RI’s boating industry may face rough waters as pandemic stretches into warmer months

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island boating industry is heading into uncertain waters as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into warmer months, according to professionals in the boating industry.

Boat builders, manufacturers, owners of marinas and boatyards are among those concerned about how the crisis will affect boating season, especially when it comes to the typical arrival of out-of-state boaters to Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association is just one of many organizations in the Ocean State that has been forced to navigate unchartered territory in an area that, like much of the country, has been hit affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No matter what industry you’re in, if you are a small business, you need to be concerned about what we’re going through right now,” said CEO Wendy Mackie.

Mackie said that the majority of her association’s members are businesses with fewer than 25 employees. 

Mackie said that small businesses should be “looking at best and worst case scenarios.”

John Tregenza, President of RIMTA, runs boat yards in Westerly, Watch Hill Boatyard and Viking Marina. 

Tregenza said he’s had to modify how his employees work together by putting off indoor projects, and has been shorter-staffed than usual because a number of his employees are older and some have children they have to take care of.

However, Tregenza said he feels lucky that much of his work involves working outdoors where people can keep their distance.

“My employees and I all feel incredibly lucky that we work primarily outdoors on the water,” said Tregenza.

“Cleaning, waxing and painting boats, those are all kind of one-man jobs and they can go out and we can pick boats that are not next to each other keep employees safe,” Tregenza said.

He said he hopes the pandemic doesn’t stop people from going out on the water, especially during a time where people may need to take care of their mental health.

“I also believe that getting out on the water and out of your house is a very healthy therapy for my customers,” said Tregenza.

“I think there’s no better way to socially distance yourself than to head out on the water,” Tregenza said.

On the RIMTA’s website, under the section for information on COVID-19, it reads at the top of the page, “we cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.”

The organization has been keeping their members updated as the state’s guidelines on COVID-19 have evolved.

“Any person coming to Rhode Island from another state for a non-work-related purpose must immediately self-quarantine for 14 days. This quarantine restriction shall not apply to public health, public safety, or healthcare workers,” according to state guidance.

Andy Tyska is a board member for RIMTA and is also the President of Bristol Marine.

Along with the boating repair and restoration services offered in their Bristol location, the company also owns two shipyards in Somerset, Mass. and Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that boating is part of the fabric of our community here,” said Tyska.

He said the challenges that the boating industry faces isn’t about whether people can go boating, but rather “the ability to retain a workforce that is uniquely skilled and positioned to provide the level of services that boaters need to enjoy the water.”

According to Tyska, he’s seen customers who want to get their boat out on the water right away, people who do not plan on boating this year and others who have yet to make a decision about their boating plans.

“The natural flow of our business, the migration from boats from land to water has been and will continue to be significantly disrupted,” said Tyska. “It’s uncertain, it’s unpredictable, but again, I’m sure many businesses like ours are ready to adapt and accommodate all owners to the best of our abilities.”

Keith Anderson, who manages Fox Point Marina in Providence, said he has had some people cancel their seasonal slips, though he’s been able to refill those spots through a waiting list.

He said, however, he is concerned about a drop in revenue because of a loss in boaters who come from other states.

“If we lose our transient guests, it’s not ideal,” Anderson said. “I get paid a commission and that’s a big part of my commission. I keep 100 percent of that.”

Despite the potential loss of that income, Anderson said he’s been staying positive.

Yacht broker Bill Powers is based in Florida but spends his summers in Rhode Island.

He said even if Rhode Island waters open up again to out-of-state boaters, people who would normally travel far distances to come to Rhode Island might not want to this year.

“If they’re going to spend the money to go north for the summer they want to make it worthwhile,” said Powers. “Nobody knows where we’re going with this.”

He said though this virus is hurting many other industries like restaurants, boating is a big part of Rhode Island’s economy.

“The economic impact of the marine industry in Rhode Island alone is $2.65 billion,” said Powers.

Just over the Rhode Island border in Stonington, Conn., Chris Uscinski owns Boaters Buddy, a small business which offers boat maintenance services.

With his busy season underway, Uscinski said while everything is okay for now, he predicts his business will see “a downturn in the next couple of weeks.”

Uscinski said as a business owner, he’s not alone in his concerns.

“I think they’re all worried but all trying to be positive right now,” said Uscinski. 

He also predicts there will be fewer people on the water because of boaters who are “just getting by.”

“A lot of my customers are small business owners,” said Uscinski. “They’re trying to get their boat in the water, but how long they can afford to keep it up without income could be a different story.” 

Though there is uncertainty about what the boating season will look like for businesses and boaters alike, RIMTA wants people to have an outlet during this stressful time.

“Recreational boating is fun. We want people to be able to look forward to that as we come through this crisis,” said Mackie. “It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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