Area boaters anticipate another banner year

The price of gasoline – hovering at barely $1 per gallon in recent weeks — bodes well for a boating industry that already appears set to embark on one of its best seasons in years.

At the very least, low fuel prices are a good sign, said Robert Lavin, of Lavin’s Marina on Shore Drive in Barrington.

Besides low fuel costs, there are other positive signs, including soaring boat sales at area dealers and a backlog of orders at some boat builders. Tax breaks on boat sales – enacted several years ago — and the health of the overall economy are also contributing to a robust boating industry.

Lavin, who has spent 37 years in the marina business, does not expect gas prices to remain quite so low, particularly when the weather warms. Nor does he expect them to approach last summer’s average of $1.49 per gallon. Even with steep fuel prices in recent years, people are excited about boating. Business was better last year than it had been in any of the previous four years, Lavin said.

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“The economy has been good,” he added. “People feel good about the economy and they are out enjoying themselves. If they keep the price of gas down, people will have more money in their pockets and they’ll spend more time on their boats.”

In recent days, Lavin and his crew have been busy installing docks. That’s another good sign. The traditional boating season has never been longer, Lavin said.

“It’s not like the old days, when you had all the wooden boats and most people waited until Memorial Day,” he said. “People get in a lot earlier now, with all the fiberglass boats.”

At Brewer’s Sakonnet Marina in Portsmouth, Jay Burns, vice president and general manager, has never been busier.

“A lot of people are repairing their boats – they’re more comfortable with the economy and they’re spending more money,” he said.

And much of that money, according to Burns, is being poured into new boats, new sails and new equipment – which bodes well for all aspects of the industry.

“If you talk to any of the boat builders, they’re swamped with orders,” Burns said.

Businesses such as East Bay Cushion & Canvas in Warren, are finding that the recession of the mid to late-1980s is a distant memory for boating enthusiasts.

Owner John Lombardo is getting a lot of work from customers looking to spruce up older boats, or others who are customizing the interiors of their new boats. Lombardo said he is benefiting “at both ends of the industry.”

“It looks like it is going to be a good year,” Lombardo said. “I have had plenty to keep me busy.”

Sailmakers are equally busy.

Aaron Jasper, of Jasper & Bailey Sailmakers in Newport, opened his Aquidneck business in 1978, after having operated a similar loft in the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1972. Jasper builds replacement sails for boat owners and repairs, cleans and stores sails for what he describes as a particularly strong boating community.

“We always seem to be busy,” he said. “We haven’t been able to produce the work as fast as we can take orders.”

In fact, Jasper has long been more concerned about finding skilled workers than he has about finding work.

While the spring should bring even more activity to marinas, boat builders and other marine-related businesses in the area, Burns said that the winter has been far from quiet.

“It hasn’t stopped,” said Burns.

Farther south, Norton’s Shipyard and Marina in East Greenwich has been inundated with calls from boaters looking for slips.

For years, the Greenwich Bay area has been a popular – and less expensive – alternative to Newport, said Stacy Rouleau, office manager at the marina.

“We’ve seen an increase in business,” she said. “I’m getting a lot of new customers.”

Some of those calls for slips are coming from people anxious to get their brand new boats in the water.

Pete Messier, one of the owners of Boat World, which has locations in Warwick, Bristol, Wakefield and another opening soon in Boston, knew shortly after the annual boat show in Providence in January that 1999 was going to be a strong year.

“We had the show in Providence in January and during that month we sold 60 boats,” he said. “That’s excellent. That’s two boats a day in January. And February is doing well.”

Messier said many of his customers are upgrading — returning to buy their third or fourth boat from him. These days, he said, the family cruisers – which sleep four to six people – are especially popular.

“It’s like a floating condominium,” said Messier. “People use them for extended weekends.”

Jasper sees continued success for the industry. Though he does worry about what he considers to be a potentially dark cloud on the bright horizon. Jasper is convinced that a substantial shipping container port at Quonset Point would be bad news for the boating industry, particularly yachters.

“The best use of New England is as a resort for the rest of the country,” Jasper said. “Our sailing season in New England is very long because of the geography that has been given to us. We’ll be fine as long as the politicians don’t do something foolish – like build a mega-port in Narragansett Bay.”

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