Delivery in Annapolis of a Regulator 34 from Bluewater Yacht Sales. Photo: Carl Beale/Facebook

Boat Sales Up as Bay Leans into Boating in COVID-19 Era

Anyone living near the shores of the Chesapeake and its tributaries can’t help but notice: recreational boating is having a moment. Boaters in the mid-Bay recently told Bay Bulletin that local waters have been so busy, it looks like the Fourth of July.

With the coronavirus response limiting travel and activities, boat owners who don’t usually get out as much as they’d like to now have few other commitments standing in their way. Chris Guy, an avid boater in southern Anne Arundel County, speculates, “I think people working at home, and¬†canceled activities have given people a lot more free time to be on the water.”

The National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA) says the forecast for boating this summer is looking bright, as it’s “an ideal outdoor activity to de-stress and unwind that has known mental health benefits, while naturally allowing you to abide by social distancing guidelines.”

As boat traffic on the Bay has increased, so has the number of people buying boats. Dealers in the Chesapeake region are reporting an uptick in business. Bluewater Yacht Sales, with three Maryland locations and two in Virginia, is reporting record sales. Chesapeake Boat Basin, a Boston Whaler dealer in Kilmarnock on Virginia’s Northern Neck, tell us they’re completely sold out of all new models for the near future. And Crusader Yachts in Annapolis, which sells new and used boats, also say they’re especially busy.

“Current brokerage activity is very strong and one concern is inventory levels and getting new listings,” says Crusader Yachts Owner Mike Titgemeyer. “Many buyers think it is a buyer’s market because of COVID, but that is really not the case. Boats are selling, and getting close to asking prices in many cases.”

NMMA says national boat sales (both new and used) support the trend we’re seeing on the Bay. In May, 70 percent of marine dealers nationwide say their sales grew, for the strongest numbers since July 2018. Pre-owned boat brokers also reported 74 percent growth.

The biggest growth is coming from smaller, entry-level boats, which NMMA says indicates more people are picking up boating:

“New data points to many first-time boat buyers investing in a boat to replace other summer traditions canceled due to the pandemic,” NMMA rep John-Michael Donahue tells Bay Bulletin.

Jet skis are primary purchases for first-time buyers entering the marine market, and NMMA finds people bought 75% more personal watercraft this May than May 2019. Wakeboard boats and other small boats like cruisers have been popular this spring.

Another factor: smaller boats are also more affordable in this time of economic uncertainty. NMMA says 62 percent of boaters have an annual household income of $100,000 or less and 95% of boats are under 26 feet long– boats that can be trailered to local launch sites.

One factor yet to be determined: the impact of the fall boat show season on sales. “Boat show season is a bit of an unknown yet as to what the shows will look like. How many people will come out? How many people will the shows allow daily and what sort of safety precautions are in place…” Titgemeyer wonders.

He points out that many dealers rely on boat shows for 50-75% of their business for the year, and some are still trying to recover financially from all of the spring shows being canceled. For now, the Annapolis Boat Shows (U.S. Sail and Powerboat shows) are still set for October, with tickets limited to single-day only.

-Meg Walburn Viviano