Walking through the Grand Rapids Boat Show last February, I saw no sign of the looming threat of COVID-19 or how it would affect boaters and the marine industry. Attendance was strong and a wealth of new products were on display. Discussions with several dealers painted a picture of strong sales of everything from new kayak designs to high-end luxury powerboats.
Just one month later, the virus stopped being news from some distant country. It became a frightening reality for all Americans. COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, and the resulting stay-at-home orders impacted almost every aspect of day-to-day life. Like most boaters, I was affected by the virus in ways I did not expect.
Last winter I leased an empty vacation rental; I live on my boat in the summer. My 40-foot Sea Ray was due to launch on April 1, but when the virus pushed governors across the country to pass stay-at-home legislation, the boating industry ground to a halt. Marinas across Michigan shut down, stopping all service operations for their customers. My floating home was stuck on land until further notice.
The marine service industry was hit hard by COVID-19. The off-season is when boaters tackle their wish list of repairs and maintenance or pay a marina’s service department to check off those tasks. But neither the service department staff nor boat owners were allowed in storage buildings to work, and stored boats could not be prepared for spring launch. The shutdown hit marine service departments with huge losses. According to Dry Harbour Marine co-owner Scott Boss, the Charlevoix-based operation saw a 29% drop in sales and service in 2020’s first quarter alone.
In May, when Michigan’s stay-at-home orders were slightly relaxed, boats were dragged out of storage, but the backlog of work meant lots of repairs and maintenance were put off or canceled. By June, the virus had shortened Michigan’s boating season by about 45 days and people just wanted their boats afloat, even if it meant skipping oil changes or the bottom paint jobs that keep growth from accumulating on a vessel’s hull.
“We started operating in crisis mode,” said Boss. “We started scrambling to get our clients in the water so they could use up the time that was left.”
Great Lakes boat sales also were impacted. With limited or no access to marina facilities, boats could not be shown to prospective buyers. Many dealers saw a huge drop in revenue. Boat sellers also were affected when scheduled maintenance on New York’s Erie and Oswego Canal locks was started but then put on hold to protect the staff. Since buyers often seek out freshwater boats for their lack of corrosion and wear, Michigan dealers and private sellers lost sales because the boats could not be delivered to the coast.
“People in New York or on the coast who might want a nice, clean, freshwater boat couldn’t get it delivered until late in the season,” said Mathew Ginsberg, one of the sales professionals at Detroit’s Jefferson Beach Yacht Sales. “Boats that are in the Great Lakes are stuck in the Great Lakes.”
Those delays also created issues for Michigan boaters planning to do the Great Loop, a 6,000-mile circumnavigation of the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada via the Great Lakes, Atlantic and Gulf intercoastal waterways and others. With no access to the Gulf or East Coast, loopers who already were traveling around Michigan were stuck when the lock systems were shut down to any boat traffic. Although service departments began to recover by the end of June, it was still impossible for Michigan boaters to access the Gulf of Mexico or the East Coast except by traveling through the St. Lawrence Seaway, which adds excessive time and expense to any trip.
As COVID-19 slowly lost its grip across Michigan in late June, the marine industry began to shake the dust off and come back to life. However, anyone with a new service need found themselves at the end of their local marina’s very long waiting list behind winter projects that needed to be completed.
My boat was launched in Holland on June 3 after the shutdown order was relaxed enough to allow recreational boaters back on the water. On June 5, I was able to move onboard for the summer and, although the marina’s bathrooms, pool and laundry still were off-limits, at least I had my house back. After celebrating July 4 afloat on Lake Michigan with a clear view of the fireworks bursting above Holland’s Big Red lighthouse, COVID-19’s effects appeared to fade and life on the docks slowly returned to normal.
However, the impact of coronavirus could still be seen throughout the marine industry. Shelves at retailers like West Marine still were woefully understocked and empty slips could be found in marinas around Michigan. According to Dry Harbour’s Boss, it may be years before we know the real impact. “The economic ripple effect from coronavirus will be felt for a long time,” he said. ≈
Chuck Warren is a licensed captain and boating writer based in Grandville. He spends his summers happily living aboard his boat.