Despite a long day of building custom, 24- to 50-foot high-performance catamarans at Skater Powerboats, the company he owns and founded more 30 years ago, Peter Hledin is in the mood to talk. That’s right, the guy who started the whole thing with a 24-foot catamaran that set the offshore racing world on fire in the early 1980s still works side by side with his crew in lamination, rigging, paint, or whatever else needs to be done. He moves from his plant to his office when he needs to meet clients and take them to lunch at his favorite spot in the small town of Douglas, Mich. Then it’s back to the plant to do whatever needs to be done, and then home for supper and sleep.
When Hledin gets on a roll, only a fool would try to stop him. His current rant—and it’s a very good one—is on the steady decline of offshore racing, a subject he knows a little something about. Skater catamarans have won more offshore races than any other brand of catamaran in history. The most famous racers in the history of the sport have run Skaters. At one time, the sport captured Hledin’s imagination and sparked his creativity. No longer.
“The biggest disappointment right now is the state of the offshore racing circuits—it’s just pathetic,” he says. “I see manufacturers using the words “world champions,” and now that accolade is totally meaningless. It takes no effort to win a world championship anymore. I used to love it, but it’s completely disappeared. That makes it a little harder to find the motivation to build new models. Poker runs are great for business, but they’re not the same.”
Despite the lack of inspiration from the offshore racing world, Hledin has, in fact, created several new models in the past few years, most notably the Skater “Fat Boy” series. In the Fat Boy line, Hledin simply has taken almost all of his existing models and expanded their beams. And they’ve been well received by well-heeled buyers.
But driving his business now are his smaller catamaran models, especially the Skater 30 and 32.
“The smaller inboards seem to be making a comeback—we have three or four in production,” said Hledin. “The customer for that boat generally is very easygoing and very grateful. We’re starting to get more phone calls and more inquiries, and we’re giving more quotes on the smaller boats. A smaller boat is difficult to build because the profit margins are narrower—you put the same seats in a smaller boat, for example, as you do in a larger boat. There’s very little if any difference in the labor cost.
“Nevertheless, the smaller boats get people started in your direction,” he continued. “I look at some of the pictures on my walls of Skater 24s owned by all these famous racing names that started small and moved up.”
Hledin said he sees the continued preference toward inboard power as an unintended byproduct of the evolution of today’s outboard engines. He readily concedes that outboard engines are better-performing, more reliable, more fuel-efficient, and quieter than they’ve ever been. And that last quality—quiet operation throughout the power band—is what has made outboards less appealing to the hardcore, small-Skater buyer.
“When I first got into this industry, I was building lots of boats with single, twin, and triple outboards,” says Hledin. “Back in the day, you had real enthusiasts who would spend their last dime on their boats. They were reasonably priced, and it thrilled these guys that they could buy a boat with 2.4s and it would scream like a banshee. Today’s outboards are so quiet that they just don’t have that high-performance appeal to the hardcore performance guy. I think they need to bring back the high-performance song, and I think Mercury could do that and still meet EPA guidelines.”
Hledin says he has built more than his share of catamarans that can run 200 mph, but he’s quick to add that very few of the people who own them will ever approach that kind of speed. In fact, his aim is to build ride quality at lesser speeds—even speeds as low as 50 mph—into the same model that will blow well past 150 mph.
“My goal is to make a cat that can do things better than other cats, as well as do things other cats can’t,” says Hledin. “We know how to build fast boats. That’s a piece of cake. That’s easy. But not everyone wants to go fast. Not everyone wants to run 100 mph in 2- to 4-footers. I want to build a boat that rides like a Rolls Royce and runs like a Ferrari. That’s my goal.”
- Matt Trulio