Idling through Uncertainty

Examining the Impacts of Coronavirus on the Boating Industry

by Jason Pim | May 4, 2020

If you have ever had to stop in a dense fog to fish, or just wait it out, you’ve probably come to an important realization. No matter how experienced, responsible, and prepared you are… sound signals, lights, and radios… radar or no radar… you have literally no control over the other folks who may come whizzing by you on the water. “Hey, can you hear those voices over the hum of their engines? Wish I could see past our nose… think they can see us?…” It’s as white knuckle of an experience as a becalmed morning can be.

This is the best boating example I can think of to rationalize social distancing—if you’re uncomfortable having your personal safety depend on the “common sense” of strangers, you might be wise to avoid the situation. A sea fog is also a decent analogy for how our businesses have been practicing patience through a rather opaque period of commerce. We find ourselves weathering an unprecedented event with frequently shifting forecasts. 

Threading the Needle

It is hard to overstate the influence that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on our everyday lives. As in many facets of our society, boating industry leaders have been forced to make a series of agonizing judgement calls—attempting to forge a path that balances public safety with staying in business. For many small businesses, and even larger ones, it’s been no small feat trying to keep sales from grinding to a halt and team members employed while also staying within responsible health protocols and enduring the scrutiny of public perception.

From the Beginning

Marine travel has been in the news since the very beginning of the coronavirus news cycle. Some of the very first stories to capture our attention were that of Americans trapped at sea aboard cruise ships while Asian ports-of-call refused their entry.

Closer to home, one of the first dominoes to fall was the announcement that the 2020 Palm Beach International Boat Show would be indefinitely postponed. Simply a victim of poor timing, they were one of the first major boating events to announce a change of plans. Not to diminish the importance of other trade and boat shows that postponed in early March, but this was the signal that was heard around the boating world. 

Shutting down the Palm Beach Show is what jarred things loose for the new reality to sink in. This coronavirus thing was going to be more than a bad beer joke—it was going to be real, and it was going to hurt.

Virtually every moment since then has been a somewhat surreal reminder of how quickly our world can change.

“Floating Resorts”

Overall, boating has received quite a bit of coverage throughout the crisis and stands to come out the other side healthier than many other travel sectors and discretionary expenditures. Savvy marketers and sales departments were quick to point out that outdoor pastimes like fishing and hunting were the original social distancing. Thankfully, most state governments have agreed with that sentiment, going so far as to include those activities in their lists of “essential activities” allowed during stay-in-place measures. It’s easy to reason that private boating should fare far better than most travel sectors due to being far more suited to solitude and familiarity with fellow travelers—certainly a less risky proposition than a busy airplane, bus or ship and their respective terminals.

Of course, the crisis has also surfaced its fair share of less positive boating related stories. As more and more leisure and entertainment activities were shut down this Spring, boating naturally became a “sanctuary” activity in many coastal communities. Beaches and sand bars from North Carolina to Florida were packed in mid-March as spring breakers flocked to the coast to soak in the sun and salt. The large crowds that gathered on South Florida beaches quickly became the poster children for irresponsible social gatherings. Tactless interactions extended well up the social ladder, seeing billionaire David Geffen roundly criticized for posting Instagram photos of his “self-isolation” aboard his 454-foot superyacht in the Grenadines.

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photo from starnewsonline.com

These stories illustrate the social tight rope individuals and businesses are forced to walk in this hypersensitive atmosphere—call it a “Politically Correct No Wake Zone.”

Boating’s largest brands and sales chains quickly kicked their social distancing marketing campaigns into high gear, and for the most part, it has seemed to resonate with consumers. At Bluewater, our team of professionals is leveraging the years of experience and groundwork developing our websites, social marketing and heavy investments in customer relationship applications and other technology.

Forward Table

The Bluewater team is confident boating will continue to be a terrific, and largely safe, escape from reality, but are careful to measure our words. For those businesses trying to sell you a boat as the “ultimate staycation,” we must ask ourselves, “at what point or size is your boat truly capable of being a quarantine vessel that can sustain captain and crew for two weeks?” For many a boater who’s typical cruising plan includes being plugged into electric each night and eating many meals ashore, those clever marketing slogans may ring hollow. At the very least, that level of independence will require some above average preparation on the part of the owners and captain.

For smaller day boaters and runabouts, the freedom is important and encouraged, but with some caveats. Operators should understand and plan for the variety of limitations imposed by social distancing not just at typical destinations like beaches, parks, and restaurants, but also the fuel docks, storage facilities, parts stores, and other supporting infrastructure their trips require.

