Rough sailing for South Florida boat dealers means big business for a Fort Lauderdale company that takes boats from cash-strapped owners.
National Liquidators had orders to reel in 3,066 vessels in 2008, the most in 21 years handling boat repossessions and auctions.
The company's highest profile catch came Wednesday when it hooked the jailed financier Bernard Madoff's 55-foot luxury fishing boat for federal authorities. National Maritime Services, its subsidiary that handles boat seizures for the government, impounded the custom-built 1969 Rybovich vessel valued at $2.2 million. It'll be sold at auction to help repay investors Madoff defrauded as part of his $65 billion Ponzi scheme.
"We repo four to five boats a day in South Florida"
Â President Robert 'Bob' ToneyÂ
This year, about 380 boats on average are being repossessed monthly and that could jump to more than 400, he said.
National also operates recovery sites in California and Ohio and is considered the nation's largest boat recovery and auction company.
Last year, it generated nearly $82 million in sales, an 86 percent increase. While the majority of vessels seized are 30 to 50 feet, more bigger boats 55 to 75 feet have started to trickle in.
Two yachts more than 100 feet long were towed in recently, Toney said.
Nearly 60 percent of National's business is in Fort Lauderdale, a boating mecca. The boatyard currently houses about 600 vessels, many repossessed and seized in South Florida and from central and coastal areas statewide. Boats also come in from North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, we take them without incident," said Lisa Castelazo, National's southeast recovery supervisor.
Though the majority of boats are plucked from marinas, repo agents increasingly have to scope out canals and waterways for boats, some intentionally hidden by owners.
A 60-foot Sea Ray docked behind a private residence along Fort Lauderdale's busy New River was recently snagged "seamlessly," she said.
Most repos are probably coming from banks that offered dealers creative lending programs based mainly on credit scores and no income verification, said Lang Ryder, senior vice president of Seacoast Marine Finance in Fort Lauderdale.
Seacoast Marine didn't offer these programs and has fared better in the slump, Ryder said. The firm recently had two boat repos, and one already has been sold.
While repo boats are selling, which is a bright spot for the marine industry, some worry about negative effects.
"We might be bringing some new people into boating, but in the long term it's [repo sales] not helping the local marine economy that much," said Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida in Fort Lauderdale. "It's not a story with a happy ending."