specialist magazine and boat show, but all the top builders will be at the London Show.

Avon Inflatables, which was one of the pioneers, will be introducing a new range of leisure RIBs where the emphasis is on colour and style. Delta, which previously concentrated on the commercial markets, has introduced its Levanter range of leisure RIBs and Ribtec and Ribcraft offer both production and custom designs. South Coast RIBs will be introducing its new Ribeye range in March which not only includes a range of stylish RIBs but also all the clothing and accessories to go with the RIB lifestyle.

The sportsboat market is still very much alive and the main British builders are Fletcher and Shakespeare. These British builders are facing a major challenge mainly from American imports. In the U.S, sportsboats are built in huge numbers, thus quantity building keeps prices down. These US boats not only have a very dashing style but they are also price competitive, particularly with the pound at its current high level.

The high pound is also hurting the major British builders who rely heavily on exports. It hits British builders in two ways: making their products more expensive in overseas markets and also attracting cheap imports from Europe and the U.S. to compete with them on home territory.

U.S. builders Bayliner and Sea Ray may be bigger in terms of numbers, but Marine Projects and Sunseeker is one of the largest in the Poole area. Both employ close to 1000 people and spend a considerable part of their turnover on research and development for new models. Sunseeker International reports a turnover of pounds 74 million last year and is expanding its production facilities to accommodate larger motor yachts than its current flagships, the Manhattan 80 and the Predator 80.

This year, Sunseeker will have the largest motor yacht ever exhibited on its stand at the London Show. The Manhattan 74 may be the smaller sister of the 80, but it will look huge in the confines of Earls Court. Getting it there will be a logistics nightmare, but its curvaceous design is a trendsetter with a top speed of 35 knots and luxury to match.

For those wanting real performance, the Mark II Superhawk 48 from Sunseeker offers speeds up to 60 knots. For the more cautious, there are a whole range of new designs down including the comfortable Camargue 44.

Also, we will see major Italian builder Ferretti exhibiting 53 flybridge cruiser for the first time at London and other Italian builders such as Azimut and Cranchi are also looking for increased sales.

Whilst much attention has been focused on the larger, high performance motor yachts, other builders are having a fresh look at ientry leveli boats which appeal to first time buyers. Fairline which builds yachts up to 65 feet, will be introducing the Targa 30 at London which offers excellent value for money.

As the car market becomes increasingly regulated, powerboats offer a form of escape which cannot be matched by anything else.