I got a call recently from a couple who joined my wife and me some years back on board my (borrowed) 47-footer for a late-summer circumnavigation of New York’s Manhattan Island. While other friends freely wandered from the foredeck to the flybridge, cockpit and saloon, this couple sat — unmoving and stock straight — seeming to eye the dark water with caution.
As I maneuvered into North Cove Marina at dusk, they couldn’t get onto the dock any faster. Landlubbers. Or so I thought. “We’re taking sailing lessons next week at City Island,” my friend excitedly told me. (His wife confirmed the news in the background.) “Spent last weekend on my sister’s Sea Ray, swimming, pulling the kids on tubes. And then we sailed the Sunfish around. We’re hooked.”
A few days later, another close buddy flooded my inbox with a selection of 20-something-foot center consoles from a bevy of builders. He peppered me with questions about everything from outboards and reliability to anchors and racks for his surfboards. He’s keen on dropping the hook off the beach, beyond the breakers, to paddle into the sets for surf sessions.
When the waves start to subside, he mentioned, it will be time to wet a line. I hope this happens, as he’s a master chef. I’d expect nothing less for my marine surveyor services than expertly prepared flounder sashimi paired with whatever his farmer’s market is pushing. “A few of these boats are sold already,” he told me. “I gotta get on this if we want to salvage the summer.”
This phenomenon of newfound interest in boating expands well beyond my circle of friends. With European vacations canceled, youth sports leagues postponed, summer camps closed and community pools shuttered, more families than ever are looking to recreate on the water. And builders and dealers are taking note.
“Boat sales have just been phenomenal, through the roof,” Port Harbor Marine president Rob Soucy told Soundings Trade Only in this month’s Q&A about his family’s five Maine locations. “I’ve never seen business as strong and vibrant as it’s been.”
Soucy says that May and June were record-setting months, and that he expects the same for July. In addition, the company’s boat rental business is “off the charts.”
This summer, if it floats, it’s selling — or is already sold out. In “The Socially Distant Summer” (Page 28), Krista Karlson reports that sales of small watercraft are up across the country, from kayaks to stand-up paddleboards, personal watercraft and jetboats. Bryan Seti, general manager of Yamaha WaterCraft Group, says the company sold a whopping 9,000 WaveRunners in May, up 75 percent compared with the same time period last year. For Connecticut’s Defender Industries, the trend means brisk sales of inflatables, up 40 percent this year. And paddleboards: President Stephen Lance reports having sold 150 of those in a single week. And Johnson Outdoors Watercraft, parent company of canoe and kayak brand Old Town, reports that dealers are seeing “robust interest in all kinds of paddle sports.”
The summer sales frenzy is quite a sea change from earlier in the year, when the Covid-19 pandemic closed boatbuilding facilities around the world and forced thousands of workers into furlough. Nearly all have resumed production, with many playing catch-up to answer the demand.
Even still, despite booming numbers for May and June — new-boat sales rebounded strongly, up 59 percent in May from a dismal April — 81 percent of the industry has been affected by Covid-19. The economic loss is estimated at more than $20 billion, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
While we are not out of the woods with this pandemic, families are viewing boating as a way to cope with it, and as a saving grace to thwarted summer travel plans. As an industry, we are accomplishing one of the big challenges we’ve faced for as long as I can remember: introducing new people to boating. But how do we keep those new to the sport interested? Will this new legion of boaters be the ones who move up from a 20-foot bowrider to a 26-foot dual console next summer, then to a three-stateroom, diesel yacht so they can weekend with family and guests in comfort?
Customer service may do the trick. We are building the next generation of horizon chasers, wakeboarders, anglers, sailors and day trippers who are seeking an escape, who want the pure solitude that is unique to boating. Keep them happy, and they’ll hopefully come back for more.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.