Look no further than the water for a safe-distancing getaway outlet.
If there seems to be more boats on waterways these days, it’s not an illusion.
Recreational boat and yacht sales are booming according to dealers and brokers, amid a COVID-19 economy where many businesses are struggling.
Consumers with jobs, credit and disposable income are busy buying boats and other watercraft.
Jean Wachter, owner and general manager at American Marine on U.S. 17 South in New Bern, has boating in her blood. Her father Richard founded the company in 1973 on Long Island, bringing it to New Bern when he and his wife Mary Anne retired to New Bern in 1987.
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She has been here since 2002 and said business is definitely different this year,
"Normally, you have a really busy end of February, March and April and then you are consistent over the summer months," she said. "This year, everything was stalled and we had no sales until about two and a half months ago. Then, the flood gates opened."
It’s not confined to American Marine.
"Nobody else that I have talked to on the east coast, no other dealers I have talked to can keep inventory in stock," said Wachter. "We’re all talking to each other, because we are trying to find boats. If somebody comes in and wants something you don’t have, you are scrambling to find it."
Find them and they will sell is the word.
"Boats are selling that fast. I had eight used boats a month ago and now I have one. I had six new boats and added four more and now, I am down to two," she said.
Added to that, she has a half-dozen or more boats on back order.
Wachter thinks the reason for the spike is a fear of traditional traveling such as flying, with unknown situations at the point of arrival.
Spiking boat sales also follow a story line of changing mindsets that has emerged as the pandemic becomes the driving force of a "new normal."
"We have all this beautiful water around us and they are like, ‘OK, now’s the time. Let’s get a boat," she said. "Good all-American fun, get the family out, go explore and do all the things they always said they would do, and didn’t.
For 20 years, American Marine has been exclusive to Key West for new boats, basically 17-to-26- foot. Key West is located in a boat-building hub north of Charleston, South Carolina.
They were shut down like most industry for a while and the supply chain for materials has been delayed. The same situation exists for dealers such as American in getting parts for boat repairs and its adjoining metal fabrication business.
Industry leaders such as the National Marine Manufacturing Association reports boat sales to remain strong in 2020, such as North Carolina at $914 million, up 9 percent.
Discoverboating.com lists six reasons boat sales are spiking across the country: Boating is social distancing at its finest; Outside is safer; Families have more time on their hands and open schedules; There are fewer - if any - opportunities for large gatherings or events; Families are looking for vacation opportunities and activities that keep them close to home; and there are low interest rates.
Lynda Kemppainen, senior vice president and region manager of Intercoastal Financial Group in New Bern reiterated Wachter’s assessment that sales are so good that dealers are scrambling to find boats, a situation she hasn’t seen in 25 years in the business. Her financing volume, for instance, has doubled since a year ago.
"All the dealerships are running out of boats, it’s pretty incredible," said Kemppainen, whose company is a major player in boat financing, with 28 representatives from coast to coast.
From her contacts, it’s all about the pandemic.
"People can’t go anywhere, so you are not going to take that trip to Disney World, you’re not going to get on a cruise ship, you’re not going to get on an airplane," she said. "The one freedom you have is to get on your boat with your family."
The boom has led to some "crazy hours" for her.
"I have some mornings that start at 5:30 and I work anywhere from 10 ’til midnight," she said. "The entire country is having this go on, it’s phenomenal. It doesn’t matter if I am talking to someone in Florida or Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina or North Carolina. Those are my states, it’s everyone. It’s just on fire."
Interest rates are good, ranging from 4.11 for some larger boats with discounts to 5.74 percent for smaller ones, depending on the cost of the boat and the particular lender. She said boat-lending rates are not as volatile as say, home mortgages.
The boat sales story includes all sizes and remains fluid.
Lisa Tulevech, yacht sales manager at Town Creek Marina, covers this area in Beaufort for Charleston-based Blue Chip Yacht Sales, owned by Stacy Cline.
Last week, she said pre-owned inventory on hand was sold out, with some higher-end vessels, such as a half-million dollar Hatteras available. Anything basically $50,000 sold quickly and the search is on for more.
"We are starting to see some of our bigger boats selling, big sport fish with larger center consoles," she said.
Her customers tell a similar story of escaping isolation on the water with family.
"And the rates are great, so that is the other thing," she added.
On a side note, she said boat sales to people who want to live on a boat have been steady since the 2008 recession.
"We always have people who want to live on the water," she said. "I think it is a great idea until they have to get out for a hurricane."
Ken Ferguson, owner of Neptune Yacht sales in New Bern, agreed the pandemic has driven the boat sales.
"It has gone from nothing when the lock-down started to absolutely crazy," said Ferguson, a broker. "The problem in getting sales is we need listings. I’ve got 10 boats under contract (to buy) right now. It’s like real estate."
His procedures include a sea trial, the running of the boat; along with a survey, akin to a very in-depth home inspection.
Ferguson said he hears different reasons from customers for now being the time to buy.
"Personally, I think the economy is kind of split," he said. "You’ve got half the people really, really hurting unfortunately, and those of us who are fortunate enough to work from home or have other options. People get tired of not being able to do what they want to do. Eventually, whether it’s a recession or an election or a pandemic, once everyone’s worse fears haven’t come to fruition immediately, ‘I still want a boat. I’m gonna go get a boat. I only live once.’ I think it is that sort of it."
He said mindset has always driven the boat, so to speak.
In his experience, boat sales fall off and then rebound around presidential elections.
"It doesn’t matter which side of the fence they are on," he added.
Charlie Hall can be reached at 252-635-5667 or 252-259-7585, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook at Charlie Hall.