PANDEMIC DRIVES RECREATION, VACATIONS, OUT TO SEABy Elaine Lembo | Cover photograph by Monica Allard Cox
ON A WHIM, Christine Baum, a Cranston High School West teacher who’s prone to seasickness, decided to join the Rhode Island franchise of Freedom Boat Club, which offers access to power boats 22 to 24 feet long for day use.
Her plan was to replace a summer wrecked by the pandemic—her family’s normal annual itinerary is to travel domestically and abroad for five weeks—with day cruises close to home, surrounded by her kids, their friends, her mother, and her husband. At just past 4 p.m. on the last day of April 2020, Baum opened an email promotion from Freedom. By 4:20 p.m., she was a member, paying the deposit over the phone.
In early May, her family was on the water. By mid-summer, they’d docked and dined in Warwick and anchored at Mackerel Cove, off Conanicut Island, and Potter Cove, off Prudence Island.
“The kids are learning a lot about the coastline we normally drive by,” she says. “It’s definitely something we didn’t have on our bucket list, and it’s due to COVID-19 that we have it. Now that we do, we’ll still travel and fit this in next summer. We’ve become boat people.”
And Baum, focused on deck work and having fun with her family, no longer gets seasick.
Whether it’s a landlubber dipping her toe in Narragansett Bay for the first time, an angler who decided to reunite with his Osprey cabin cruiser, or a salt who rolled the canvas sail cover off her neglected Pearson sloop, the COVID-19 pandemic is unquestionably the reason people got out on the water and enjoyed themselves in summer 2020. While the outcome of the global pandemic is far from over, there is a silver lining for the industry that serves the recreating public—Rhode Island’s marine trades sector, a highly visible, resilient contributor to the state’s economy and identity.
“This is the first economic downturn that has kept the industry where it needs to be, and in many cases, has increased sales,” says Wendy Mackie, CEO of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA), an advocacy group. “During every other economic down-turn, our industry is the first to go and last to come back, because people’s recreational budgets are nonessential. You don’t buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle at a bottom of a downturn, and you don’t buy a boat, either—except now.”
Mother Nature and the timing of the virus’s spread played a role, too. “We were lucky,” Mackie says. “In April, the weather’s usually not great, and boatyards are not yet flooded with customers. With summer, boating is seen as a pastime that’s family-oriented and naturally socially distant. You can feel free and safe out on the water without worrying about COVID-19.”
What Freedom experienced—going from zero to record sales in a couple of months—is similar, with some stark exceptions, to what happened at other marine businesses and organizations. As Rhode Island phased in a reopening laden with regulations and guidance, marine businesses and groups, suddenly flooded with customer activity, also scrambled to take stock of the fallout from lockdown, port closures, and restrictions on interstate travel.
What they discovered makes for a compendium of noteworthy turns of events, statistics, and a few surprises.
CHANGES BY THE MINUTE
Declaring that the activities of marinas and boatyards, yacht clubs, and harbor masters are “an important part of our economy and way of life,” in early April, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) issued a policy statement detailing their continued operation under strict safety guidelines, despite status as “non-essential and elective.”
Marine retail outlets that fell into the nonessential category outlined by the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation (DBR) on March 28 had the option of operating online and by telephone. As RIMTA ramped up activities to provide 24/7 interpretation on its website and through “zoominars,” email, and phone support for members confused by rules “changing by the minute it felt like at times,” according to Mackie, its staff and directors also reached out to a vast network of contacts in state government as well as to national and regional marine trades industry groups.
“Different dynamics were affecting different parts of the industry at different times, and we were trying to be as informative as we could and stay connected with members,” says Susan Daly, RIMTA vice president of strategy. “We wanted to try and understand how much business was from out of state, so we conducted a members survey and found out that 50% of the boats kept in Rhode Island belong to people from other states. That was a big deal: What would marinas do if the borders are shut and owners can’t come and work on their boats?”
But by the end of April, things were changing again: with new positive COVID-19 cases declining, the state unveiled plans for a phased reopening. And the RIMTA members’ survey brought more discoveries: 80% of boatyards and marinas were functioning, and the 20% of the sector that had shut down because it was retail was now busy with online and phone ordering.
Among attributes, what the tiniest state of the Union has big is a rich, diverse, nautical heritage and a 400-mile coastline, and these help account for why the marine trades are a driver of Rhode Island’s economy, even now, in a downturn.
