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June 22nd 2014. By Kim Kavin.

Splash Down: Failed Northern Marine Launch Creates Marketing Challenges

A recent failed launch has speculation swirling, even though Northern Marine yachts on the brokerage market are proven products.

The video has been playing in endless rotation everywhere from YouTube to NBC News, as if a plane had crashed into a school or a celebrity had died in a horrific car accident. Even people who know nothing about yachts are clicking “replay” three, four, five times. And though it hurts a little more each time, no boat lover can look away.

northern marine launch

Here she is, just prior to the launch. You’ll have to watch the video, to see what happens next. Photo courtesy of Yachtvid.com.

A brand-new, fresh-from-the-shed, 90-foot Northern Marine yacht is being launched stern-first down a ramp in the Pacific Northwest. She begins to list, and then to tip, and then she’s on her side, with her perfectly faired paint job soaking in the water like a wreck. With every inch the boat falls, so does the viewer’s stomach—and no doubt the owner’s stomach, too; the motoryacht’s asking price before the May 18 incident was $9.2 million.

The U.S. Coast Guard did a preliminary investigation before handing matters over to the National Transportation Safety Board, which has classified the incident as a major marine casualty with estimated damage of more than $500,000. The NTSB study is now expected to take months—which leaves plenty of time for armchair naval architects to espouse theories about what went wrong everywhere from marina fuel docks to the World Wide Web.

The builder is defending the stability of the 90-foot design (which has a stretched hull and a custom superstructure) and is instead citing a problem with the launch dolly dropping off the edge of the boat ramp, introducing a severe heeling moment from which the light-load yacht could not recover. That focus on the launch equipment has not stopped widespread rumors about the yacht herself, everything from her tipping completely upside-down to her burning in sky-high flames (the truth is that there was no fire and the yacht came to rest on her side).

Even still, the rumors—especially ones questioning the design’s overall stability—have left owners of existing Northern Marine yachts on edge about the perceived value of their boats. Northern Marine founder Richard “Bud” LeMieux went so far as to issue a statement to the media in an effort to quell the noise, distance previous launches from the current shipyard team and help retain the value of existing, proven hulls.

“I want you to know that the 90-foot vessel that rolled over and sank during its launch here in Anacortes, Washington, is not or was not a Northern Marine vessel,” LeMieux wrote in the statement, which was published by leading industry publications including Soundings Trade Only. “It was sold and built by a company called New World Yacht Builders LLC here in Anacortes. I, after talking with past customers like Bruce Kessler [who owns the first Northern Marine ever built], would like to see something in your magazine that will make that distinction very clear.”

The mixed message coming from the shipyard and people like LeMieux about what is, or is not, a Northern Marine yacht is only adding to the endless online chatter. LeMieux founded Northern Marine in 1995 and sold the brand name in 2006. Since 2009, New World Yacht Builders has been doing business as Northern Marine, headed by former Northern Marine employee Andy McDonald with many of the same lieutenants working inside the shipyard (most staff is now laid off). The failed launch in May was to be the fifth boat that New World Yacht Builders had launched, though the new management sold its designs at least in part on Northern Marine’s history of having launched more than 35 vessels from 57 to 151 feet long.

And therein lies the problem for owners of existing Northern Marine yachts on the brokerage market today, along with the brokers trying to market them.

At the time of the failed launch, YachtWorld.com had seven listed Northern Marine yachts from 55 to 81 feet LOA for sale in North America,  plus a few more worldwide. Their asking prices ranged from $895,995 (for a 57-footer built in 2004) to $3.9 million (for an 81-footer built in 2006). The latter was the third-most-expensive 80- to 82-footer listed among more than three dozen yachts on the website, putting her in the top 8 percent of the market price-wise for her size range. She is evidence of what owners and brokers have long counted on: Northern Marine yachts enjoying solid resale value thanks to their reputation for fuel efficiency, global cruising capability, and (ironically) stability.

Broker Judy Waldman of Fort Lauderdale-based JW Yachts has represented Northern Marine boats for about 15 years and currently holds the listing on the $1.15 million Solemates, a 55-foot Northern Marine. The boat is a proven design with an impressive history of long-distance cruising, including having completed the transatlantic crossing during the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally and having been cruised extensively from the Pacific Northwest down to Mexico.

solemates

Solemates is a 55-foot Northern Marine that launched in 2000 and is located in San Diego, California.

“I’ve had people ask me if the value has gone down, and my answer is: If you want a Northern Marine [trawler yacht], there were only approximately 25 of them built, so this is an opportunity,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s going to be any more Northern Marines, and future Northern Marines are certainly going to have an image to overcome, but these existing boats are an opportunity. Without question, Northern Marine has built the best full-displacement fiberglass boats anywhere. They were the best—were the best—and there is no replacement for them.”

Waldman points out that the Northern Marines on the brokerage market today are all American built, as opposed to current fiberglass trawler yachts coming out of yards in China and Taiwan. Many of the existing Northern Marines also were built before the global economic recession, which caused a lot of builders to tighten their belts, cut corners and, in some cases, cease production entirely.

“I call them the Rolls-Royces of the trawler market,” she says of original Northern Marine yachts like Solemates. “There are boats that I turn down as listings, but she’s a fine boat, a quality vessel. I believe in her so much that I wanted to list her despite the problems with the current builder.”

“I was aboard [Solemates] in San Diego just two weeks ago,” Waldman says, turning on her well-honed saleswoman charm. “Aside from minor, normal wear and tear, she is in magnificent condition. The next person can turn the key and cross the ocean again—they might have to add fuel, that’s it.”

Broker Tom Gilbert at Cap Sante Yacht Sales in Anacortes feels the same way. At the time of the failed launch, he was marketing the 57-foot Northern Marine Timberwolf, a raised-pilothouse model built in 2004 with an asking price of $1.99 million.

“I intend to keep selling them,” Gilbert says of original Northern Marine trawler yachts. “The boat that fell over was not a Northern Marine. They did these modifications—they stretched the hull and put on this big superstructure. The original Northern Marines, they have not had any problems. People take them all over the world. They’re great. To put that boat that fell over in the same class as these trawlers? No way.”

timberwolf

Timberwolf is not as well-traveled as some other Northern Marine yachts, but the owners cruised her regularly along the Oregon-Washington coastline as well as up into Canada without any issues.

“I’ve driven the boat personally several times, and she’s a great boat,” Gilbert says. “I’ve been on many launches of Northern Marine yachts, and we never had any stability issues. We spun those boats in circles in rough water with the stabilizers off, and they were fine. It was part of the sea trial when we launched them. These boats were well built. They have a lot of miles on them. No others have had issues like this one that fell over.”

The official cause of the recent launch failure is not likely to be known for quite a few months. Until then, the video of the 90-footer flopping onto its side will play again and again on boaters’ screens, turning morbid curiosity into inescapable memory that is forever attached to the Northern Marine brand. It will be all that brokers like Waldman and Gilbert can do to assure buyers that existing Northern Marine yachts are solid and seaworthy investments, with hopes of keeping the resale values as high as they always have been—no matter what the NTSB report says.



Kim Kavin
Kim Kavin is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who specializes in marine travel. She is the author of 10 books including Dream Cruises: The Insider’s Guide to Private Yacht Vacations, and is editor of the online yacht vacation magazine www.CharterWave.com.