Docked behind The Old Boat House in Saugatuck during the tourist season is a fleet of unique, colorful boats with names like Dottie, Flo and Stella. These names were popular in the late 1950s and early ’60s when each of these boats was new.
With aquamarine or fire engine red hulls, tail fins and headlights, the vintage vessels are more reminiscent of 1950s-era Cadillacs than outboard-powered runabouts. Some of the boats are extremely rare, but all of them are available for rent.
John and Lauren Sharar stumbled upon the vacant waterfront building in 2016 while looking for a place to start a business. The property’s unique characteristics and location started the couple talking about boat rentals; however, there was a pontoon rental business nearby.
“We wanted to do something different,” John explained, “something simpler and more comfortable for inexperienced boaters.”
John, a vintage boat enthusiast, was interested in the jet-age hull designs built by early fiberglass boat manufacturers like Glastron, Bell Boy and Lone Star. While considering the use of the older boats as rentals, he had the idea to remove the engine blocks and use electric motors instead.
With only forward, back and off settings similar to golf carts, the environmentally friendly motors have no starting or running issues and are extremely easy to use. The motors also are silent.
“We wanted to provide people with the opportunity to relax and to really disconnect and enjoy their surroundings,” John said. “We also wanted our renters to have a good conversation without yelling over the engine.”
The boats come from all over the country, selected for their unique appearance and structural integrity. After scouring Craigslist for certain makes and models, John flies out to inspect prospective additions to the fleet before shipping them back to Michigan.
The couple recently found a boat with a pink topside, a color the Sharars have been looking for since their first season.
“We like boats with pizzazz,” Lauren noted. “We’re mostly interested in boats with cool features and fun colors.”
The couple took their first converted boat for a trial run in February 2017, braving the frigid temperatures to test the handling and propulsion of the electric vessel in the Kalamazoo River. After a successful test, they spent the rest of the winter getting additional boats ready for use and launched their new rental company that spring.
Retro Boat Rentals’ first season was such an unexpected success that John decided to leave his position with an industrial distribution company early in 2018. After more than 17 years on the air with WZZM news in Grand Rapids, Lauren also left her position as morning anchor to work at the rental business full time.
“We wanted to provide people with the opportunity to relax and to really disconnect and enjoy their surroundings. We also wanted our renters to have a good conversation without yelling over the engine.”
— John Sharar
The Sharars said they believe their success lies in the size and simplicity of the vintage boats. The 12- and 14-foot runabouts, which cruise at 4 miles per hour to comply with area no-wake laws and preserve battery life, give those who might not otherwise rent a boat the opportunity to go for a cruise and enjoy the scenery along the Kalamazoo River.
“People who might be intimidated by something larger like a pontoon can rent one of ours and feel comfortable in the slower, quieter electric boat,” John said.
Their renters regularly echo that sentiment in rave reviews online. When John Gettler returned home to Minnesota from a road trip through Michigan in August 2018, he told everyone he knew about Retro Boat Rentals.
While in Saugatuck, Gettler rented a houseboat instead of staying in a more traditional room. And while sitting on the deck of the floating hotel, he watched a steady stream of vintage boats meander past.
“Everyone kept waving at me as they went by,” Gettler said, “and they looked like they were having so much fun.”
When he had the opportunity to investigate, he discovered Retro Boat Rentals a few blocks away. Although he had no boating experience, he could not pass up the chance to go for a ride.
“Honestly, anyone spending time in Saugatuck should do this,” Gettler said. “You’ll smile the whole time, and you’ll love it.”
A 90-minute rental will take customers out to the cove at the end of the river and back to the dock. If renters follow the prescribed route, they don’t even need to look at a watch. More adventurous boaters can undertake a three-hour tour around Kalamazoo Lake and back, or in good weather and in certain models, out to Lake Michigan.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Gettler said. “Where else can you find a collection of rare boats like these, all available for your use?”
To learn more information on Retro Boat Rentals, see retroboatrentals.com.
Chuck Warren is a freelance boating writer and licensed captain who lives in Grandville. He has worked around boats for 40 years.