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Marinas see promising signs for boating season

Greg Baker and Dan Eaton, owners of Mobile Marine. (Photo by Leigh Sharps) (click for larger version)
May 21, 2020
REGION—As the COVID-19 pandemic is, hopefully, beginning to level off, local marinas have not missed a beat in starting their normal preparations for the upcoming boating season. In fact, those types of recreational-based businesses had no need to stop any of their usual activities since the onset of the pandemic due to the fact they are not publicly active from late Fall to early Spring.

Ice-out being over on all regional lakes for quite a while now, boaters and beach users are probably wondering if this summer's season is continuing as normal. Established boaters know this popular warm weather livelihood has always been a social distancing activity anyway. Area lakes also place specific restrictions on rafting (how many boats may be anchored together for social reasons). Of course, there are also stringent state laws which keep boats a safe distance not only from each other, but from the shore-land, water skiers, sail boats, kayakers, etc. (see N.H. Marine Patrol's standing laws/regulations for details).

Marinas all over the Lakes Region are experiencing a huge surge in requests for second homeowners to put their boats in the water earlier than usual. Squam Lake Livery, a family owned business since the turn of the century located in the channel between Little and Big Squam (and where the boat gassing scene was filmed in "On Golden Pond"), is doing what all Lakes Region Marinas and boat showrooms are doing now, closing their main building doors to the public while continuing to prepare for what appears to be a booming season for this beloved regional recreational activity.

Livery owners Tom and Sally Daigneault said "In April, the request for spring service has gone up by about 50 percent due to the out-of-state property owners choosing to shelter here in their vacation homes. We are hoping to remove some of our self-imposed restrictions in May so we can give our customers the opportunity to enjoy the lake earlier than usual in this unusual time."

NH Mobile Marine owners Dan Eaton and Gregg Baker (who also run a division called Tow Boat US on Lake Winnipesaukee), located on Route 3 in Holderness, say their business has also ramped up and say they're about a month and a half ahead of time for their business. Both have been boat mechanics locally since their teens and now have fulfilled their life-time mutual dream to run their own business. Since that modest beginning on their own just five years ago (after each worked for many marinas over the years) they now have seven full-time year-round employees and they also add a couple 'teens' in the summer. They are ready to open their new Ship Store in just a few weeks.

Baker says blocks of boaters arrive at different times of the season according to their particular reason to boat.

"The local fishermen start. They're a big block of the first boaters," he added.

Eaton says they send owners of the boats they store or maintain letters of 'Spring Make Ready" letters so they can establish a maintenance and launch schedule for the year. They store some customer boats in a 16,000 square foot building in Ashland with a shrink-wrapped outside storage area at their shop location. With the other vessels they winterize and send home with their owners for the winter, they care for 400 in all.

"Between June and July, there's another group of boaters wanting to go in the water. But with what's going on with the pandemic now everything has shifted and second home owners started coming up to stay in March and they want their boats in now," Eaton said.

Eaton understands the desire for boaters wanting access to the lake as soon as they can, but has to advise them there is a process to get the boats safely ready.

"Also, we have to tell those with inboards or stern drives that although they can leave their boats in the water late in the Fall, while the water temperatures are still in the 50s, right now the water temperatures are freezing or below and it can freeze or damage a motor," he added.

But with the water quickly warming, they are expecting the 20 or so boats a week they have serviced, and already put in the water, to increase from 30-40 a week by mid-May.

Like a few other marinas, they are able to be a year-round enterprise and keep their full-time employees by running a winter plowing service.

"These days, if you want to keep experienced employees, you have to offer year-round work," Eaton said.

They have about 70 large plowing contracts and are busy all winter. They sell parts and service other plows all winter, too.

The Tow US division is "just like Triple A except for boats," explains Eaton. It's 24-7 on the water assistance on Winnipesaukee." Eaton started that enterprise a couple decades ago and it continues to be a needed service; busy all summer with not only out-of-gas and boat motor problems but also with recoveries of sunken boats and boats ashore on rocks. And Mobile Marine, like its name says, will go to boaters anywhere on a lake or where they're stored.

Barry Gaw, owner/operator and managing member of Riveredge Marina, on Little Squam Lake in Ashland (and also of Squam Lakes Landing event venue and Sippican Partners, LLC construction) is extremely optimistic about the upcoming season despite the current situation.

"We are several months ahead of where we normally are at this time for putting boats back in the water," Gaw said. "When the schools closed here in New Hampshire and surrounding states, particularly Massachusetts, our (long-standing) customers started moving up here to their second homes and scheduling their 'Boat Spring Make- Readies' as we call it. Our April became the new May and May will be the new June."

Gaw says their approach right now is "continuing to service customer boats and scheduling sales appointments outdoors while keeping our main marina building closed to the public. We are pausing boat rentals, too. Our crew is adhering to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines for the workplace and we keep following those and we also depend on Dr. Fauci (Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) and Dr. Birx (Dr. Deborah Birx, global health official and Ambassador to the office of the US Vice-President as the Coronavirus Response Coordinator) for the clearest and most up-to-date information on how we are to operate."

"Many folks who generally arrive in June are already here. Once their schools were closed and education became remote for the rest of the year an opportunity for them to come up early became viable. Everyone who came up early is staying; they will not be going back and forth," Gaw explained.

The parent of two little girls, Ellie and Greta, Gaw said "We get it – last Sunday, we went out in the boat and the girls took a polar plunge in Rattlesnake Cove. It felt great to be on the water, outside in the fresh air, doing something so different and wonderful during this stressful time right now, and we saw at least 15 boats which, believe me, is a lot for this time of year."

Riveredge employees are lucky, too, as the entire crew is working and there have been no lay-offs.

"We're working hard to get everyone's boats in the water and we plan to keep everyone employed throughout the season," he said. "We are also fortunate to have other businesses, our Fisher Plow dealership and Sippican Construction that allow us to maintain a year-round base of employees who transition from the fall/winter business to the spring/summer season."

Riveredge stores 350 boats and recently built a new storage building increasing their capacity to 400. There are no slips or day valet spots available for rent as "everything was reserved by the end of February," added Gaw.

The marina began in 1939 as Al's Marine and Appliance store at a main intersection in Ashland. They sold everything from fishing gear to Zenith TVs at some point. There have been just a few owners, Al and Edie Miner, Alan Dale and Skip Van Sickle and family. It has been under Gaw's watch since 2005.

"It has always been a part of the surrounding communities," he said. "We try hard to take care of the legacy of helping others enjoy their time here on the lakes."

Their reception/event venue, Squam River Landing, is closed at this time and they are not scheduling events. They continue, however, to take reservation agreements on their phase II building project expanding their development of second homes overlooking Little Squam.

"The homes are beautiful and the community has become truly special. We are very pleased the residents value the culture of Squam just as we do, and they are becoming active in helping others in the community as well," Gaw said.

Thirty boat slips/house boats have been sold in just the past two years bringing the total to 80 with only 20 slips left.

Gaw offers words of advice: "When we all get back on the water, enjoying time with our families and friends, be grateful for all we have in this beautiful state. Let's be kind to others and respect everyone's approach to social distancing and keeping their families safe and sound. Squam is a very respectful lake, and we are so fortunate to have it this way!"

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