BASS RIVER TOWNSHIP - Viking Yacht Co. is building its biggest boat yet, a 92-foot pleasure palace with a master suite the size of a suburban bedroom.
The company is following the latest economic trend in an industry that is still recovering from the 2007 recession - a push for bigger boats that cater to a segment of the market that withstood the downturn in the economy. And it marks some good news in a local boat-building industry that has contracted sharply with mergers and factory closures over the past decade.
Viking, a privately held company based in Bass River Township, will introduce its latest treasure this summer at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show. Its inaugural boat in the new line is about half finished at the company's sprawling production plant on the Bass River in Burlington County.
Spacious is the word to describe almost every feature on the yacht, which will carry a price tag approaching $9 million when completed in July. Workers at the production center began work on its furnishings in October so they would be ready when needed, spokesman Peter Frederiksen said.
The boat is literally as big as a whale - the 90-foot blue whale, the largest animal ever to live on Earth. And the sweep of its imposing bow gives the yacht a huge interior volume for living space and creature comforts.
But it maintains its low profile on the water, giving it the sleek appearance for which Viking yachts are known.
"The accommodations are spectacular, but we obsess with the exterior," Frederiksen said. "We want the boat to look like it's going fast even when it's at the dock. We really sweat the details to get the best in practicality and performance."
It has five staterooms and two salons on separate mezzanines that feature sleek, panoramic windows.
"The galley has a walk-in pantry that would probably go for $5,000 per month if it was in New York," Frederiksen joked.
The Burlington County company, founded in 1964, makes yachts in a variety of sizes starting with its 42-foot sportfishing boat.
"When you bring out a new boat, there is a learning curve. But this boat is so big, we needed to build extra scaffolding just so people could work on it," he said.
Viking designed its biggest creation as an answer to its popular 82-foot yacht that debuted in 2008. The company has produced 25 of those so far since its introduction.
"We knew the success of the 82 laid the groundwork for an even bigger boat," he said. "A lot of our owners will start with a boat. They'll have a good time with it and want another one. But they'll want something bigger and better. You want to give your clients the next thing to look for."
It's good news for a boat-building industry that has seen sharp cutbacks. Silverton Marine Corp. in Millville filed for bankruptcy before its boat lines were bought by Egg Harbor Yachts, based in Egg Harbor City, in 2012. Post Marine Co., based in Hamilton Township, liquidated its assets through bankruptcy in 2011.
With the launch of its larger line of yachts, Viking has hired 100 more people in the past two years, bringing staffing to 850 workers.
The company hosted a fishing tournament last month exclusive to Viking yacht owners in Key West, Fla., to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Viking Yacht makes its yachts to order from its dual assembly lines. The company is vertically integrated to make everything but the engines and pumps on site.
A robot tools the custom hull from a block of Styrofoam using a drillbit so sharp it will cut you if you touch it. The Styrofoam form is then converted into a mold to make the seamless hull.
Viking relies on its subsidiaries, Atlantic Marine Electronics and Palm Beach Towers, to provide the navigation equipment and custom tuna tower.
Viking sells about 10 percent of its yachts to international buyers. These craft, too, are custom made, from the type of electrical outlets on board to extra staterooms for entertaining larger families.
The boat industry took a severe hit after the 2007 recession but is on the mend, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, based in Chicago, Ill.
Ski-boat sales were up 11 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013. Inboard cruisers saw modest growth of about 2 percent.
"The luxury market weathered it better and they've come out of the recession," trade group President Thomas Dammrich said. "The lower end of the market has also come back strong. It's the mid-range boats that haven't fared as well."
Dammrich said manufacturers like Viking want to go bigger to give customers ever more reason to come back. Trading up is a big part of the industry.
"About 70 percent of boats are bought by existing owners. Throughout most of the 2000s, manufacturers were coming out with slightly bigger boats hoping to hold onto that loyal customer who is looking to upsize," he said.
The boating industry is driven largely by discretionary spending, Dammrich said.
"It's the first industry to trend down as you go into a recession and the last to come out of a recession," he said. "New boat sales were up 5 percent last year. We're expecting it to be up another 5 percent this year."
Locally, Viking saw its sales drop sharply from 53 in 2009 to just 28 in 2010. But sales have picked up in the past two years, Frederiksen said.
Viking sold 50 boats last year and with a good winter of sales expects to sell 60 or more this year, he said.
"In good times and bad times, our job is to sell boats. Some years it will be easier. Some years it will be harder," he said. "When someone wants to buy a boat, you have to be ready. We're able to manage our inventory pretty well."
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