Storms, Recession Change LI’s Boating Pastime

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Storms, recession change LI’s boating pastime.

Updated August 26, 2016 6:00 AM

By James T. Madore james.madore@newsday.com

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Valet boat racks at Strong’s Marine in Mattituck on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. Strong’s Marine is located on Mattituck Bay. It’s one of three marinas that Strong’s Marine operates on the East End. (Photo Credit: Randee Daddona)

Recreational boating, a pastime that helps define Long Island, is undergoing a major transformation after the devastation wrought by successive storms and a deep recession.

The number of vessels with motors registered here has fallen 20 percent since 2006, government statistics show. And the ranks of marinas, boat dealers, repair shops and charter services have shrunk as well.

However, the survivors are adapting, and said they see evidence of a turnaround.

“The industry is changing, it’s evolving — and it’s definitely different from what it was,” said Chris Squeri, executive director of the New York Marine Trades Association, a business group that stages three boat shows on Long Island each year. He also operates a private marina in Freeport.

Businesses are expanding and upgrading the services they offer, doing more of the chores that boat owners once did themselves. Some companies have even started clubs, where members have access to vessels without having to buy them.

Businesses are also looking for ways to make boating more appealing to people who have limited free time — including millennials who so far haven’t embraced the activity as their parents and grandparents did.

Recreational boating is a key contributor to tourism, an important driver of the Island’s economy. And for many residents, the activity is a central part of their lives.

Still, boat registrations in Nassau and Suffolk counties have fallen every year since before the recession, from 113,243 in 2006 to 90,419 last year.

The pattern was similar statewide, though the rate of decline was less: 13 percent over nine years to 436,698 boats, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which licenses all mechanically propelled craft used for recreation.

Registrations in the country fell 7 percent between 2006 and last year, to 11 million boats, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

DataBoat registrations going down

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Marine industry experts blamed the decline in local boat registrations on the 2007-09 recession, Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and superstorm Sandy the year after. Dozens of businesses shut down because they had fewer customers; one local trade group lost 35 percent of its members, for example.

“We saw a lot of people lose their boats to repossession or a storm — and they never got another one,” said Squeri of the trade association.

However, he expressed hope that registrations would bounce back locally: “I don’t know if we are going to hit those peak numbers of 2003-05, but there is definitely room to grow.”

Sales of new recreational boats with motors in the 12 months ended March 31 were up 18 percent on Long Island compared with the previous 12-month period, according to the marine research firm Info-Link Technologies Inc. in Miami. However, the increase is from a shrunken base.

The Island’s sales gain was nearly double the 10 percent recorded for New York State and the country during the same year-over-year period.

At Strong’s Marine — one of the region’s largest players, with three marinas on the East End, multiple showrooms and many services — sales of new and used boats are up 20 percent so far this year compared with 2015, said company president Jeff Strong. The Mattituck-based firm sells about 200 vessels per year.

Strong, whose grandfather started the company in 1945, credited its survival to producing revenue from many activities: boat sales and rentals, dock slips, boat repair, valet and boat-driving services, storage and corporate events. He said revenue exceeded $20 million last year.

The 100 employees of Strong’s Marine are focused “on delivering a high-end resort experience,” he said.

The business has spent $2 million on improvements to Strong’s Water Club & Marina on Mattituck Inlet, the former Matt-a-Mar Marina purchased in 2013. It features a saltwater swimming pool with a mahogany cabana and lifeguard on duty, a beach volleyball court, sit-down restaurant and tiki bar, and waterfront park that hosts five concerts per year.

“This is not your old boatyard,” said Strong, showing off the granite-topped sinks and tile floors in the customer bathrooms at his other Mattituck marina. “Marinas have to have amenities today, be well maintained. . . . We like to equate ourselves to the Disney World experience. We provide no-hassle boating.”

The company also offers valet service at its three marinas. Before the boater’s arrival, his craft is removed from a tall storage rack to be fueled and put in the water. When the boater has completed his trip, the craft is lifted out of the water, cleaned and returned to the rack.

