The weather was Indian summer perfection, with a warm, light-variable breeze, low humidity and flat seas. The sun on the water surface glimmered like a field of diamonds. Striped bass and bluefish were pinning baitfish in a cove, packing on some pounds for their thousand-mile migration south. Silversides and bay anchovies tried to escape by spraying out of the water, while menhaden daisy-chained in tight circles, hoping they’d evade capture and live another day.
This orchestrated chaos brings to mind the whirlwind pace that currently pervades the marine industry. Activity in boatyards has had a similar blitz feel, requiring boat owners and marina staff to improvise, adapt and overcome the sudden and steady pace of boating interest and participation. The volume of new boats splashed has been record-setting during the past year, the number of vessels tying up in transient slips is at full capacity, and new and veteran boaters alike are enjoying time on the water everywhere, with new boat buyers representing a more youthful group for the first time in 20 years.
“New-boat sales continued to be elevated through the latter part of 2020, up 40 percent [compared with] September through December 2019 — an indication that consumers are snatching up boats as soon as they’re coming off the production line,” says Vicky Yu, the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s former director of business intelligence.
Increases in boat sales and new boaters are the shots in arm (vaccine pun intended) the marine industry needed. But what is left in the wake? A scramble in just about every other facet of the boating business, that’s what. Service departments are rocking, distributors ship products shortly after receipt, and the accelerated pace continues all day, every day. To keep a customer’s boat on the water, boatyards, distributors and manufacturers have adopted a future-thinking, proactive and team-oriented approach.
Keith Martin, a service adviser at one of the Orleans, Mass., locations for Nauset Marine, offers customers two pieces of advice: plan ahead as best you can, and be patient.
Where have you seen time crunches this year, and where do you forecast them for this fall?
One of the main impacts of Covid-19 is that our once-seasonal business has become nearly annual. Our season used to be a short four months that ran from just before Memorial Day through Labor Day. That changed with remote employment, as our customers took advantage of extra free time, especially those who owned new boats. This year, they were on the water early, boated very frequently and are intending to keep their boats in the water well after Labor Day.
We work on over 1,000 boats annually. We also service the majority of the commercial fishing fleet, and we provide annual storage for more than 350 boats. That volume means that if everyone wants to splash, haul or winterize their vessel around the same time, we will have a very long waiting list. This year, we splashed boats starting in March, and we’re expecting to haul deep into November. In terms of time, our boating season is more than twice as long as it used to be.
How have you worked with customers to streamline operations during peak times?
One workaround that we did this year was to send emails to customers, prompting them to think about their boating needs in advance. We did that by sending regular emails to our storage customers, encouraging them to schedule a time to splash or haul their boats. They’ve been highly responsive, which we very much appreciate because the more advanced planning we can do, the easier it is for us to service our customers’ needs.
We also modified our work area. We have seven indoor bays, three outdoor bays, five bays for rigging new boats and two bays for power-washing. Based on the seasonal demand, we shifted each of those bays and staff to accommodate the work demand. Last year’s increased boat sales meant we were rigging more boats in those bays. Because of the new-boat shortage but the increased service requirements, those bays are now fully equipped service bays. Working proactively with our customers has been the key; despite the increased volume, we’re handling the increased pace very well.
Orchestrating Launch Times
Oharra Deschamps-Hajaji, the office coordinator for Nauset Marine’s East Orleans location, talked about the planning and orchestration required for getting boats in the water quickly from a dry stack system.
How do you ensure that customers can get their boats splashed on-demand when it’s a great day and everyone wants to be on the water?
Last weekend was a perfect example of our boating year. On Saturday, we had light variable winds, mid-70-degree weather and low humidity, so everyone wanted to go boating. We’ve got over 50 boats in our dry stack, and by midday, our forklifts moved nearly every boat. Our goal is to have a customer’s boat on the dock, ready to go, within 30 minutes of a phone call. It all worked out because we were ready in advance.
We prepare for peak days by monitoring the weather forecasts and by studying customer patterns. Weekends, long weekends, holidays and special events in the area spike increases. I’ve got 12 employees, so we staff up based on a combination of factual evidence and a little luck. We’re customer-service focused, so we have to plan ahead.
