The History of Recreational Boating

The History of Recreational Boating

September 26, 2018

01 The History Of Recreational Boating

Today it’s common to see roads, docks and marinas bustling with people taking their family, friends and boats out for an afternoon on the water. Many enjoy anything from snacks to a full dinner and drinks in the comfort of their boat as they take a break from water skiing, swimming, fishing, racing or sailing. While it’s an investment for us to purchase from the boating industry, the history of boating shows us that boats are much more accessible now than they were in the past.

The beginnings of ancient boating can be traced back to pre-history, however, at that time boats were primarily used for work. Using boats for pleasure — what we know as the recreational boating industry — didn’t develop until much later. When recreational boating began, it was a sport for kings and the socially elite. The industry has quite a history.

Many accounts claim the history of boating for sport can be traced back to the 1600s — and once the United States was formed much of the boating industry has risen and fallen with key points of American history.

History of Recreational Boating

The earliest history of recreational boating begins with kings and royal regattas on the Thames River in the mid-1600s. Charles II of England is recognized by many as the world’s first yachtsman. Before he took the throne in 1660, he spent ten years in exile in Holland. When he returned home to take the throne, he was welcomed with a generous gift of a yacht and a crew. King Charles II spent time sailing on the Thames. You might say he was a serious recreational boater — many historians estimate he went on to build 20 yachts throughout his life.

His passion for pleasure boats sparked interest from many others, and can likely be traced to another monumental point in pleasure boat history — the first sailing club. Imagine a time without marinas or boat clubs. While boating became an activity enjoyed by many of the elite members of society, there was no formal space for them to gather. Eventually, in the early 1700s, many of these yachtsmen came together and formed the first sailing club in the world — a significant part of the history of sailing.

What was the name of the first boaters’ club? Many believe it was The Water Club of the Harbour of Cork on the southern coast of Ireland — however, others claim the Neva Yacht Club in Russia was first. Either way, this was a key point in the history of recreational boating. Shifting the focus to domestic history, in the United States, the first boating club was founded in 1839 in Detroit, followed just six years later by one in New York.

Up until this point in history, boating was synonymous with sailing or rowing. It was a lot of work — and much of the work was done by a crew hired by the wealthy individual who owned the boat. But all of that changed in the late 1800s when Gottlieb Daimler, a German engineer and inventor, created an improved version of the internal combustion engine — not only for automobiles but boats, too. This engine completely revolutionized the industry, as it took a lot of the hard work — or the need to hire a crew to do the hard work — out of boating.

Of course, with motorboats come racing. In 1903, the world came together for the first international motorboat race of its kind, the Harmsworth Cup, formally known as the British International Trophy for Motorboats. An Englishman won, racing his motorboat at a speed of 19.5 miles per hour.

By 1910, outboard motors were manufactured, making it possible for boaters to put the engine on their boat, remove it for service or transportation, and then reattach it or attach it to another boat. This new versatility led to making recreational boating more accessible and economical to the public.

Just a few years later, the recreational boating industry sped up when American inventor John L. Hacker created a boat known as the Kitty Hawk. For those who recognize the name — yes, he knew the Wright Brothers. This cutting-edge boat became the first boat to travel at a speed of 50 miles per hour.

Modern History of Recreational Boating

03 Boating Industry Begins To Organize


The National Outboard Association and the Marine Trade Association were both created. The merger of a few companies in the outboard motor business come together to form the Outboard Motors Corporation. Despite these marine organizations and businesses forming, pleasure boats were still primarily for the wealthy. There are a few big reasons why — the Great Depression had a significant impact on the economy, and these boats weren’t being mass-produced yet. So, the industry was made up of expensive, mostly custom-built, mahogany-hulled runabout models with larger engines.

This is also just after the “Big Three” automobile companies emerged, and the sale of automobiles began. Many who may have wanted a boat couldn’t transport it, as the automobile industry was beginning to take off.


For the first half of the 1940s, the industry was consumed with World War II. Resources were limited, and the boating industry was focused on building boats for the military. There wasn’t much time or money for recreational boating.

Perhaps due to the developments in military boats, the beginning of this decade is credited with introducing perfected fiberglass boats to the market in the United States. They were affordable, durable and low maintenance, making them a hit.

By the end of this decade, the economy began to return to normal — as it grew, so did boating usage and profits. The 1940s — both the good and the bad — shaped the industry and resulted in high sales, new companies entering the industry and technological advances that created a boating experience that was easier, more accessible and, many would argue, more fun.


The boating industry boomed, like many other industries, after the war. To give some perspective on just how big the boom was — in 1950 The Boating Industry reported there were just under 450,000 registered motorboats in use. By 1959, the industry was selling that many boats in just one year. The challenge for the boating industry became keeping up with consumer demand — from a workforce and supplies standpoint.

Up until now, hulls had been made of wood or metal — now fiberglass hulls became more common. Volvo released the first sterndrive of its kind, known as the “Aquamatic.” Boats continued to evolve throughout this decade, showing off the newest features through an increased number of boat shows across the country. The first initiative of boating safety standards also began with the first meeting of the American Boat and Yacht Council with a mission to “to develop and make available recommended practices and engineering standards for improving and promoting the design, construction, equipage and maintenance of small craft concerning their safety.”

