Following his March visit to the Greater Philadelphia Boat Show, Gary Kleinschmidt decided, with a mixture of guilt and enthusiasm, that it might be the right time to replace his 22-foot bow rider with a slightly larger boat.
Surely, he thought, in the midst of all the unemployment and financial uncertainty unleashed by COVID-19, boat owners and dealers would be desperate to make a deal.
“I hated to think about all the people affected by the virus,” he said, “but I was still working and had some disposable income. I figured boats would be a dime a dozen.”
Instead, the dealership showrooms Kleinschmidt visited were empty. Whenever he saw something online, it was gone before he could reach for his phone. And when he finally found a boat and drove to Maryland to buy it, he arrived only to discover someone had beaten him to the punch. In contrast, when he put his old rider up for sale on a website, he got 700 hits in less than four hours.
This pandemic’s enforced isolation has propelled cooped-up Americans toward virus-proof outdoor activities with an unexpected velocity. Sales of RVs, bicycles and camping equipment are exploding. But nowhere is this boom more evident than on the water.
“As folks see traditional summer vacations, summer camps and sports leagues being canceled, they’re gravitating toward boating,” said John-Michael Donahue, communication director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “In this era of social-distancing, it certainly checks that box.”
Since April, when stay-at-home orders began to be relaxed, frantic buyers have been snapping up anything that floats, from rafts and canoes to luxurious powerboats and yachts. Dealers have sold out. Websites such as Boat Trader have been swamped. Marinas have become trading pits.
“I’ve been doing this 35 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Tony Tumas, sales manager at South Jersey’s Riverside Marina & Yacht Sales. “Even when we were working remotely, the phone calls wouldn’t stop.”
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, 70% of dealers nationwide reported increased sales this spring, according to Donahue’s group. Sales of used boats jumped 74% this year. Overall, boat sales were up 59% in May over April.
“No matter what kind of boat you’re talking about, there’s been big increases,” said Donahue. “We’re selling them as fast as we can make them.”
But just as the coronavirus has intensified the desire for boats, it’s also made them more scarce. In the outbreak’s early days, factories were shut down and supply lines disrupted. And as demand spiked, dealers quickly disposed of inventory they haven’t been able to replace.
“There’s more demand than can be met because people can’t find boats,” said Jack Ott, manager of Clews & Strawbridge, a marine dealer in Frazer, Chester County. “You call other dealers and they can’t help. They’re in the same situation. And the shortages are right across the board. Parts. Motors. Boats. We hear that things might be back to normal by the fall. But that’s too late to help our summer season.”
Now, as governmental restrictions ease, the situation might at last be changing. U.S.-based boat factories are operating again. Shipments of engines for outboards, which account for 60% of all boat sales, increased in June for a second straight month.
“Like every other industry, we’re facing supply-chain challenges, getting material for our boats,” said Donahue. “We’re still facing some of that now, but the good news is that all our boat manufacturers are back up and running.”
In 2019, according to the trade association, the boating industry contributed $170 billion to the economy. Overall, there were 15 million watercraft in the U.S., 280,000 of which were bought last year. And an estimated 100 million Americans did some kind of boating in 2019.
Given the current trend, that last number figures to jump substantially in 2020. The nationwide boat chain MarineMax reported that nearly three quarters of its online inquiries this year were from first-time buyers,
“People that maybe hadn’t done it before are realizing that just like camping, boating is a great way to get some family time,” said Tumas. “They’re not able to go to sporting events. Who wants to go to DisneyWorld or the beach? You can get aboard your boat, socially-distance from everybody else, and travel all over the place.”
Kleinschmidt’s experience was typical. When the Chalfont resident, head of retirement strategy at Franklin Templeton, decided to sell his boat, his phone “was ringing off the hook.” After it sold and he found something to replace it — a used, 24-foot bow rider for $40,000 — he bought it sight unseen.
“The market is absolutely crazy,” he said.
The hottest-selling items, insiders said, have been small, towable vessels — jet-skis, kayaks, aluminum fishing boats and small sailboats.
One of the latter was purchased by Kent Steinriede, a medical writer from Bala Cynwyd. A boat owner for 20 years, he’d sold his most recent craft four years ago. Since then, he’s borrowed friends’ boats to sail on the Delaware River, near the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. And during the COVID-19 outbreak, the crowds he sometimes saw on other vessels spooked him.
“I realized that if I wanted to continue sailing, I was going to have to sail by myself,” he said.
Steinriede searched long and hard on Craig’s List, but every boat that interested him was sold before he could contact the owners. Finally, at a dealership in Lumberton, he found what he called a “social-distancing sailboat” — a 20-year-old, 14-foot, single-handed Laser.
No one can say when this nautical mania will crest, but some predict that its end is nowhere in sight.
“This is something we’re going to be dealing with a long time,” said Tumas, “at least until they get a vaccine.”