Essential Recreation

Easily one of the most difficult aspects to follow in this morass has been the vast array of responses from state and local governments. Many states, such as Florida, originally struggled to find a stance, as did countless local governments, before eventually issuing stay-at-home orders. One of the knee-jerk reactions to those initially overcrowded beaches was the closure of state parks, public boat ramps and launches. Local authorities have been reacting in near real-time in the hopes of reducing crowds, and hopefully keeping the rest of their jurisdiction open. Local guides, charter captains and commercial fishermen have of course adversely impacted by those decisions. The initial glut of beach-goers and joy-riders rushing to freedom nearly ruined access for many others that depend on the water for a living.

Most experienced mariners were already familiar with the yellow quarantine flag, but for the first time in our lifetimes, it’s become more than just a customs and paperwork formality.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued additional federal guidance for incoming vessels which included self-isolating anyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Other local authorities implemented mandatory quarantines for all marine travelers, regardless of presenting symptoms or not.

At some Caribbean destinations stiff lockdowns occurred, such as Antigua and Barbuda barring incoming vessels entirely in mid-April. True to past form on communicating new policies, the Bahamas had to reiterate and clarify their statements multiple times to get their plans across. Their government ministries shut down all services for a week around Easter and closed their borders to tourism while establishing a network of “safe passage” marinas on each major island.

Back stateside, the inconsistencies have been overwhelming to process. Almost all East Coast states opted to allow recreational boating and fishing to a degree, with one exception—Maryland—where all recreational boating was shut down, even for residents. Early on, the confusion set in and changed by the day or hour. Case in point, while nearby Delaware and Virginia continued to allow all watersports activities while observing social distancing rules, Maryland’s list of essential activities specifically excluded kayaking and paddlesports, before they later reversed course and acknowledged that human-powered craft would be considered a means of exercise after all.

Waterway Guide General Manager and Editor-in-Chief, Ed Tillett, offered his observations on the lack of continuity, “Municipalities are making their own rules based on their own ideas and perspectives. This is an unprecedented event in all of our lives so we should expect inconsistencies.” But he logically points out, “states that have limited recreational boating appear to not understand that boats practice a very large distancing protocol by virtue of the safety margins they normally practice.”

States like North Carolina and Florida seemed to reach the same conclusion; boat traffic would be allowed, but gatherings on public beaches and parks would not. Rhode Island mounted a stronger response, discouraging interstate boaters, recreational fishing, and commercial fishermen from operation in state waters. Vessels coming in for yard work required a mandatory 14-day quarantine of captains and crew, policed by state sentinels. Importantly, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida (home to Bluewater’s network of service yards) took no such stance. In fact, those governments worked hard to keep shipyards open, declaring most service facilities as essential businesses. 

All of this stress and confusion is playing out again—but in reverse—as communities begin pounding the drum to lift restrictions.

But Where Can We Go?

With such a variety of responses across local and state governments, it’s no surprise that private businesses are also struggling to apply consistent strategies.

Amid all the chaos, we have found out just how valuable it can be to have a “guide.” As they have done when other natural disasters strike, our friends and partners at Waterway Guide quickly set out to maintain one of the most comprehensive lists of marina closures, openings and operator announcements available. Updated 24/7 by participating destinations, perusing the full list can be a dizzying experience. Noticing this immediately, the Waterway Guide digital team added tools to drill down to specific states and areas. With a quick glance it’s easy to get a feel for the vast variety of responses by different facilities. While one marina may be completely battened down, another a quarter mile up the channel is open and happy to accept transients. One common denominator, regardless of state, appears to be that the marina facilities attached to larger resorts and hotels were almost all shuttered early on, presumably due to pressure to cancel hotel reservations and out of state air and ground travel.

COVID-19 Marina/Service Reports

Presented by Waterway Guide

Smaller, privately owned facilities were likely more hesitant to shut down. According to Waterway Guide’s data, “52% of marinas have stayed open. Over 70% were operable in some fashion, continuing to provide fuel, docks or boat yard services.” Tillett concludes, “So most are trying to stay open. Municipal and town docks are the ones closing down.” 

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Even once established as an essential business, property owners’ troubles were far from over. Management has many unprecedented decisions to make, learning on the fly what parts of their regular operations could abide by appropriate social distancing measures to keep everyone safe. Jarrett Bay and Regulator have stayed open, while shuttering their popular factory tours. On-site visits by vendors and salespeople are discouraged while operations adjusted to adhere to CDC guidelines and ensure all team members had strong personal protection gear. The Viking, Valhalla, Princess, Sabre and Back Cove production factories all closed down.

To fill the void of limited customer interaction during this time, several brands provided fans with virtual Q&A sessions, status reports and other fun activities to pass the time. Regulator, Jarrett Bay and Princess created impromptu coloring books out of their boat line art, not only helping keep the kids busy and creative during stay-at-home periods but also allowing the young at heart to color and design their own color schemes on their dream boats. Early on, Bluewater’s offices went down to a single support staff coming in, with salespeople and other team members going remote to fulfill their duties.