Thunderbird, one of the companies that would grow to be a part of Formula Boats, was founded in 1956. Two years later, Vic Porter — from the same Porter family that owns Formula Boats today — began building and selling small fiberglass runabouts under the business name Duo, Inc.


Despite a dip in the economy at the end of the 1950s, the January 1960 issue of The Boating Industry cites boating as the nation’s top family sport. Boat engines continued to improve. Shortly after Volvo’s introduction of the “Aquamatic,” Mercury introduced the MerCruiser engine. Modern versions of both of these engines are a part of many Formula Boats today. Here began a competition for market share that continues to this day.

Production thrived, expanding overseas. Honda built the first mass-produced four-stroke engine. Innovation continued as Ski Nautique introduced the boat-trailer combo.


Believe it or not, the world record for the fastest boat was set at 317.58 miles per hour in 1977 and has yet to be broken. At the same time, concerns about energy efficiency began to rise, partially as a result of rising gasoline prices, leading to some negative perceptions about a lack of energy efficiency. Perhaps as a result of the focus on energy efficiency, a new, smaller watercraft known as the Kawasaki Jet Ski entered the market and became the first commercially successful personal watercraft.

Two important industry associations were created — the Marine Retailers Association of America, with more than 50 boat dealers represented, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), formed by the merger of two previous associations. Both of these marine associations showed continued interest in improving the industry as a whole through professionalism and best practices. Associations helped the industry in the midst of the negative energy efficiency attacks by providing “Boating Energy Conservation Kits” for dealers to use in promoting boats in this new energy sensitive society.


Energy prices didn’t get any better — in fact, they continued to rise in the early 1980s. Unemployment and inflation were also high, leading to a challenging economy for recreational boating. The federal government only made things worse when the Department of Energy discussed a new initiative to save gasoline — ban weekend boating.

At the time the outlook seemed so dim that in 1980 NMMA Executive Vice President Frank Scalpone said, “This year is pretty much beyond redemption for most of the companies. It will probably be one of the worst years ever.” In an attempt to help the industry, the NMMA launched a campaign to share the story of boating from an economic standpoint — at the time, the industry was responsible for 700,000 people.

The financial hit to the industry translated to cuts and mergers. Chrysler sold its boat manufacturing division while Sea Ray and Bayliner merged with Brunswick, becoming the world’s largest boat and boat engine manufacturer. Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad. Volvo created new products as well as an independent subsidiary dedicated to the cause — Volvo Penta. Yamaha became a player in the outboard market. Chris-Craft catamarans got back in the powerboat racing market — eventually becoming a part of Outboard Motors Corporation. Mercury introduced cutting-edge technology — electric fuel injection.


Despite the few silver linings to the state of the industry in the 1980s, the impact was devastating. Estimates showed the price of boats being cut in half — sales were even worse. According to the Marine Retailers Association of America, of the boats sold with a price tag of over $100,000, sales dropped 77 percent.

The federal government was yet another cause of the industry getting off to a slow start in the early 1990s when it passed a luxury tax — if you paid more than $100,000 for a boat, you were charged an additional tax of ten percent. Thankfully, the tax was repealed in 1993, but not before several bankruptcies were filed and countless jobs were lost. The boating industry had its eyes set on Washington, which led to the creation of the Congressional Boating Caucus — a bipartisan group that would concentrate on boating issues in government.

Again, the end of this decade found the boating industry climbing back, slowly but surely, from a significant hit. The jet boat market began to surge, and jobs began to return to the United States.


While the 2000s began strong, the global economy began to weaken as the political unrest in the Middle East grew, and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11. War broke out, natural disasters struck and the economy took a turn downward.

Despite the negative shifts, in 2005, 12.94 million registered recreational boating vessels were recorded — the highest in history. Unfortunately, the early downward spiral at the beginning of the decade only led to more suffering for the economy in the late 2000s, and it had quite an impact on the boating industry. Jobs were lost, so was available credit. Consumer spending plummeted, and any unnecessary spending was cut — as a result, boat manufacturers and dealers struggled. At one point, Boating Industry Magazine estimates that possibly 40 percent of all United States dealers closed their doors.

On a brighter note, the 2000s was a busy decade in Formula Boats history — our boats won the Mercury Constructor’s Cup, twice. Several of our boats were recognized, and our 240 Bowrider was named Powerboat Magazine’s Boat of the Year. We also introduced our first luxury yacht and expanded our manufacturing plant.

Recreational Boating Today — On the Rise

04 Recreational Boating Today

Today it’s clear to see how far the evolution of the history of boating has brought us. The 2016 Recreational Boating Participation Study showed that an estimated 142 million Americans went boating in 2016 — that’s 36 percent of households in the United States. The majority of them — 62 percent — have household incomes under $100,000. The average age an individual has their first boating experience is 12 years old. We’ve come a long way from the early history of recreational boating when it was meant for kings and society’s elite.

The industry continues to grow and shows no sign of stopping. In 2017, 11.96 million recreational boating vessels were registered in the United States — higher than the previous three years. The total value of recreational boats sold in the United States hit a new record of almost four billion dollars. The NMMA has projected that the industry growth will continue through 2018.

Contact Formula Boats

As the recreational boating industry has continued to grow and evolve throughout history, Formula Boats history has continued to do the same — keeping up with new trends by focusing on giving individuals the ability to build their dream boat. If you’re interested in learning more about Formula Boats or in building your boat with us, please contact us.

05 Contact Formula Boats

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