In addition to the dry stack, we’ve got 52 slips and 70 moorings with a shuttle service. To streamline operations, each of our dockhands has a launch tender license. They’re constantly moving from waiting for dry-stack customers to shuttling others to boats on moorings. We have to be very well organized, and that organization comes from proper training and appropriate staffing levels. And our customers are great. Covid-19’s impact on our community has made folks very appreciative of safely getting on the water with their family and friends. If there ever is a delay, I’ve found that folks are more understanding. That’s especially common if they need a repair and parts are back-ordered.
The Parts Dilemma
In many regions, in-season repairs have been delayed due to the parts shortage. Stacey Jameson, president of McDurmon Distributing in Fenton, Mich., says the current situation is unlike anything she’s seen in decades.
What have you done to try and get ahead of the supply curve, if that’s even possible?
The normal industry stability has been replaced with Covid-19’s erratic patterns. Toward the close of Q4 2019, our distribution center was fully stocked, and our inventory reflected normal trends. Sales increased throughout 2020, supply and demand was great, and we had a record-breaking sales year. Restocking became increasingly difficult, which was the result of a shorter 2020 production year, and we’ve been receiving about 20 percent of our placed orders. Oil, gas or water filters are difficult to keep in stock, as are spark plugs and propellers. Stainless steel is in short supply, so we are constantly ordering hardware and a variety of trailer parts to try and rebuild our inventory. Now that we’re in-season, we’re feeling the shortage of many core products.
To ensure that our 30,000-square-foot distribution center is well-stocked, we added a number of new suppliers. We also increased our purchasing levels by 10 to 20 percent, to ensure we have adequate inventory. We spend a lot more time on order forecasting and management than we used to, but it’s how we’ve been able to supply our boatyard, marina and boat-repair customers.
Our customers always think ahead, but with the delays, we’ve communicated to them even further ahead than normal. In a normal year, we’d review their winterizing product needs in early August. This year, we started planning in mid-June, a full seven to eight weeks earlier. It’s been working, with one exception: pricing. In my long career, I’ve never seen so many price increases in such a short timeframe. It’s been very difficult for us to estimate costs, which we can’t control. What we can control are inventory levels, so that’s been our main focus.
To keep customers informed, what have you done to expand your communications platforms?
We communicate with our customers in an increased number of ways, which now include emails, direct mail, social media promotions and follow-up telephone calls. Our forecasted buying is based on their orders, and we’re trying to gauge increased demand coming from the new boaters. All the while, we’re looking for ways to rebuild our inventory of core products, too. It’s a lot of analysis combined with a little bit of luck.
Our team, which is composed of manufacturers, distributors, dealers and end-user customers, all share the same view. We work together to get boaters back on the water as quickly as possible. In a way, Covid-19 has united us even more than we already were. And we all know that the shortages are felt well beyond the boating industry. They have impacted just about every other business sector, as well.
What’s your take on an even longer view into the future?
I’m now concerned about the long-term impact on manufacturing jobs and skilled, technical labor in an industry that is already hurting from the short supply of those jobs. I recently became involved with my son’s high-school robotics team and noticed that there were a lot of major automotive companies sponsoring these events on a local, regional and national scale. These kids and young adults will ultimately have the engineering, technical, marketing and business skills needed in an industry like ours. It occurred to me that the marine industry could and should do the same.
First Inspires (firstinspires.org) is the world championship, but if the marine industry were to sponsor similar groups on even a local or regional level, then I believe we would be able to recruit the skilled personnel to help us service the boating public in the future.
Handling Parts Shortages
Martin of Nauset Marine says the biggest required focus for in-season repairs is to fully understand what’s required before committing to times or prices.
Where do you stand in terms of your supply of parts?
Right now, we’re in good supply with basics like filters and plugs, but alternators are about three to four weeks out. Shipping is slower, and that adds more time to the repair process. Our work-around has been to thoroughly assess the work that needs to be done and then to have very responsive service technicians.
Last week we had a Yamaha 4-stroke 90 hp in here for carburetor repair. At first evaluation, it needed a total rebuild. We had all of the parts, but the bowls were on backorder for 30 days. But a thorough diagnostic showed that the bowls actually were in excellent condition and didn’t need to be replaced. That meant we could service the engine in three days instead of 30, and it reduced the customer’s repair cost by 30 percent. That turned out to be a win-win, with a happy, appreciative customer.
Scheduling repairs so they are conducted as soon as parts arrive is another key for quicker turnarounds. There are no problems, only solutions, so we’ve got to look for them. Not all repairs have happy endings like that one, but with extra effort, we’re finding that many more of them do.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.