Play it Again

This year early, last year late: Playtime on the water always comes

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

lake_lead0416 Pictured are Pat Ullom, Chipman Point Marina; Jeff Lefebvre, New England Marine dba Vermont Docks; Mark Saba, Saba Marine and Bay Harbor Marina; Jeremy Belchamber, Bay Harbor Marina; Todd Smith, Point Bay Marina; Chip Ullom, Chipman Point Marina; Dennis Fox, Fox Marine; Robin Doyle, International Sailing School.

Our interviewees
  • Emily Clark, owner, with her husband, Dan, of Ladd’s Landing Marina, North Hero
  • Paul Clark, owner of Northland Boat Shop, North Hero
  • Robin Doyle, owner of the International Sailing School, Colchester
  • Dennis Fox, owner, with his wife, Nancy, of Fox Marine, Colchester
  • Mary Griswold, owner of Shelburne Shipyard
  • Jeff Lefebvre, owner of New England Marine dba Vermont Docks, Colchester
  • Mark Saba, owner of Saba Marine and Bay Harbor Marina, Colchester
  • Todd Smith, general manager of Point Bay Marina, Charlotte
  • Pat Ullom, owner, with her son, Chip, of Chipman Point Marina, Orwell

We’re pretty lucky here in Vermont: low unemployment, a thriving arts community, a growing tech economy, and superior opportunities to play in every season. Well, maybe mud season offerings aren’t that good except for the anticipation of spring and summer to come, but playing four out of five seasons isn’t bad.

Mud season: It’s arrived early this year due to having had the warmest (if not the weirdest) winter on record. The crazy up-and-down temperatures continue at press time, but the time change has elevated hearts and it looks like spring is on the way.

lake_north0416

Unlike last year, when 4 solid feet of ice locked the bays, this year not only did the broad lake not freeze over, but ice fishermen had a challenge finding safe ice to fish from. A January 18 story in USA Today reported that fishing license sales were half what they usually were. As we go to press, Malletts Bay’s Inner Bay is almost open except for a thin crust near the eastern shore. it’s likely that the ice will be a memory before the end of the month (and well before April 15, when it’s traditionally expected to be out).

Is this good news for boaters? We asked a diverse group who make their living on the water how last season was, what they expect for the coming season, and how their customer base is evolving. Like the answers to most questions, it’s occasionally complicated.

Last year and the season ahead

“Our hope is that we will have our docks pushed out and placed by the end of March,” said Mark Saba of Saba Marine and Bay Harbor Marina, who was delighted by the prospect of an early start. Saba bought the boat store (then called The BoatWorks) six years ago, renaming it Saba Marine, and two years later jumped at the chance to pick up Malletts Bay Marina (now called Bay Harbor) to serve his boat-owner customers.

“We had a great summer last year, our best since we’ve been there,” he said, adding that, if activity at this year’s boat show is an indication, he’s looking for another big year.

Dennis Fox of Fox Marine has had good fallout from the boat show as well. Attendance was good, he said, and it seemed like more people were seriously looking to get into boating or trade up. “Lots of times you’ll have people who are tire kickers, looking for something for the kids to keep them out of trouble,” said Fox. “But people we met there are still coming in; Mike [Lucas, the sales manager] already has four contracts.”

Shelburne Shipyard’s docks “always go in in April, and we start launching May 1 — we never change that,” said Mary Griswold, the second-generation owner of the shipyard, where she’s worked since 1988. “If we start earlier, then people expect it the next year. It takes about three and a half weeks to get everything in and checked. We have to uncover boats beforehand, which can’t start till April 1.”

lake_main0416

Boating doesn’t die down entirely in winter, and this year’s ice boating on Malletts Bay was great, according to Robin Doyle of the International Sailing School, who was also expecting the ice to be gone by the end of March. “I feel so bad for the ski areas right now, but we can always count on wind and some summer,” she said. “September last year was one of the best months I’ve ever seen.”

