Brandon Mitchell had big plans to visit family in Michigan and take his wife and three kids to Disney World. The pandemic put those plans on ice.
So they bought a boat instead.
“We’re going to take the sea. There’s so much to explore,” the ebullient skipper said. “It’ll get us the recreation and the escape that we’re not going to be able to get anywhere else.”
A growing number of people like Mitchell — who plans to spend the remainder of the summer island-hopping along the Maine coast — are looking to the water amid the coronavirus pandemic. And that’s good news for the boat industry.
From Maine to California, boat dealers are reporting unprecedented sales that began in the spring in warm-weather states before picking up steam in other parts of the country, like Maine and Minnesota. Marinas and boat repair shops are swamped by the wave of interest. There also are waiting lists for slips for boats.
A recent survey showed more than 70% of boat dealers were either completely out of boats or had low inventory, said Matt Gruhn of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.
The trend stands to reason: People are looking for something to do and a safe place to go, at a time when the pandemic has raised safety concerns and limited recreational opportunities. Oceans, lakes and ponds are good places for people to socially distance while having fun at the same time.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Rob Soucy from Port Harbor Marine, which describes itself as Maine’s biggest boat dealer. “Since the end of April, we’ve seen boat sales at historic levels.”
At one point, his inquiries were up 300% to 400%, and he expects to sell about 1,000 boats this year, a couple hundred more than usual.
“It’s like wildfire. People are searching for ways to get on the water,” said Tracy Coughlin from the Yarmouth Boat Yard, also in Maine.
Sales are up 65% at Yarmouth Boat Yard and a sister company, Moose Landing Marina in Naples, Maine, she said. The single biggest month for sales growth has been June, when sales increased 85%.
Boats come in all sizes, shapes — and prices. A new aluminum fishing boat with outboard engine might cost $10,500, while a 44-foot (13-meter) cruiser could cost up to $900,000. And the prices go up from there.
But with vacation travel canceled and other activities on hold, people are ready to escape on the water — on everything from modest boats to luxury yachts, said Chris DiMillo, from DiMillo's Yacht Sales in Portland.
“Our inventory in the market in general is as thin as I’ve seen. We’re getting calls from people who said they’d never buy a boat. And now they’re buying boats,” he said.
In Southern California, sales are up 40% to 50% at Marina del Rey Yacht Sales near Los Angeles and the Long Beach Yacht Center, said owner Steve Curran.
“I've been in the business for 50 years, so I’ve seen lots of ups and downs. I certainly was not expecting this,” he said.
In Florida, salesman Bill Aston said sales were up more than 200% over the past two months at Central Marine Boat Sales in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“We’re selling everything we’ve got. We’ve run out of product,” said Aston, who reports that 95% of his older inventory has been sold.
But with all the new boaters taking the high seas, there are safety concerns that don't directly stem from the coronavirus.
The U.S. Coast Guard recommends safety courses for new boaters, but hands-on instruction has been hard to find this summer because of the pandemic. Some boaters have discovered online safety courses.
“We want people to be out on the water enjoying themselves, but everyone has to take into account safety,” said Chris Edmonston, president of BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water in Annapolis, Maryland.
Sailing or motoring around on the water represents a nice consolation prize for people who canceled vacations or missed summer camps, athletic programs or the myriad of other canceled events. Boating allows families to get away from shore, remove masks, and enjoy themselves.
Mitchell said he and his wife, Hilary, work full time. They’re also raising kids ages 9, 8 and 2. So a boat hadn't been a priority.
But the pandemic readjusted the Cape Elizabeth, Maine, family's priorities. Even as the economy reopens, the family avoids restaurants and going out.
The pre-owned boat, which the family picked up on Friday in Yarmouth, opens a new opportunity to get away, tie up with his brother-in-law’s boat, and let the kids play and swim together. They can also explore Maine’s mostly uninhabited hundreds of islands.
The 26-foot (8-meter) boat, which has a small galley, a head and sleeping space, will become a floating oasis from a world in turmoil, Mitchell said.
“The coronavirus was the catalyst for the decision,” he said. “This is our family vacation. This our family road trip. This is it.”