On a whim, Christine Baum, a high school teacher who’s prone to seasickness, decided to join the Rhode Island franchise of Freedom Boat Club.At just past 4 p.m. on the last day of April, Baum opened a Freedom email promotion. By 4:20 she was a member, paying the deposit over the phone. In early May, her family was on the water. And by midsummer, they’d docked and dined in Warwick, anchored at Mackerel Cove off Conanicut Island, and dropped the hook at Potter Cove off Prudence Island.
Her plan was to improve a summer wrecked by the pandemic — her family’s normal annual itinerary is to travel domestically and abroad for five weeks — and that plan went swimmingly, with day cruises close to home surrounded by her kids, their friends, her mother and her husband. And Baum, focused on deck work and having fun with her family, no longer gets seasick.
“The kids are learning a lot about the coastline we normally drive by,” she says. “It’s definitely something we didn’t have on our bucket list, and it’s due to Covid-19 that we have it. Now that we do, we’ll still travel and fit this in next summer. We’ve become boat people.”
Whether it’s a landlubber dipping a toe in Narragansett Bay for the first time, an angler who reunited with his cabin cruiser, or a salt who rolled the canvas sail cover off her neglected sloop, the Covid-19 pandemic got people out on the water to enjoy themselves during the summer of 2020. The outcome of the global pandemic is far from over, but there is a silver lining for Rhode Island’s marine trades sector, a highly visible contributor to the state’s economy and identity.
“This is the first economic downturn that has kept the industry where it needs to be and, in many cases, has increased sales,” says Wendy Mackie, CEO of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association. “During every other economic downturn, our industry is the first to go and last to come back, because people’s recreational budgets are nonessential. You don’t buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at a bottom of a downturn, and you don’t buy a boat either — except now.”
Mother Nature and the timing of the virus’s spread each played a role in the industry’s ability to succeed. “In April, the weather’s usually not great, and boatyards are not yet flooded with customers,” Mackie says. “With summer, boating is seen as a pastime that’s family-oriented and naturally socially distant. You can feel free and safe out on the water without worrying about Covid-19.”
Changes by the Minute
As Rhode Island phased in its reopening, marine businesses and groups, suddenly flooded with customer activity, scrambled to take stock of the fallout from lockdown, port closures and restrictions on interstate travel.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management declared in early April that marinas and boatyards, yacht clubs and harbormasters were “an important part of our economy and way of life,” and issued a policy statement detailing their continued operation under strict safety guidelines. Marine retail outlets that fell into the nonessential category outlined by the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation on March 28 had the option to operate online and by telephone.
RIMTA provided interpretation of the regulations on its website and through “zoominars,” email and phone support. Rules were “changing by the minute, it felt like at times,” Mackie says. RIMTA staff and directors also reached out to contacts in state government, as well as to national and regional marine trades groups.
“Different dynamics were affecting different parts of the industry at different times,” says Susan Daly, RIMTA vice president of strategy. “We wanted to try and understand how much business was from out of state, so we conducted a members survey and found out that 50 percent of the boats kept in Rhode Island belong to people from other states. That was a big deal: What would marinas do if the borders are shut and owners can’t come and work on their boats?”
By the end of April, things were changing again. With new Covid-19 cases declining, the state unveiled plans for a phased reopening. By then, the RIMTA membership survey showed, 80 percent of boatyards and marinas were functioning, and the other 20 percent were busy with online and phone orders.
The tiniest of the United States has a rich, diverse nautical heritage and a 400-mile coastline, both of which help to account for why the marine trades are a driver of Rhode Island’s economy, even in a downturn. According to a 2018 economic impact study by RIMTA and the University of Rhode Island, the state’s marine trades comprise 1,712 firms that generate $2.649 billion in annual gross sales and employ 13,337 people.
The trades encompass boatbuilding and repair; retail boat and equipment sales; marine construction, manufacturing, services and supply; diving and salvage; marinas, docks and yacht clubs; and charter and cruise services. Of that list, marine services and supply is the largest subsector. Next are marinas, docks and yacht clubs, while charter and cruise services come in third.
Newport Nautical Supply, a shop selling gear, parts and consignment goods on the outskirts of the City by the Sea, was deemed nonessential but managed to stay in business. The store shut down but received a Paycheck Protection Program loan and revamped its website to offer curbside pickup.
“We adapted to a changing environment and lost business for sure, but the business churned along,” says Chris Heaton, who runs the store with his father, Bud. “People would email and be outside in their cars. They’d ask us, Can you go in and check on this or that? We got good exercise. My dad and I got 20,000 steps a day.”
By the time the shop reopened, the Heatons couldn’t keep up with demand. People were frantic to find used dinghies and outboards. “We sold a dozen trailers,” he says. “We’ve never sold that many trailers. It’s either a year for trailers, or people are using small boats to get back and forth again because launch services had been restricted.”
At Zim Sailing, whose Bristol plant produces up to 170 small boats annually, the pandemic solved a nagging problem. “We always had a hard time reaching the retail recreational customer directly,” says Bob Adam, vice president of sales. “Covid-19 has caused them to find us in a big way.”
