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Getting away from it all: Boat sales have skyrocketed amid pandemic

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It's not often that the stars align for people in the boating business, but Don MacKenzie, president of Boats Inc. in Niantic, says the stars are aligning now.

"Very seldom does this industry benefit, but right now we are. We have low interest rates, low fuel prices, and a 2.99% sales tax on boats," he said. "Boat sales are hot. I've been doing this for 33 years now and never before has there been a rush to get it done like there is now. There's just this sense of urgency."

Boat dealers along the shoreline, from Westbrook to Westerly, are reporting record sales of small- to medium-sized power boats. Not the luxury models or mega yachts, but the 18- to 34-foot models, the center consoles and runabouts that allow families to get out on the water and isolate away from all their coronavirus concerns.

"Right when the pandemic hit, boat sales took off," said Tasha Cusson, chair of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association. "It was a way for people to get out, to social distance and to spend time with family."

Cusson and her husband, Paul, own Atlantic Outboard and Westbrook Marina Center, both in Westbrook. Like numerous other boat sellers, Cusson said inventory is low as seasoned mariners upgrade to bigger and better models and newcomers buy in, often using cash they had intended for a vacation, child care or gasoline — and never spent because of the pandemic.

"We are down to about five boats for sale," she said. "Normally at this time, we have 20, 30, 40 boats for sale. And used boats are hard to get; when we get one, it's gone within a day or two."

According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, nearly 320,000 new boats were sold in 2020, up 13% over the prior year, and a level the recreational boating industry hasn't seen since 2008.

"New boat sales continued to be elevated through the latter part of 2020, up 40 percent September through December from 2019, an indication that consumers are snatching up boats as soon as they're coming off the production line," an NMMA spokeswoman said in a news release.

Shortage of slips

Bob Petzold, president of Petzold's Marine Center on the Connecticut River in Portland, said he and other boat sellers worried about their businesses when the pandemic first hit.

"Last March (2020), we were terrified we would be stuck with a glut of inventory and 60 days later all heck broke lose," he said.

Petzold's, with additional showrooms in Norwalk and Warwick, is a major boat seller.

"Right now, we are sold out of everything, both big and small," Petzold said. "We are taking orders for boats to be delivered next summer and beyond that. It's crazy when you're talking about delivering a boat in 2023."

The downside for both boat sellers and owners is a shortage of slips and supplies.

Petzold said all 150 slips at his marina in Chester are spoken for and 50 people are on a waiting list to get their boats in there. On top of that, he said the marina gets 30 to 40 calls each week from boat owners searching for a berth.

"It's a problem," he said. "I don't think there's a slip left on the Connecticut River. That's something we haven't seen since the late '80s. We have some customers buying boats subject to finding a slip."

MacKenzie, at Boats Inc., said it's the same on the Niantic River. All 176 slips at his marina are full.

"Slip availability is a big thing right now. There's nothing on the Niantic River," he said.

Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the demand, too.  Boat sellers said their suppliers are working hard to get the last of the 2021 models finished and shipped out and to gear up production of 2022 boats. Many of those in production already have been spoken for, with customers putting down deposits to ensure they get what they want.

But the boat builders are facing shortages of electronics, marine parts and even resin, according to national reports. In some instances, the growing popularity of recreational vehicles has increased demands for components such as toilets that go in both boats and RVs.

"... 2020 was both a historic year for retail boat sales and a disruptive year for boat builders working to meet the heightened demand and replenish record low inventories amid challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," the NMMA spokeswoman said in another news release.

Help wanted

Many of the local boat dealers and marinas also are struggling to find experienced tradesmen to work on marine mechanics and boat repairs.

"We just can't find workers," MacKenzie said. "We need technicians, laborers and mechanics."

Petzold agreed. "We are hiring more people, but it's difficult," he said.

But the boat sellers are grateful that they have been busy and that they can help ease the stress and isolation created by the pandemic and get people out on the water.

Petzold shared an industry statistic he recently read, that about 30% of the new boats sold in 2020 went to first-time boat owners.

"Our industry has been trying to do that for 15 years, to get more first-time buyers, and now it's happening," he said.

"We definitely have new buyers who are first-time boat owners," Cusson said. "And we have people who were weekend warriors who traded up to get bigger boats and go a further distance. People want to spend time out on the water. They want to get out during this horrible time and make great memories."

"We are in an incredible location," MacKenzie said. "There is easy access to open water and good fishing. And people were penned up for so long that boating is a great escape from what we have had to deal with since last March (2020). Even if you don't go somewhere, half of the fun of boating sometimes is just sitting on the dock."

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