Boom times for the Beaufort County boat industry

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, October 27, 2020

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Beaufort County boat manufacturers and dealers are inundated with orders and sales —  buoyant instead of treading water, due in no small part to COVID-19.

The manufacturing end of the boat business runs in cycles according to Pete Caldwell, owner of Caldwell Marine Designs. Business had been sailing along smoothly for the last few years and as a builder of boats in the 25-foot range, he was bracing for a downturn.

Meanwhile, Jeff Harris, COO of Iconic Marine Group, who builds larger boats, was planning for moderate growth because of new models and designs. When COVID-19 hit in mid-March, the industry paused, then blasted off. Neither manufacturer was ready for the amazing escalation in orders that still hasn’t slowed down.

“Everybody was scared for about three weeks and canceled orders,” Caldwell said. “Then folks realized they couldn’t go on vacation; their kid’s travel ball season was canceled, and it was better to do things outside. People have used the money they saved to buy a boat. For the last six months, I’ve sold every boat I’ve built, and I can’t build enough. I could take 50 more orders if I had the workforce.”

Caldwell’s smaller plant can turn out a boat a week, and he’s facing a year of backlogged orders.

Harris’ larger operation is working on 25 to 30 boats in various stages of production at any given time. It takes six to 12 weeks of build time, depending on the size and model, with several months of back orders. He said times are good for everyone in the outdoor industry.

“Boating is the perfect social distancing activity,” Harris said. “We’re seeing an increased number of first-time buyers because of COVID, because people still want their family time and avoid large gatherings. It’s hard for me to give COVID any credit because there are so many small businesses who are hurting right now. All of us in our industry feel for them and are trying to support them however we can, but there is no question our business is up in 2020.”

Caldwell and Harris agree that supply chain disruptions and not enough workers have been the biggest challenges so far. Both pay competitive wages and provide generous benefits.

“We’re still hiring for a variety of positions,” Harris said. “We need plenty of workers to keep the assembly line operating, so we can continue to deliver a quality product. We make most of our stuff in-house, but still have to rely on some outsourcing. It’s a challenge when things out of your control get bogged down.”

Park Boat Company in Washington and Manteo sells the finished product. General Manager Austin Smithwick said sales are up 30% over last year and show no signs of slowing. He said he usually has around 50 boats and jet skis on display in early July, but that wasn’t the case this year.

“We had three new boats and zero jet skis for people to walk in and buy, and we are still playing catchup,” he said. “We’ve ordered 200 or so of the 2021 models and have already sold half of them. What comes in, goes right out the door. We are constricted by inventory, or we would be up by more than 30%.”

Park Boat Company also operates the Moss Landing Marina along the Washington waterfront. Smithwick said all 52 slips are rented, with more boaters on a waiting list.

“We all hate that COVID happened, but we are making the best of it,” he said. “People are figuring out that Washington is a great place to ride it out on the water. Hopefully, that will help our downtown businesses recover somewhat.”