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Pickwick to the Gulf, Mississippi waters home to upscale boats

Whether it’s a voyage down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a crossing to Ship Island or cruising on the Ross Barnett Reservoir, boating is one of the more relaxing pursuits available to humans.

It is likely that most folks can recall at least one great boating experience; some recall many, many more. Others might enjoy a great boating experience practically every weekend.

Mississippi business owners and executives are no different. What may be different are their preferences in boats.

Jim Bennett has been in the boat business 39 years. The owner of Jim Bennett Yacht Sales on Pickwick Lake in Tishomingo County handles Sea Ray, Carver and Silverton lines from his place in Aqua Yacht Harbor.

“Those are the cat’s meow in boats,” Bennett promised. He deals in boats ranging from 46 feet long to 65 feet long, valued at $100,000 to $3.2 million.
Sea Ray makes sport/ski boats and express cruisers; Silverton, convertibles and aft-cabin cruisers; Carver, sedan bridges and motor yachts.

Busy season underway

Along the way, Bennett also deals in used boats. “For every new boat you sell, there is usually a trade-in, and very few trade down.” Bennett pointed out that almost everyone trades up to a more expensive boat.

He also noted that his customers are professionals (physicians, attorneys, etc.) and successful business operators who are primarily seeking a way to relieve stress. More than two-thirds of them are from the Memphis area.

As the weather warms, those boaters are readying for the coming season: “Our busy season is starting now.”
Bennett hopes for a better year than 2006, which he recalls was “a soft market,” off as much as 20% from 2005. He figures that the high-end market, which is his bailiwick, might fare better than marketers of lesser priced craft.

Special designs

For Jon Overing, business is excellent. He started Overing Yacht Designs in 1989 in Ocean Springs. “We design yachts 100 feet long or longer,” explained Overing.

Although he and his staff of six — he counts wife Debbie as “the real boss” — design and oversee construction of boats for mainly American clients, none are Mississippians.

Current projects include a 96-foot craft being built in Brazil for $6 million.

A 141-footer under construction at Gulfport’s Trinity Yachts bears an $18-million price tag. Two retrofits, a rare undertaking for Overing, are running approximately $10 million each.

His most unusual project was a 300-foot-long boat for a European client that included an accompanying tender craft, helicopter, auxiliary boats, a “very high cruise speed” and a “very long cruising range” with its 250,000-gallon fuel tanks.

Clients have ranged from the family that founded Waste Management to the founder of Mr. Coffee. Overing’s designs have been constructed in China, New Zealand, Brazil and in the United States.

“South Florida is the hub,” Overing said, adding that his firm is “well established with the broker network” in that boat-design center. Most owners deal with the same designers for successive craft, as well as recommend their designers to their friends and colleagues.

Overing’s clients employ their own interior decorators to design the boats’ interiors, which he says is what ultimately differentiates one of the expensive boats from another. “The features from yacht to yacht are pretty much the same. It’s an interesting and challenging field.”

Into the Gulf

Not far away in Moss Point, Kyle Graham and his sales staff at Empress Marine are dealing with slightly smaller watercraft. Slightly smaller, but sometimes still substantial for the Gulf Coast.

The Empress sales manager, Graham said his sales range from $5,500-$150,000 per boat. Of those, at least a quarter of the boats sold at Empress are above the midpoint in that price range.

“That is definitely a growing market segment,” Graham said of the higher priced boats. “We’ve been busy, it’s very good.”

Empress, which was River City Marina until it changed hands nine months ago, is a dealer for Key West, Proline, Ranger and Crownline. Customers are buying bass boats, bay boats, cabin cruisers for going out to the islands and offshore-rated fishing rigs.

‘Crossroads of the boating world’

Up at Pickwick, Bennett points out that Mississippi’s higher-end boating markets are the Gulf Coast and the Pickwick area, which includes the Tennessee River and the Tenn-Tom Waterway. The waterway provides the safest and most pleasant route from northern states to Mobile and the Intracoastal Waterway. That system allows access east to Florida and the Atlantic Coast and west to Texas.

Bennett declares his watery territory is “the crossroads of the boating world” because so many boats traverse Pickwick and the Tenn-Tom en route to all points of the eastern United States. That fact alone, though, might not drive sales higher.

“I sell fun,” Bennett muses. “Nobody needs a boat.”

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