The point of all this blow-by-blow analysis is, it’s crystal clear that we have much work and coordination to perform as an industry, and as private citizens, in order to plan better outcomes in the face of nationwide emergencies.

Government responses need to be quicker, much more consistent, and less burdensome on certain activities whenever possible. The specific calls of action will get easier to identify as things blow over, but for now, Tillett recommends following the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA) Boating United effort. “It’s the first response we can take to helping government agencies, localities and lawmakers understand that they should be more understanding of the effects of their decisions,” he says.

Get Involved

Not happy with how recreational boating and other watersports fared through the shutdowns in your state or local area?

NMMA’s Boating United campaign may be able to help.

Our Virtual Future

It’s easy to see that tournaments should be able to proceed by stripping down to crowd-less basics for a season: fish, weigh, repeat. The more troubling aspects will be for event organizers to scrutinize. Foregoing the huge spectator crowds, cocktail parties and vendor booths means missing out on serious revenue, sponsorships, and fundraising opportunities. These will hopefully be temporary pain points.

Boat shows face a similar problem, with some folks likely hesitant to mix with large crowds. As evidenced as soon as Palm Beach was cancelled, event managers, publishers and sales organizations were more than ready to begin virtual showings and sales. The real estate sector has been hit with the same issues and it hasn’t seemed to phase the best firms and realtors, partially thanks to historically low interest rates. Many high-end brokers from Denver to Dallas, have reported selling homes virtually over FaceTime and other tools. The boat market should be able to post similar successes.

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The Bluewater sales team has been conducting daily Facebook live videos, walking visitors through new model inventory and high-end brokerage listings. Marketing Manager Blake Tice and Sales Manager Baxter Lusink have interviewed many Bluewater customers and friends and posted daily to social media during these “down times.” This new content has provided awesome insight into our new boat models and entertained folks with notable tales of fishing accomplishments. Tice explains, “People are spending more time than ever online, so we are looking at this as an opportunity…

“We’ve been emphasizing digital tools and social media for years, but COVID-19 has essentially forced everyone to take the next step and perhaps participate in some technologies they were reluctant about a few months ago.” The marketing team quickly launched a virtual showroom that aggregates all the listings with video, virtual tours, or both and makes remote showing requests a breeze. Deploying the company’s 360° cameras on more listings than ever to capture virtual tours has been a high priority, and new content is coming online every day. Bluewater will make every effort to continue this energy throughout the recovery and continue innovating.

As for closings, Lusink and the documentation team haven’t missed a beat. “We are fortunate to have already been well equipped to work remotely. Since our offices are spread so far and wide, our staff is already used to doing digital closings.” With online meetings and video conferences already part of the team’s weekly repertoire, Bluewater’s incredibly capable support team of Sales Assistants and Documentation Specialists have had no trouble keeping things running smoothly. 

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Lifting the Fog

At the time of this writing many questions remain.

Will we be able to have indoor boat shows again by next Winter? What does a Big Rock or White Marlin Open tournament weigh-in look like with a “socially distanced” crowd? Will all our favorite publishing groups make it through?

The answers right now are that it’s too soon to tell. We’re at a time of transition, easing out of a huge upheaval from what we once considered “normal.” Summer tournaments have had to contemplate cancelling or rescheduling. Manufacturers who paused operations will have to regroup their supply chains and bring back their workforces. In the absence of meetings and socializing, yacht clubs and owners’ groups have pondered their future viability. This has been a time for reflection for us all; identifying the truly important aspects of our personal lives and organizations. Let us not waste this tremendous opportunity for self-examination and improvement.

To be clear: the majority of events we love and value will absolutely return, and the operations of every business that perseveres will have become leaner and more agile than ever before. All our lives will become more dependent on digital and virtual tools than at any time in history. The cumulative efficiencies will mean greater values passed down to the customer. The sunshine will burn through the haze. 

As Bluewater partner Randy Ramsey told our friends at Marlin Magazine, “This isn’t the first major challenge we have faced. As this passes, people will be anxious to get back to the life they enjoy, which largely includes boating and fishing. The boating industry is strong, and we will weather COVID-19.” 

Fortunately, boating is, and always will be, an escape. A way to safely enjoy the outdoors and America’s inherent beauty. These are facts that can bring us all great hope. How we press forward as employers, vendors, customers and—most importantly—friends, to mitigate future risks will be the key to keeping the pastimes and lifestyle we love economically viable and thriving.

There is little doubt we’ll need to cut through some choppy conditions caused by this event. But quality boating brands have always proven to have the business acumen and resiliency to stay afloat and resume normal operation once the fog lifts and the danger passes.

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Get Involved

Not happy with how recreational boating and other watersports fared through the shutdowns in your state or local area?

NMMA’s Boating United campaign may be able to help.

Have something to add to the conversation?