Cordell Sanderson, CEO at Helix Boats, is riding a wave of growth at his boat manufacturer as wakesurfing and wakeboarding boom in Utah and beyond.
Helix Boats is the descendant of HydroSwift, a longtime boat manufacturer that shuttered in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“HydroSwift was a Utah boat manufacturer since 1958,” says Sanderson, who has a background in private equity. Justin Bateman, Helix’s lead engineer, worked there starting in the early 1990s.
“He had been wanting to do a surf boat line,” says Sanderson. “That’s the fastest-growing annualized boat in our industry.”
“He had been working on some ideas for a boat, and we agreed it’d be a good idea to bring another line to the market.”
In 2020, the duo started production with Helix after developing the design for two years, but the COVID-19 pandemic stymied the company’s first year. After delivering the first boats to customers, Sanderson and Bateman paused manufacturing in 2021 and relaunched for the 2022 boating season.
The company offers two models — the 23-foot HX 23 and the 25-foot HX 25 — with prices starting at $185,000. “Our whole design is a surfed-up version of a HydroSwift,” says Sanderson. “They’re all custom. . . . We try to offer the customer as many options as we possibly can without hurting the quality of the product.”
Boats require 75 days to build, meaning the time left to order a Helix for the 2022 season is dwindling as of early spring.
“We do the fiberglass in-house, we do our towers in-house, we obviously build the boats in-house,” says Sanderson. “We work with Indmar motors, which are great, reliable motors.”
“We do fiberglass a little different than most of our competitors,” he adds. “They hand-lay fiberglass still, which is great, it works if you get some really skilled people to do it, but we prefer the aerospace angle with vacuum infusion. It offers more consistency. The weight of our boat will be almost the same every single time.”
That’s especially critical with wake and surf boats. “You don’t want it to be too heavy . . . but you want there to be weight,” says Sanderson. “The hull shoots water to the plate and the plate helps push water into the wave to make the wave a little bit larger.” Some customers have added more than 6,000 pounds of ballast to drive the tallest waves on the water.
As Helix Boats looks ahead to the 2023 boating season and beyond, Sanderson sees a lot of runway for growth. “We’re steadily scaling now,” says Sanderson.
Some of the growth is attributable to the company’s location: “Utah is per capita — and Texas is pretty close — the number-one state for wake and surf boat purchases.”
While currently at historic lows, Lake Powell has long been a premiere destination, as Pineview Reservoir in the Ogden Valley and Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border are more accessible to the Wasatch Front.
Sanderson says Helix Boats has a good body of water for quality assurance in its backyard: “Utah Lake’s not necessarily a great surfing lake, but it’s a great testing lake, and our facility is right by the lake, so we’re able to take our boats over there and test every feature of the boat before giving it to a customer.”
Ultimately, he adds, it’s about making memories as much as it is about manufacturing boats. “Growing up, my dad always had a Centurion, and my family has 100, 200, 300 stories that we tell people all the time on the boat that we just couldn’t have made elsewhere,” he adds. “Really, what we’re selling is family. We’re selling moments, we’re selling good times with family.”
Challenges: “Supply chain has been our biggest challenge,” says Sanderson. “Anything electronic — so certain wire connectors and our touchscreens, anything chip-related — has really been a hindrance.”
Market awareness is also a hurdle for the company as a new entrant, he adds. “Just being new and people taking that leap to come over to a more custom boat has been a small challenge to us.”
Opportunities: A booming market. Sanderson says about 10,000 surf and wake boats are sold in the U.S. annually, and the market’s recent growth has blown away projections of about 10 percent a year.
“Right now, most other manufacturers are struggling to supply boats,” says Sanderson. “Any outdoorsy industry is going crazy.”
He adds, “In 2023, we’re going to expand into a dealer network. We’ve done everything direct to consumer, but we believe we’ll be expanding through a dealer network as well as doing some direct-to-consumer sales in 2023.”
Needs: “We’re looking to expand and add employees,” says Sanderson. “We want to have 15 to 20 employees next year producing a boat a week potentially.” He says the company’s current 15,000-square-foot facility is adequate for production, but the company could use another 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space for storage.