According to a 2018 economic impact study completed by RIMTA with the University of Rhode Island, the marine trades, which includes recreational boating, is comprised of 1,712 firms that generate $2.65 billion in annual gross sales and employ 13,337 people. Specifically, the sector encompasses boat building and repair; retail boat and equipment sales; marine construction, manufacturing, services, and supply; diving and salvage; marinas, docks, and yacht clubs; and charter and cruise services. Of that list, marine services and supply is the largest subsector. Next are marinas, docks, and yacht clubs, followed by charter and cruise services.
Newport Nautical, a retail shop selling gear, parts, and consignment goods on the outskirts of the City by the Sea, was deemed nonessential and closed down as ordered. “We scratched our heads,” says Chris Heaton, who runs the store with his father, Bud. “Hardware stores remained open. We called our state representative, the governor’s office, explained who we were and what we did, that we sell to commercial fishermen.”
They applied for, and on the second round, received, assistance from the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP). They revamped the website, offering curbside pickup for phone and website orders.
“We adapted to a changing environment and lost business for sure, but the business churned along,” Heaton says. “People would email and be outside in their cars. They’d ask us, ‘Can you go in and check on this or that?’ We got good exercise! My dad and I got 20,000 steps a day!”
By the time the shop reopened, the Heatons couldn’t keep up. “Usually, bottom paint goes first. This year, people were calling up frantic for used dinghies and outboards. We sold a dozen trailers. We’ve never sold that many trailers. It’s either a year for trailers, or people are using small boats to get back and forth again because launch services had been restricted.”
FLYING OFF SHELVES
Rhode Island-based boatbuilders include manufacturers of personal, recreational, and racing watercraft, from 75-foot racing machines to vie for the 36th America’s Cup in 2021 to 8-foot dinghies for school and junior instructional programs. At Zim Sailing, whose Bristol plant produces up to 170 small boats annually, the pandemic solved a nagging problem.
“We always had a hard time reaching the retail recreational customer directly,” says Bob Adam, sales vice president, “and covid-19 has caused them to find us in a big way.”
With cancellation of regattas, boat shows, and conferences that would have added up to about 250 travel days in a typical year, Zim applied for and obtained the PPP loan and extended its retail store hours.
“It’s given local people an outlet,” Adam says. “We also distribute three types of small boats from England, and they are just flying off the shelves.”
And while Zim was carving out a new market niche, Matt Leduc, a broker with Latitude Yachts in Jamestown, was spending time talking people out of buying boats. Latitude was selling so many boats due to pandemic-driven demand that by July they had little inventory left, and what was available for purchase wasn’t necessarily the best option for clients. Leduc found himself telling potential customers to wait until inventory built back up so options for purchase would be greater and more appropriate for their desires. Even with the loss of several months of business, by mid-summer, Latitude’s sales were even with 2019, “which was a very good year,” Leduc says.
The rush to buy reminds Leduc of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. “After 9/11 a lot of people spent money on boats,” he says. “People were looking for a distraction and they got out on the water. It’s how people react when stress is high. They spend money on something that will bring family and friends together.”
Boat buying solves one challenge for consumers during COVID-19 and introduces another: dockage. According to 2019 statistics from the National Marine Manufacturers Association, there are nearly 39,000 boats and personal watercraft registered in Rhode Island. Safe Harbor Marinas, with eight facilities and 375 employees in Rhode Island, provides dockage for about 3,000, according to Tim Moll, regional vice president.
The company’s rigorous adherence to pandemic-induced regulations, and time spent counseling frustrated and confused boat owners, was stressful for staff and customers. “This has been a growing experience,” Moll says, “we are still being very careful every single day. Our managers deserve a medal for the ways they’ve risen to this challenge.”
Early on, as Safe Harbor attempted to get a handle on the situation, its findings were roughly in line with the RIMTA member survey: On average, 44% of Safe Harbor’s Rhode Island customers were from out of state or out of country, according to Moll.
“These boats are very much like second homes for the people who own them,” he says. “They are a substantial investment, and people are passionate about the time they spend on them. In April, people were understandably upset because they simply couldn’t get to their boats. By mid-May, it started to open up. In the end, it all worked out. For every person who didn’t want to put their boat in the water, there was someone who wanted that slot.”
In business in North Kingstown since 1983, the Lightship Group, a marine fabricator and repairer whose contracts include state and federal government military and research vessels, was in a unique position. Designated as essential, Lightship staff were already working seven-day weeks before the lockdown, with some of the 23 employees traveling to jobs in Boston and Philadelphia.
Once Lightship understood out-of-state travel requirements, the company laid in additional protocols: It reduced the number of employees it dispatched from six to two, had them work alone at remote jobsites, and upon their return, set them up at work stations distant from each other at the company’s 10,000-square-foot shop in Davisville. Administrative workers at the North Kingstown headquarters worked from home.
