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The Year on the Lake

A Fluid Year

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Last year, leading up to its annual Father’s Day fishing derby, Lake Champlain International sent out a “Marina Opening Report” on May 17. It listed the status of 15 Vermont marinas on Lake Champlain. Of those, six were listed as “open,” two were “open limited,” five were “unable to launch,” and two were “closed.”

The situation was the result of record-breaking spring floods that looked like they’d never peak, brought on by heavy winter snows and seemingly unending rain.


KEY

  1. Northland Boat Shop 134 Northland Lane, North Hero
  2. Sawyer Bay Farm W. Shore Road, South Hero
  3. Lost Cove Yachting 445 Brickyard Road, Colchester
  4. Fox Marine Service and Sales 356 Prim Road, Colchester
  5. Saba Marine 390 Prim Road, Colchester
  6. Waterfront Diving Center 214 Battery St., Burlington
  7. Yipes Auto Accessories 740 Marshall Ave. #30, Williston
  8. Shelburne Shipyard, Inc. 4584 Harbor Road, Shelburne
  9. Small Boat Exchange 2649 Shelburne Road, Shelburne
  10. Shelburne Farms 1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne
  11. Point Bay Marina 1401 Thompsons Point Road, Charlotte
  12. Adirondack Guideboat Inc. 6821 Ethan Allen Hwy., Ferrisburgh
  13. Marine Plus Inc. 6720 U.S. 7, N. Ferrisburg
  14. The Dock Doctors 19 Little Otter Lane, Ferrisburg
  15. Tom’s Marine Service 1100 Basin Harbor Road , Vergennes

This spring, in the wake of “the winter that wasn’t,” presents a very different picture. A relative dearth of snow, coupled with early warm temperatures, should bode well for lake businesses. We were curious to learn how things are going this year, and what, if any, changes or adjustments have been made because of the flood.

Dock Doctors, Ferrisburgh. “Last year’s season was pretty condensed,” says sales manager Chris Girard. “The spring floods didn’t allow people to put in their seasonal dock sections until late June or early July. Then came the hurricane in late August, and people removed their dock systems just before or just after the storm. If we’ve got 500 seasonal customers in the Northeast, probably two-thirds of them didn’t put their docks in at all; they just threw in the towel last year.”

The spring flood “helped us get ready for the hurricane,” he says. No systems were damaged. The company instituted a change in the way it communicates with customers. The service team set up emergency email responses in case of severe weather, to make sure, for example, that dock panels are removed and canopies are off the boat lifts.

Business looks good this year — and early. “People didn’t do upgrades last year, so there’s some pent-up demand,” Girard says.

Saba Marine, Colchester. Because some marinas opened up last spring before the water rose, says owner Mark Saba, some of his customers were lucky enough to get their boats in early. “It slowed us down from a launching standpoint. Normally, we would have launched 250 to 300 boats over an eight-week period during May and June. We had to shrink that up to two weeks in July.”

Saba and his crew worked from dawn to dark every day of those two weeks. “We ended up having only three people who didn’t put their boats in,” says Saba.

He’s confident last year was “one of those freak things,” and with the lack of snow runoff, “unless we have a tremendous amount of rain, we have the capacity to come up three to four feet.”

Champlain Marina, Colchester. At press time, there was still ice on Malletts Bay. “All the other marinas — Shelburne, Point Bay — didn’t have ice this year,” says Bruce Deming, the owner of Champlain Marina, “so there are rumblings about when things are going to open. But because I still have ice, I don’t want to put a date on it yet.” Typically, he says, the ice goes out by the second or third week in April and he starts putting his docks in. Not wanting to alert Mother Nature, he says, he whispers that this year he expects things to be earlier. [Note: the ice went out the day after his interview.]

Because of the spring flooding last year, the marina has made an investment in better anchoring its dock system and made provisions to get utilities such as electricity hooked up at a higher lake level. “The docks don’t care how high the water is; it’s getting to them, ” he says, “so we made provisions for that. And wouldn’t you know it? The lake’s lower than ever. But we knew we would need to do this at some point.”

Waterfront Diving Center, Burlington. The Diving Center had a different kind of problem last year, says Jonathan Eddy, co-owner and manager. Its offices were not affected by the spring floods, but underwater visibility is key to its business.

“We teach the scuba class at the University of Vermont — 40 students a semester,” says Eddy. “We do the checkout in the lake in the spring, because they graduate the first weekend in May. The good thing was we were able to get all those students in the lake before the high water affected anything. But for our open-water checkout dives, we had to go to other lakes — Sunset Lake, Lake George, a few others — because if you can’t see your students, you can’t safely check them out.”

Charters, which typically start in late May, were put off until late June because no docks were in the water. That meant the season had a lower start economically, says Eddy. “The whole thing kind of affected the psyche of all the lake businesses.”

Shelburne Shipyard. Shelburne Shipyard was finally able to launch boats by the third week in June last year, says owner Mary Griswold. “We had a handful who didn’t launch — who said, ‘Not gonna bother’ — but they’ve already made plans for this year.”

This year, Griswold says, “the water is low, so there’s plenty of give to it if we do get the spring rains. I’m knocking on wood; we don’t need that two years in a row.”

The shipyard is not expecting to make changes in its operation. “That was a unique experience. In 40 years, we never really had that issue. This was extraordinary.”

Shelburne Farms. Shelburne Farms’ season doesn’t start until mid May, but the spring flood necessitated canceling the annual Mother’s Day weekend tours of the inn.

“Hurricane Irene definitely affected us,” says Alec Webb, president of Shelburne Farms, “but more from a business standpoint. Because of the national publicity around Vermont, people were scared away. But the spring flood affected the special event parking into June.”

Indeed, areas used for events parking were inundated, looking more like extensions of the lake than grassland. Jersey barriers along the main entrance road, which helped hold back water so that cars could approach the inn, didn’t come down until July. Sales at the Welcome Center shop, which is open year-round, were affected by the closure of Bay Road, one of two main access roads to the property.

This season hasn’t begun, but with lake levels way down, Webb expects things to be back to normal.

Fox Marine. “We had boats ready to go but couldn’t put in because of the flooding,” says owner Dennis Fox. “Some people couldn’t put in because they had flood damage to their homes on the lake. They said, ‘Gotta spend twenty-thirty thousand to put in a new sea wall.’”

About 90 to 95 percent of Fox Marine’s customers did launch boats eventually, he says, “because once the good weather hit, it was a great summer.”

He cautions that a cold spell this spring could damage boats that are “dewinterized” too soon. But things are stacking up well.