Boating grows in popularity

Smith Donelon, left, fuels up Ray Skillen’s boat on recently at Lake Bomoseen’s Woodard Marine while his wife Lenora and poodle Scout wait patiently for their boat ride to resume. The boating business has seen an increase in interest as result of the coronavirus pandemic.

People in Vermont’s boating industry are noticing a heightened level of interest in all things water-related this year, and many are chalking it up to the pandemic.

“I think there’s a couple of things going on,” said Mike O’Brien, executive director of the Vermont Marine and Boat Association. “The pandemic is the primary driver, and No. 2 is we have all these new marinas in the Burlington market with new improvements as well, so I think that helped.”

From what O’Brien is hearing from marinas, boat sales are up as much as 20%.

“It’s been an interesting four months,” he said. “We’ll survive all this, but it’s all going to look different going forward.”

COVID-19 has made things strange in the boat world, especially on Lake Champlain, he said, with the Canadian market being cut off by border restrictions and New York State opening up earlier than Vermont did. O’Brien said working with the state on COVID-19 guidelines as they apply to marinas was also challenging, as the ownership structures vary greatly.

One indicator of interest in boats could be the number of boat loans people have sought.

Jen Seaver, consumer loan manager at New England Federal Credit Union, said the number of closed boat loans between February and now compared to that same time last year has more than quadrupled.

She wasn’t able to say how many loans the credit union has approved, but they average about $18,000. Most fall between the $8,000 and $50,000 range, with a few loans over $50,000.

Seaver said some sectors of the economy weren’t hurt as badly as others, leaving some with the means to take out a boat loan. Also, the credit union is confident these loans will be repaid. She said there’s also been a spike in loans for jet skis, as well as land-based recreational vehicles.

Many of these boat buyers are new to the hobby, said John Freeman, owner of Small Boat Exchange in Shelburne.

“I think it’s going to peter out pretty soon, but there was a mad rush to get out on the water,” he said. “I’m seeing brand-new people who’ve never had a boat in their lives buying $50,000 boats.”

Freeman sells many kinds of boats, including canoes and kayaks, which sold early and fast. He noticed the rush in May after Gov. Phil Scott relaxed some of the COVID-19 guidelines.

“I’m a boater, so I’m prejudiced, but people are under a lot of stress,” he said. “Being out on the water relieves stress, it’s like climbing a mountain and looking down on a valley. Someone said this the other day, a woman who bought a boat, she goes, ‘I just want to feel normal.’ Nowhere on dry land can you feel normal. Everybody is wearing a mask, you go in the store and everybody is 6-feet away, wearing a mask. Out on the water you can kind of feel like you’re normal.”

The inexperience of these new boaters is keeping some others busy as well.

Mike Hendrickson, owner of Burlington Harbor Launch and Tow in Shelburne, has been on Lake Champlain his entire life and only last year started his towing business.

“This year has been on par with last year, but the clientele has been different,” he said. “Last year, we did a lot of Canadian boats and this year we’re doing a lot of newer boat owners.”

Those not familiar with the lake tend to hit rocks and the like and need repair or towing, he said. Others have purchased older, used boats, many of which haven’t been well-maintained and break down.

“There’s more people headed to the water for sure,” he said.

For some, it remains to be seen whether all this brisk business represents a delay in buying or an increase overall.

Eric Splatt, owner of Woodard Marine on Lake Bomoseen in Hydeville, said at this point he’s on par for the year.

“I think everything went so quickly, there was a rush on boats,” he said. “We are short on inventory for this time of year but the difference is everything sold in July.”

He said sales are up slightly, but nothing is certain until the season ends.

From what he gathers in speaking to people on Bomoseen, many are folks who would normally vacation elsewhere but because of the pandemic are staying closer to home.

“There are definitely still people looking to buy. It’s a good family activity,” he said.


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