Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In a bad economy, fun is often the first casualty.
For James Hedrick, that means it's a busy time in his line of work. He's one of those dreaded repo men.
He spends his days scanning megayachts, sailboats and fishing skiffs as he steers his dinghy through a marina west of the city's skyscrapers, looking for a piece of the American dream.
This particular piece is a gleaming white, 65-foot Hatteras with two master bedrooms, two full bathrooms and a full galley kitchen with glossy teak cabinets. The owner is $35,000 past due on his $1.5 million boat loan.
Hedrick is an agent with National Liquidators, considered by industry experts to be the world's largest marine repo company. The Fort Lauderdale-based company has tripled its business in the past three years, and now takes possession of about 200 boats a month in Florida, Ohio and California. The company's competitors also say they've seen similar increases in business.
"They're going to hang on to the car, they're going to hang on to the house. But they're going to give up on the boat," said Hedrick, whose employer has doubled its staff in two years to 85 repo agents so they can meet demand from the banks and lenders.
It's not just boats: Repo agents say banks and lenders have been asking them to reclaim all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, small planes, snowmobiles, semitrailers and, of course, cars. Vehicle repossessions were up 10 percent in 2007 over the previous year, said Tom Webb, an analyst for Atlanta-based Manheim, the largest car auction company in the nation.
One boat dealer, whose company also does recovery for banks and lenders, says those facing boat repossession were typically involved in the housing boom either as a real estate agent, construction worker or mortgage broker.
Rising gas prices have also made it harder for owners to make room in their budgets for boat trips. Marine diesel fuel costs more than $5 a gallon in some places, which means a five-hour jaunt on the water can easily cost $250 for some gas-guzzling yachts. Last year's marine diesel cost about $3.40 a gallon.
"For about a year now, it's been good for the repo guy," says Don Mashak, the owner of First National Repossession in Minneapolis.
Overall, the marine industry is hurting. Bankers say new boat loans are declining. MarineMax, the nation's largest boat retailer based in Clearwater, reported in April that sales fell 28 percent for its second quarter.