“This whole working-from-home thing, which I did not like, really shocked me,” says company President Thomas F. Alexander. “I thought, we’re not going to get anything done. Now everybody’s working from home, we’re getting our work done. My apprehensions didn’t pan out. We recognize that our administrative people can work from home and still be efficient. We have incorporated Zoom into our process.”
“I have to say, everybody’s stepped up. I’ve actually had several employees come to me and thank me for keeping them working throughout this,” Alexander adds.
FUN ISN’T CANCELLED
Normally, a summer afternoon trek to the second-floor bar and open-air lounge of the Newport Yacht Club rewards visitors with panoramic views of the harbor, cool drinks, and a steady flow of fresh, self-serve popcorn. Now a visitor’s first stop is for a temperature check; the upstairs lounge is shut down. It’s replaced by two venues: “Thames Street West,” club steward Rudy Borgueta’s nickname for the tables and chairs set out at required distances in the parking lot, and a similar setup in the main meeting room on the club’s ground level.
Popcorn is bagged by staff and set out. The showers and laundry room are also shut down, though launch service to and from members’ boats has resumed. While many of the club’s signature racing events were also cancelled, some racing and children’s camps resumed in July in limited form.
“It’s painful because we’re known as a racing club,” says Commodore Tom Rowe. “But if you talk to members, they appreciate that the club is looking out for their safety. People realize this and are starting to come back. Staff members are looking out for each other; members are looking out for other members and staff. That’s an important improvement: People are looking out for each other.”
On the other end of the harbor, at historic Fort Adams, Sail Newport turned a coping mechanism into a branding strategy. “Quaranteaming” was the term coined by staff to encourage households to get back out on the water once lockdown ended.
With approval from DEM and DBR, the staff devised extensive safety guidelines and organized sold-out events for parents and children from June through early July. By late summer, the center was mostly back to its full racing event schedule, staggered and without social gatherings. “We’ve discovered what it means to be adaptable, nimble, and looking at opportunities instead of lamenting what we can’t do,” says Executive Director Brad Read. “We don’t know what tomorrow looks like, but we’re doing what we can. Everyone is being diligent about face coverings, whether they’re in the youth or adult programs. They’re paying attention and un-derstanding it’s a new dynamic. We’re still making the experience amazing even if you have face coverings on. We’re just doing it in a slightly different way.”
For the Ocean State’s day cruise and term charter businesses, and those who earn their livelihood in them, the fallout runs to now-familiar extremes, and solutions have come from both customers and captains. Overall, charter operations went from standstill to fully booked status as the state reopened.
“It’s wacky,” says Sue Gearan, owner of Global Yacht Concierge. “I’m getting calls I’d never have gotten before, for birthdays, graduations, you name it, everybody wants to get their families and close groups out on the water for the day.”
Landlubbers who previously would have booked restaurants and rooms to mark a special occasion are taking them to the water, and captains and crews can accommodate them with custom-designed face masks and disposable utensils. Gearan and other RI-based brokers, which also book one- and two-week crewed charters globally, lost contracts and income when clients canceled or postponed trips in the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean. They scrambled to rebook some of the trips in summer 2020 closer to home. That worked if boats had made it north before U.S. Customs closed entry, which it did temporarily in New England, and if clients carried out plans to fly, charter a private flight, or drive to the port of embarkation.
“It’s been difficult and complicated,” says charter broker Jennifer Saia. “I had two families who were going to Greece who are now doing southeastern New England. They would have never done southeastern New England before this. Why go around the world when you haven’t seen the U.S.? Help the local economy. As for tomorrow, we’re all in the I-don’t-know boat!”
By the end of July, temperatures were sizzling. Displeased with people “partying too much” and an uptick in coronavirus cases, Gov. Gina Raimondo extended reopening’s phase three, which was set to expire on July 29, for another 30 days, and reduced social gathering limits from 25 people to 15 people. Virus spread was linked to house parties, baby showers, backyard birthday parties, pool parties, sports banquets—and boat parties. For those in the marine trades who were working hard to follow the rules, it was too soon to tell what the future would bring or what course the virus would take. But in such an unprecedented time, one thing is clear, at least for Rhode Islander Jennifer Drake-Bohnwagner, another landlubber who joined Freedom Boat Club because her summer 2020 honeymoon in Europe was cancelled.
“If this pandemic has taught us anything,” she says, “it’s that you only live once, and we really wanted to share this boating experience with our family and friends.”