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Das Jet Boot

Note: This article reprinted with permission from Northwest Sportsman Magazine

Salmon are beginning to recover in the Rhein, and though it may be a long, lonnnnng time before anyone’s hover fishing off the Deutsches Eck, Kölner Dom or Schoenburg Castle, aluminum boat manufacturers half a world away hope to hook into themarket here.

Builders in Lewiston and Clarkston will fly to Düsseldorf, on the banks of the German river, this January to show off photos and videos of their lightweight, shallowdraft jet sleds.

They’ll do so at one of the world’s largest boat shows, which last January attracted nearly a quarter of a million people – four times as many who visited the last Seattle Boat Show – and it could lead to business well beyond Deutschland.

“We’re very, very, very excited,” says Brenda Bonfield, marketing director at CustomWeld.

On the face of it, the consortium – which also includes Bentz BoatsHells Canyon MarinePhantom Jet BoatsRenaissance Marine GroupRiddle MarineSJX Jet Boats, and Thunder Jet, as well as Gateway Trailers – stand to gain much as boat sales remain sluggish in the U.S.

“Aluminum jet boats do exist in Europe, but (there) are very few and not the types built by the Snake River manufacturers,” says Paul R. Warren-Smith of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service in Frankfurt.

His is one of 150 overseas offices that help American small businesses crack international markets. Last June,he and the editor of an influential German boating and yachting magazine came to the LCValley for a ride-around,and he went away impressed. “You can put a business card underneath them and they float,” Warren-Smith boasts.

Since then, Bonfield and other builders have been attending seminars on shipping overseas, financing and learning about the “phenomenally important” CE mark which will allow their products to be sold in the 30-country European Economic Area, says their consultant Gary White of P’Chelle International in Kennewick.

Later this fall, German importers will fly to the valley for a looksee, and then in January, the group will pack up their product DVDs and Berlitz guides and head for Düsseldorf. If all goes well, 15 to 25 jobs could be added back home down the line.

Northwest Boat Builders have already cracked overseas markets – Russia for Boulton, Weldcraft and another manufacturer that didn’twant to be identified – but what Germany, the world’s third largest importer, offers is the strongest economy in Europe and a large middle class.

It’s a country the size of Oregon and half of Washington together, but with 82 million people. Of those, 1.5 million fish for many species we’re familiar with – trout, perch, walleye (Zander), pike, Atlantic salmon but also sea-run brown trout and tench – and just like here, there are active angler forums as well as weekly and monthly magazines dedicated to hot spots and tactics.

A recent article in Hamburg-based Kutter & Küste magazine featured an article on fishing around an island 20 miles off Kiel as well as a piece entitled “Heilbutt: Schleppen Siedie Plattenab,” i.e. Tips for Halibut Trolling (hey, didn’t we do that in our June issue?!)

Indeed, coastal fishing is where Warren-Smith thinks jet boats could shine.

“It will be easier to penetrate estuaries and tributaries all over Europe that before were inaccessible,” he points out.

However, while Germany is currently experiencing a boom in exporting and relatively low unemployment, its culture may provide some bumps along the way. Fishing, like hunting, is very regulated. There’s extensive studying to be done just to get a resident angling license, even more if you want to operate a motor boat. Environmental consciousness is much higher, motors are verboten on some waters, buyers are less likely to buy on credit, and forget about finding a parking spot for your rig and sled if you live in the Altstadt, the old city.

But as the Rhein and other European waters are cleansed of decades of pollution, the Snake River contingent can offer the continent a much wider range of products than just fishing boats.

“The niche markets that we envisage,” says Warren-Smith, “are in rescue operations, especially in the case of flash floods which are becoming more common in Europe due to climate change, enforcement, customs, police, firefighting – and military use.”

Outside of Fords, it’s rare to see American-brand vehicles on the Autobahnenund Landstraßen, but when it comes to boats, U.S.-built craft are eye-openers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

“People who can afford the boats (in Russia) want American-named products,” says Mike Boulton, one of six aluminum boat builders on “Boat Row” in the Rogue River Valley, and who has two dealerships selling his craft in St. Petersburg. A Russian builder there has gone so far to as to give its boats English names like Silver.

What Lewiston and Clarkston are offering will not only compete price wise with rigid inflatable boats, adds Warren-Smith, but take much more of a beating.

“Aluminum boats have the advantage that they are light and easy to transport, operate in very low water and withstand heavy impact with debris,” he says. “Unlike inflatables with low-hanging propellers, jet boats can be driven over rocks/trees with hardly any damage at all.”

Well, to an extent, but those strengths should go over well in Germany, where quality standards and expectations are very high.

It’s certainly where CustomWeld’s Bonfield thinks they have a chance.

“It’s not just airplanes,” she says, referencing another Northwestern manufacturing cornerstone. “We make the best boats in the world.”