“We’re open from May 15 to October 1,” said Emily Clark, owner with her husband, Dan, of Ladd’s Landing Marina, who agreed that last summer’s season was perfect. “We had a lot of rain from mid-May to mid-June, and that’s very early for us — we’re open from May 15, but the lake water’s cold, even if the air is 70 degrees. It’s all about July and August; every weekend was rain free.”

For the Clarks, if their customers are happy, the weather’s beautiful, and the boats are working, it’s wonderful, Clark said.

Todd Smith of Point Bay Marina echoed nearly every person we interviewed when he said, “If we could replicate last summer every year, I think we would all take it.”

The best thing about working on the water

Smith again echoed everyone’s opinion about the joy of working in an environment where customers arrive in a great mood, in beautiful surroundings, and often with friends and family, looking forward to a good time.

“We have a 500-square-mile playground at our disposal, and those of us who get to make our living by it are very lucky,” Smith said, adding that this means a certain responsibility to protect and preserve it for the future.

lake_south0416

“I live on the waterfront,” said Jeff Lefebvre of New England Marine, who decided about six years ago to start building and selling docks professionally. “It’s the best thing,” he continues. “You’re your own boss and can get out early and see the beautiful sights of Malletts Bay and the lake and watch it change over the years. And you have the nicest clients in the world out here.”

Lefebvre was thrilled that last summer’s superb weather gave him some time for recreational diving, “mapping the lake and the bay for underwater treasures or important finds.”

He has three projects completed for this year and ready to be launched, he said. “Right now I’m rebuilding two boats to research the lake, and this spring I’ll be building a dock for the Town of Colchester.”

Evolution of the customer base

“Oh, wow!” exclaimed Pat Ullom of Chipman Point Marina, when asked the average age of her customers. “I would say 50, which is very interesting, because a lot of our boaters are retiring. We’re trying to attract young families — some kids to pick up where the kids are avid fishermen.”

Fiftyish is the age range almost everyone mentioned, and attracting younger boaters is an ongoing goal. “One of the beauties of sailing is that it’s a lifelong sport,” said Doyle of the International Sailing School. “So the age is from 6 years to 80, and even older.”

She thinks it has a lot to do with mentors and having family members who share their love of boating with their children. “There’s always a misrepresentation that boating is expensive,” she said, “but it isn’t, because you can always join sailing clubs or rent.” She admits that times have changed a bit. “When I was growing up, it would be fathers sailing against fathers, and the kids worked with them. And the same would go for motor boating. You don’t see that as much with sailing anymore.”

Customers at Ladd’s Landing range from age 40 to 60, “tending on the older side,” says Clark of Ladd’s Landing. The Clarks’ customers’ boats are “non-trailerable” craft over 25 feet, so their owners tend to be further along in their lives and careers. They’re divided about 50-50 between sail and powerboats. About six years ago, wanting to grow their customer base, they created a “valet” program to serve folks with smaller, trailerable boats.

“Instead of using a forklift, we launch it on your trailer,” said Emily. “You call and say, ‘Hey, we need the boat today.’ I say, ‘When you put the coffee pot on, call me.’ We slip it in the water, tie it up in the valet dock, you come down and use it, then we’ll haul it in at the end of the day.”

“We work closely with Ladd’s Landing,” said Paul Clark (no relation to Emily and Dan), who owns Northland Boat Shop in North Hero. Among his products are waterfront equipment, Mercury outboards, and Boston Whalers — the only whaler dealer in Vermont, he said — and the demographic for whalers runs around 50 years of age and older, “pretty much male-dominant, and probably six-figure people in finances. Our entire customer base is age 30-plus.”

One thing everyone involved with power boating is excited about this year is the price of fuel — the lowest in decades. “It’s a great bonus to anyone in the marine industry,” said Smith. “Then the rest, you just hope Mother Nature cooperates.” •