You might have expected the Spring/Summer boat selling season would be a washout after people lost jobs and work time as a result of the coronavirus, but just the opposite happened. The sudden short supply of new boats are the result of families being in lockdown, working from home, kids home from school and college – too much togetherness, too much sameness. All of those lucky enough to keep their jobs and work from home needed a break, a change of scenery, and we're looking forward to the summer vacation and then getting away, plane travel and summer camp all fell by the wayside – too hard to keep social distance and too risky not to.
The supply of new boats was tight to begin the season and whatever is left is disappearing rapidly. Some boat dealers never saw their customers. Calls would come from out of state prospective customers to verify availability of a particular boat and its options, the dealer and customer would agree on a price and a fast delivery and pay with credit cards, bank transfers or boat loans.
What made customers decide on a boat instead of a recreational vehicle or a summer rental in the Hamptons or on the Jersey Shore? These are questions boat dealers will think about when they analyze future season’s prospects. I asked a boat dealer who started selling small dory and skiff type boats in 1950 why these people were buying boats. A lot has changed in the 70 years since Al Grover sold the Amesbury Dory and Old Town wooden boats that came as a package with outboard motors and sold for $400 and up, depending on add-ons. There was no financing then. Banks did not lend money for boats. There was no sales tax. There was no New York Registration. Your registration came from the U.S. Coast Guard and it was free.
Al started as a fisherman. As a boy, he used to ask the fishing boat captains if they’d take him along on fishing trips when he was out of school for the summer. By the time he was 14, they were paying him. Al was a paratrooper in the Army during World War II. When he came out of the service he bought a jersey skiff and started fishing. His brother-in-law found a waterfront building going into foreclosure and lent Al $5000 to buy it and use it to sell boats.
The boat sales started in 1950 with Al driving the big trucks loaded with boats from Florida, Maine and Ohio. It was his favorite part of the job. He remembers loving every part of the business – the selling, the delivery, promoting and organizing events in the community for boaters.
The Around Long Island Race started in the late 1950s. Guy Lombardo led the procession of boats out of the canals in Freeport in his Tempo as the pace boat and when they got all the boats out through the Jones Inlet, the race started in the Ocean. From Freeport, they went east to Montauk, leaving Montauk to go through Plum Gut, heading west into Long Island Sound, then to the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn around Coney Island to the Ocean and back to Freeport.
It was a seven to eight hour trip for most of the sixty plus entrants, depending on the boat and the captain. Al finished first but his 18’ wooden Thompson with a 200 hp. Interceptor engine was disqualified. He got a lot more publicity being disqualified than if he had won. He finished in seven hours and twenty minutes.
Organizing races and the Christmas Nautical Parade of Boats were fun for Al. He never stopped thinking about making boating a memorable experience. For many years he had a priest come for a Mass on Sunday mornings that was available to his customers and any of the local fishermen who wanted to come. When the priest who gave the Mass was transferred, the next priest was not interested in continuing the tradition, but on the next rotation of priests, Al found a priest who resumed the service on Sunday mornings.
What Al liked least about selling boats was the paperwork. When he got married in 1953 they lived over the sales floor and Al’s wife inherited the paper part of the boat sales. Although she had been an art major at Syracuse, she now became the paper person for “Honest Al Grover.”
The business that started in 1950 on the Woodcleft Canal expanded and Al became a dealer for Mako Boats and Evinrude Motors. He later became one of the largest Chris Craft dealers in the country. Two of Al’s sons joined the business. Al and Dante take care of the sales, service, storage and the marina.
Al, now a part-time Florida resident, thought about his selling experiences and it seemed to him the major reason people bought boats was to get away. They looked forward to using the boat to fish, to get away from chores at home, to form close bonds with family and to have a good time on the water. Boat buyers today, Al thinks, are buying for the same reasons but now there’s more pressure because of the virus.
Who came to buy the first small boats from Al were mostly men with their families. There were no demo rides for the small boats. They came to buy a boat and knew what they wanted, what they could afford. The whole transaction from the time they walked in and sat down until they left as boat owners, took less than an hour. When he sold bigger boats, the owners were experienced boaters. This was not their first boat and they expected a demo ride.
He did have a few females who came to buy a boat. One had a chain of beauty parlors that was a front for an illegal business. She bought a 23’ Jafco skiff. He doesn’t know what she did with the boat, but after she bought it and took it home, it sank and she sued Al.
Today there are customers buying boats because they see boating as a safe way to spend time with the prospect of adventure. The events that normally compete in the summer for a boater’s time – weddings, concerts, baseball games and youth activities have all been canceled or downsized, allowing boaters to use their boats every good vacation day and weekends.
What’s different now from the time Al Grover sold boats from 1950 on, is the uniqueness of the female customers. Al had so few of them he remembers them. Perhaps Suze Orman talking on her TV show about her first boat, a 28’ Sea Ray, showed women they didn’t have to be part of a family unit to participate in boating. Women like the pontoon boats and in lake areas, buy them for entertaining. They have birthday parties, bachelorette parties, retirement parties and family reunions on these boats. Marinas now cater to people who want to have all the work done to have their boats ready to use when they arrive. The pontoon boats don’t have to travel far to party and if there’s a mechanical problem, they can call the marina on their cell phone and a mechanic can come to fix the problem or tow them back to the dock.
Dealers say an unusually high number of first time boaters are some of their new customers. Research done for the marine trades identified different types of first time boaters – people who love engines and speed, people looking for adventure, people with long standing family traditions of boating, people who want to start their own family boating traditions and those who are looking to escape from their stressful on-shore lives. Those who have been isolated at home because of the pandemic fit the last category. What having a boat means to them is getting rid of the mask while on the boat and easier control of social distance. They are looking for new things to see, to connect with the outdoor environment and the peacefulness of having a cup of coffee to start the day sitting in the cockpit of their own boat at anchor or tied up in a new place, quiet except for the sound of the waves on the hull.
Boating is all about freedom and choice. You go where you want to go, leave when you’re ready and it presents you with opportunities – opportunities to learn about your boat and opportunities to connect with like-minded people.