By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

Few things convey a sense of wealth and power in the same way as a sleek yacht. And as the economy has come back to life locally and nationally, so has the yacht business in the Los Angeles area.

"The last great statement of wealth is yachting," said Ray Jones, president of Long Beach Yachts Inc. "Our business is up 50 percent. It's a seller's market."

"Our business is increasing every year since 1990," added David Fraser, founder of Fraser Yachts Worldwide Inc. in Newport Beach. "We recently sold a Los Angeles man an $18 million yacht."

Tom Chapman, president of DuPont Publishing Inc., which publishes the Dupont Registry, said there is a two- to four-year wait for custom-built mega-yachts usually defined as boats 100 feet or longer. Of course, mega-millionaires and billionaires aren't used to waiting for anything.

"People are now willing to sell their positions and are walking away with $3 million to $4 million in pure profit," Chapman said.

Sales figures reported by the state and manufacturer groups don't quite live up to the claims of boat dealers at least not yet.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association said that 256,946 boats were sold in California in 1996 the last year for which figures are available up from 249,680 a year earlier. Powerboats outsold sail models by a four-to-one margin.

And the state's Department of Boating and Waterways reported 124,807 boat registrations in 1997, up only slightly from 124,365 in 1996.

Yacht dealers believe 1998 sales will show a more dramatic increase.

"The economy is better," said Charlie Segal, who manages the sales yard for Catalina Yachts in Marina del Rey. "We are seeing people taking out loans for boats. We are getting a lot of cash buyers. When a recession hits, the middle class is cut out of the luxury line. Now even people with minor credit problems can get loans. I even got a loan for a guy who filed for bankruptcy. A year and a half ago, I couldn't have done this."

Woodland Hills-based Catalina, which is the nation's largest maker of sailboats, is privately held and does not disclose sales figures.

Peter Nelson, who runs the repair division of Winward Yacht and Repair in Marina del Rey, said his business is up 20 percent. His Marina clients have included Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, John Travolta and Roy Disney, who repairs his 68-foot racing sailboat at the yard.

"Many people have delayed maintenance for years, but now they have the money," Nelson said.

Aside from the booming economy, brokers and builders cite the repeal of the 10 percent luxury tax. The tax had crushed the entire industry.

"People have disposable income now," said Doug Parsons, superintendent of operations at the Long Beach Marine Bureau, which operates two small-craft harbors. "When people are frightened, they won't buy. People feel very secure now."

In the boating world, L.A.'s principal recreation harbors are Marina del Rey, Long Beach and Catalina. Most of the giant mega-yachts, long a symbol of the super rich, berth at Newport or San Diego. Marina del Rey has no specific facilities for these giants, although the dock can be used as a fuel depot.

"We have been getting a lot of requests for berthing 125- to 200-foot yachts," said Ken Johnson, of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. "But we are a small-craft harbor, the largest in the United States. There is no adequate berthing for these large yachts."

Marina del Rey, which is also the largest man-made harbor in the country, has 6,000 slips, two-thirds of which are home for boats 40 feet and under. L.A. County owns the marina but leases out slips to nearly a dozen different companies.

The vacancy rate is up 10 percent over last year, Johnson said, but tenancy is still below the go-go '80s when there was a months- or even years-long waiting list for berths.

Long Beach currently has two berths available for mega-yachts, but the city is planning to build enough space for at least 10 of these multimillion-dollar vessels. The city has 3,800 slips available.

"In the '80s, there was a 10-year waiting list," Parsons said. "Now you have to be competitive. You need services and amenities. A lot of older marinas don't have the facilities to handle the demands new boats make for electricity. A lot of new boats are much wider and the older marina's slips are too narrow."

Parsons said the boating industry thrives on buyers who move up from a small boat to a larger vessel.

"Lawyers and accountants are the ones who we like to see move," he said. "But when the aerospace industry fell apart, we blew out a whole generation."

Owners of mega-yachts, like Merv Griffin, are a different breed. His 127-foot motor yacht, The Griff, is a three-deck, $7 million cruiser. Such lavish yachts have swimming pools, elevators, libraries, dining rooms and even helicopter landing pads.

There are nearly 300 of these giant boats now being built around the world, according to ShowBoats International, a magazine that keeps track of luxury boats.

"A lot of people started a business 10, 20, 30 years ago, and they are cashing out," said Fraser. "They want to enjoy their life and they are buying mega-yachts."

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