Staying Afloat

This full-service marina is up a good creek

by Will Lindner

toms0412From mid March until Christmastime, Shelly and Tom Eriksen work seven days a week running their business, Tom’s Marine Service, on Otter Creek in Ferrisburgh.

It was August 27, 2011, and Tom and Shelly Eriksen, owners of Tom’s Marine Service in Ferrisburgh, were going full tilt. Tropical Storm Irene was barreling down on Vermont and due to arrive the following day. Customers were piloting their boats to the marina, asking that they be pulled out of the water and put someplace safe. Others — among the many longtime customers whose mooring locations Tom and Shelly knew well — wanted them to come get their boats right away. For these folks, the season was over early.

Shelly remembers the day well. “We hauled out 50 boats or more. We took them out, tied them down, and made them ready for the storm.”

But at some point, amid the madcap activity, one of the two remembered that it was their 23rd wedding anniversary.

Shelly laughs about it. “Tom and I looked at each other and said, ‘Happy anniversary,’ and, ‘Oh, yeah, happy anniversary to you, too!’ and then kept working.”

The Eriksens’ marina on Otter Creek, about two miles in from Lake Champlain, is in a well-protected location, Shelly says, and they suffered no damage from the storm. But with their customers in near panic, they worked feverishly from early morning until well into the night.

On the other hand, that’s pretty much what they do anyway. “We don’t have a day off from mid March until Christmastime,” says Shelly. “We’re open seven days a week. We are always here.

“Oh well. We couldn’t deal with a day off anyway,” she admits. “We wouldn’t have a good time because we’d be worried that someone needed us.”

Bob Beach, co-owner of the legendary Basin Harbor Club, which is a neighboring business (Tom’s Marine Service is on Basin Harbor Road), vouches for their commitment.

“They are extremely hard workers,” he emphasizes. “Ferrisburgh has the largest length of shoreline of any town in Vermont, with a multitude of summer camps. They service a huge contingent of boaters and campers around the lake, and service many of our guests here throughout the summer. They’ll also help people that just happen to boat in and have some misfortune with their boats. Tom recognizes that it’s a short boating season and does his best to get people back on the water. For them, that’s the bottom line.”

Such dedication, in a seasonal business, is not conducive to days off. But if anything, the pace seems to invigorate the couple — and they’re certainly proud of the business they have created.

“We’re a complete marine facility, the only marina on the Otter Creek,” says Shelly. “We prep boats for the season, we winterize them in the fall, we shrink-wrap and store them for the winter. We do minor repairs, major repairs; we overhaul boats completely, whether it’s replacing motors, replacing floors, carpets — you name it, Tommy does it. He’s a third-generation marina owner, born with a wrench in his hand.”

That’s not to say that Shelly’s role is minor.

“Shelly is the consummate salesperson,” says Beach. “Shelly is the front of the house, and Tom is the back of the house.”

Shelly would dispute any allegation that she’s the “face of the operation.” That role, she would say, falls to their two official “greeters,” golden retrievers Max and Dodie — aptly named, as she and Tom dote upon them to the max.

Selling boats is more than just a retail part of their operation; it’s also another aspect of customer service, for Shelly is performing brokerage for their clients.

“Customers want to upgrade,” Shelly explains. “They’ll call and tell me what they want and I’ll do the networking. I’ll sell them the new boat, take their old one in trade, and then try to sell the old one. In the last two months we’ve sold five.”

The team also has its record-keeping down pat. They keep files on their regular customers’ boats (they estimate they have 200 steady customers, and see about 400 customers, on average, during the boating season) and Shelly keeps track.

“In the spring when Tommy’s working on a boat, I can say, ‘This is year four for the impeller; we really should change it.’”

Shelly, born and raised in Vergennes, could hardly have known she was going to end up married to a boat mechanic and running a marina. Now 47, she went directly from high school to the Chittenden Bank, embarking on what became a 20-year career in banking. She took courses in finance and banking on nights and weekends, earned her securities license, and eventually became a bank manager. She worked at the Chittenden’s branches in Shelburne, Vergennes, Middlebury, and South Burlington.

But things began changing after she met Tom, who had grown up on the Long Island waterfront, up to his elbows in grease, water, and engine parts at Eriksen’s Crows Nest Marina in Oceanside (Nassau County). Tom had family ties in Vermont and eventually moved north.

Tom and Shelly married in 1988, and in 1990 bought a house on Basin Harbor Road, where Tom began working on motors. Before long, Shelly recalls, she would come home from the bank and barely be able to get into the driveway for all the boats, motors, and trailers in the way.

Just down the road was an old, disused, 1800s-era dairy farm, right on Otter Creek, and in 1996 Tom learned that the owners had subdivided the property into 10.2-acre lots.

“Tommy said ‘We need to buy this place,’” says Shelly. “He saw the potential.”

They bought the section with the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings, and despite having 1,400 feet of water frontage it didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to a marina. Shelly says, “It looked like the farmer went out for coffee and never came back.” There was hay everywhere, and farm tools, and fields that needed tending.

They cleaned, painted, and refurbished; built two storage buildings to house 200 boats and dockage that can accommodate 40 craft at a time; and turned the calf pen into the business office. They were careful to preserve the old Vermont farm look and ambience, creating an interesting blend of the rural and marine traditions that have been important in Vermont’s history.

Meanwhile, Shelly was still commuting to the bank.

“I’d come home and change into my marina clothes and get to work,” she says. “It became too much. So in 2004 we made that huge decision for me to leave the bank, which was risky because I had wonderful benefits, a retirement plan, and health care. Tom and I are now literally together 24/seven. We know what we have to do and we do it. Our home is right here with the business.”

For Tom, 51, knowing what he has to do includes maintaining his credentials, because lifelong experience and fascination with watercraft wouldn’t keep the business afloat. Tom is a certified, factory-trained technician for Mercury, Yamaha, and Honda engines (all of which the marina sells, along with boats and trailers).

One benefit, though, is that the three weeks of training and refresher courses he takes each winter allow the Eriksens to get away — sometimes to Georgia, sometimes to Florida. And sometimes they’ll skip down to St. John or Jamaica. No matter where they go, it’s always on the water.

When they’re away, Shelly’s mother, Helen Schroeder, comes up from Vergennes to mind the business. Her mother, Shelly says, the woman everyone knows as “Helen,” is a fixture at the marina year-round.

Tom and Shelly also hire seasonal employees each spring whose work ends in late fall, and they have a network of close friends and relatives apparently so fond of the Eriksens and the waterfront that they’ve become part of the scene at Tom’s Marine. That includes friend and local contractor Tim Price and Robbie Motschman, Tom’s cousin from Albany, N.Y., who drives up almost every weekend during the busy season to work.

“I don’t know what we would do without them all,” says Shelly. “These people, and our customers who are so loyal, are why we can continue doing this. We are so grateful to them all.”

Grateful enough to give back. Nick Patch, director of outdoor education at the nearby Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, runs a summer rowing program for middle and high school students, and the Eriksens allow swarms of teenagers to launch from their docks and keep a few of the “gigs” there at no charge.

“They are incredibly gracious and goodhearted with the kids,” says Patch. “I can’t say enough about their generosity.”

Now they’re preparing for a new season. Tom got the docks into the water before Easter this year (usually his target date), and soon their workdays will spiral into the long hours of spring and summer. Yet they have happily cast their fate upon the waters of Otter Creek, and for Tom and Shelly there is no complaining, and no looking back. •