Zim also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and his staff extended the store’s retail hours. “It’s given local people an outlet,” he says. “We also distribute three types of small boats from England, and they are just flying off the shelves.”
Matt Leduc, a broker with Latitude Yachts in Jamestown, got so low on inventory by July that he started talking people out of buying boats.
“The real story is that plenty of people have the money and means to buy a boat, but it’s difficult to find the right one to move up into,” he says. “So some of them are using what they already have. People want to get on a boat and be with their families, enjoy the water and be outside. They want to be in their private circle so that they don’t have to wear a mask. They want to do it right now.”
Even with the loss of several months’ worth of business, Leduc says, by midsummer, Latitude’s sales were even with 2019, “which was a very good year.”
The rush to buy reminded Leduc of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. “After 9/11, a lot of people spent money on boats,” he says. “People were looking for a distraction, and they got out on the water. It’s how people react when stress is high. They spend money on something that will bring family and friends together.”
Challenges and Choices
Boat buying solves one challenge for consumers during Covid-19 but introduces another: the need to secure dockage. According to 2019 statistics from the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the total number of boats and personal watercraft registered in Rhode Island, including power and sail up to and beyond 65 feet, is 38,836.
Safe Harbor Marinas, with eight facilities and 375 employees in Rhode Island, provides dockage for about 3,000, according to Tim Moll, regional vice president. “This has been a growing experience,” Moll says of Covid-19’s stresses and regulations. “We are still being very careful every single day. Our managers deserve a medal for the ways they’ve risen to this challenge.”
Early on, as Safe Harbor attempted to get a handle on the situation, its findings were roughly in line with the RIMTA member survey: On average, 44 percent of Safe Harbor’s Rhode Island customers were from out of state or out of the country, according to Moll.
“These boats are very much like second homes for the people who own them,” he says. “They are a substantial investment, and people are passionate about the time they spend on them. In April, people were understandably upset because they simply couldn’t get to their boats. By mid-May, it started to open up. In the end, it all worked out. For every person who didn’t want to put their boat in the water, there was someone who wanted that slot.”
The Lightship Group, in business from North Kingstown since 1983, found itself in a different situation. The company is a marine fabricator and repairer whose contracts include state and federal government military and research vessels, and it was designated as essential. Lightship staff were already working seven-day weeks before the lockdown, with some of its 23 employees traveling to jobs in Boston and Philadelphia.
Once Lightship understood out-of-state travel requirements, the company laid in additional protocols. It reduced the number of employees it dispatched from six to two, had them work alone at remote job sites and, upon their return, set them up at work stations distant from one another at the company’s 10,000-square-foot shop in Davisville.
“This whole working-from-home thing, which I did not like, really shocked me,” says president Thomas F. Alexander. “I thought, we’re not going to get anything done. Now everybody’s working from home. We’re getting our work done. My apprehensions didn’t pan out.”
Another unexpected upside was an opportunity for Lightship to complete a job on Endeavor, the University of Rhode Island’s research vessel. With the Endeavor sitting at her home port, “on-board crew would remove a section of pipe, put it on the pier, we’d drive up, take it off the pier, take it to our shop, and fabricate a new one. Then we’d deliver it to them, and they’d do the installation,” Alexander says.
Fun Isn’t Canceled
If groups could score points for creativity during the crisis, the winners would include Sail Newport, Rhode Island’s public sailing center, and charter boat operators and brokers.Located at historic Fort Adams, Sail Newport turned a coping mechanism into a branding strategy. “Quaranteaming” was the term the staff coined to encourage households to get back out on the water. The staff organized sold-out events for parents and children from June through early July. By late summer, the center was mostly back to its full racing event schedule, albeit staggered and without social gatherings.
“We’ve discovered what it means to be adaptable, nimble and looking at opportunities instead of lamenting what we can’t do,” says executive director Brad Read. “We don’t know what tomorrow looks like, but we’re doing what we can. We’re still making the experience amazing even if you have face coverings on. We’re just doing it in a slightly different way.”
Charter operations across Rhode Island also went from a standstill to fully booked as the state reopened. “It’s wacky,” says Sue Gearan, owner of Global Yacht Concierge. “I’m getting calls I’d never have gotten before for birthdays, graduations, you name it. Everybody wants to get their families and close groups out on the water for the day.”
Gearan and other Rhode Island-based brokers also book one- and two-week crewed charters globally. They lost those contracts and income when clients canceled or postponed trips in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. The brokers scrambled to rebook some of the trips closer to home.
“It’s been difficult and complicated,” says charter broker Jennifer Saia, president of B&B Yacht Charters. “I had two families who were going to Greece who are now doing southeastern New England. They would have never done southeastern New England before this.”
Those charter clients shared the local waters with Rhode Islander Jennifer Drake-Bohnwagner, a landlubber who joined Freedom Boat Club because her summer 2020 honeymoon in Europe was canceled. “If this pandemic has taught us anything,” she says, “it’s that you only live once, and we really wanted to share this boating experience with our family and friends.”
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.