Industry researchers said maximizing the time a boater has on the water by reducing the time spent cleaning and repairing a vessel is a key factor in attracting young people. Millennials and Generation Xers often find their weekends crowded with work, children’s activities and socializing.

The Coast Guard reported that recreational boaters in the Northeast go out an average of 12 times a year, with the typical trip lasting 5½ hours.

Boating also is an expensive pastime.

Experts estimated a first-time buyer could spend as much as $40,000 to $50,000 for a basic boat, such as a 19-foot whaler or 20-foot dual console.

They said operating costs run about $10,000 a year, including fuel, dock slip, maintenance and winter storage.

“We have a boating population that is aging very rapidly . . . boating is not being adopted by Generation X and the millennials at the same rate that it was by baby boomers,” said Peter Houseworth, client services director at Info-Link, the research firm. “They don’t have the time, the money or they want the experience without the ownership.”

He said the average age of a first-time boat buyer in the United States is 53.

The recreational boating industry must find new ways to lure young people, such as boat clubs, where members pay monthly dues to use vessels at reserved times, Houseworth said.

“We need to stimulate participation in any form. . . . The boat club model allows dabblers to come in and dabble, and some will become committed and they will go on to buy a new boat,” he said.

That’s beginning to happen on Long Island, according to business owners, though the numbers aren’t huge.

The largest local club is Freedom Boat Club, a 27-year-old international franchising company based in Venice, Florida. Its local franchisee, Peter DeVilbiss, operates from four marinas and said a “relatively small number” of his 270 members were likely to leave to purchase a boat.

The club charges a one-time membership fee of $2,500 to $5,000, plus monthly dues of $260 to $360 for the entire year, excluding gasoline.

“Half our members are former boat owners,” he said.

DeVilbiss, a former executive at the drugmaker Merck, said most of Freedom Boat Club’s local members own their own business or work in medicine, law, finance and other high-paying industries.

He had hoped to attract middle-income families. “But for them, owning a boat is a badge of success. They want to show the neighbors they’ve made it,” he said.

Club member Jim Fakatselis, a former chief scientist for L3 Communications in New Jersey who teaches astronomy part-time at CUNY Queensborough Community College, said he purchased a house close to Northport Bay in 1983 so he could buy a boat and then never did.

After retiring, Fakatselis was eyeing a $75,000 vessel when he heard about Freedom Boat Club three years ago. He since has become an avid fisherman who takes out a boat more than 50 times per season. He and his wife even plan vacations around the club’s 115 locations in the United States and Canada.

Fakatselis said he is frustrated that none of the 50 people he’s told about the club have joined. “I guess they are afraid of having another monthly payment,” he said. “But it’s less expensive than owning a boat, and you don’t have the three-hour ordeal of cleaning up after every trip.”

Some marina owners see boat maintenance as a growth opportunity.

Conrad Kreuter, owner of Moriches Boat & Motor in East Moriches, wants to repair more boats. His service technicians already work on about 400 vessels per year, which accounted for 60 percent of the company’s annual revenue of $1.3 million.

Three years ago, Moriches Boat became the exclusive service provider for neighboring Windswept Marina, home to about 140 boats.

The arrangement occurred as Moriches Boat was crawling back from Sandy, which destroyed its main building and caused $825,000 in total damage. Irene had caused $200,000 in inventory damage a year earlier.

Still, Kreuter never reduced his staff of seven people.

“We cut everything else . . . but I didn’t want to lose people’s experience, their expertise,” he said. “That’s what boaters are coming to us for.”

Despite the signs of a rebound, business owners acknowledged that 10 years of turmoil have probably changed the local industry forever. Employment is undoubtedly down from 4,400 in 2003, the last time a formal study was conducted, and revenue has fallen from $760 million then.

“After Sandy and the recession, people changed the way they boated,” said Squeri, the trade association director. “They are taking fewer long trips and instead doing more local boating to Fire Island, Montauk and Freeport. They’ve changed their boating lifestyle, but they still value time on the water.”