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Great Lakes Boating is Back

Becky Kalajian - March 24th, 2014  

Yacht owners to the humblest rowboaters are anticipating summer 2014 to be the perfect storm for Great Lakes boating.

From backyard ponds to Michigan’s inland’s seas, this winter’s barrage of ice and non-lake effect snow are pumping water levels up a foot or more.

Improved finances and boating technology are likewise pushing many wanna-be boat owners off the fence while prompting seasoned sailors to upgrade.

Boaters and those in the industry say the timing couldn’t be better.


Hi Stover, a yacht broker for Walstrom Marine in Harbor Springs, said sales of 20-ft. to 80-ft. boats are “trending up.”

“I think the typical boat buyer might be in a stronger position financially, whether they’re looking for new or used,” said Stover, who sells new and used boats worldwide. “Others have been sitting on the sidelines for a few years; now it’s time to participate.”

Improved technology is prompting nervous boaters to buy, Stover said. Joysticks have replaced steering wheels, making docking a boat “child’s play,” he said.

“We made a video of an eight-year-old docking a 40-ft. boat,” he said. “Someone new to boating can now drive safely because of this technology.”

Other technological improvements include quieter, more fuel-efficient engines and GPS that works much like a smartphone, using a touchpad with familiar graphics, Stover said.

“It allows a person to become literate much, much faster,” he said. “It’s crazy how easy it is.”

For those who love power, boats 25 feet and longer are being manufactured with four-stroke outboards, increasing speed and decreasing sound output.

“It tends to get the buyer from the 20-ft. |boat into the 25-ft. range,” Stover said. “We also get people upgrading from 20 feet to the mid-30s.”


Yacht dealers, dock brokers, and boat owners all say the rising lake levels will be a boon for this season.

Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says that lake levels are the “proverbial question” outdoor lovers have in mind.

“We talk to the Army Corps of Engineers all of the time and get weekly updates, especially after what we went through last year,” said Olson, referring to record low water levels. “The projection for boaters looks good and water levels could be even greater depending on how much spring rain we get.”

Olson said that June lake levels will measure more than six inches higher for Superior; Michigan and Huron are expected to measure more than seven inches higher; Erie should be up more than four inches, and Lake St. Clair should rise about two inches.

Despite the rising water levels, a state $20.9 million emergency dredging program is still underway. Since last year, 56 public marinas were dredged or are in process, with Frankfort, Harbor Springs, Traverse City and Manistee on the list for this spring, Olson said.

“Grand Traverse Bay is still in the works because of some soil/sediment issues, but otherwise we are on schedule,” he said. “This is all critical dredging to allow boaters to get in and out of marinas safely.”


No matter what the water level is, docks sell.  High water, though, would be “a bonus,” said Wally Drabek, partner at the family owned Twin Bay Docks in Traverse City.

“It all goes hand in hand,” said Drabek, whose product is made specifically for the Great Lakes. “What’s good for the marine industry is good for us.”

Boat owners along East Bay’s shoreline in Traverse City say that getting to their docks and hoists has been “a nightmare,” even with added dock sections.

“We’d have to schlep all of our gear 50 to 75 yards off my parents’ beach and then, once we got going, bottom out depending on the waves,” said Kim Beattie, whose family of six enjoys weekly excursions to local sand bars where the kids play. “We’ve gone through at least seven propellers in the past few years, just hitting rocks near my parents’ house.”

Although the two families had more dock sections installed, Beattie said it was “prohibitively expensive” to install sections all the way to the beach.

“We’re so excited the water is up; it will be so great to not hit stuff in the bay or logs in Skegemog and Torch [lakes],” she said. “If it gets high enough where we can get the dock close to the beach, that would be lovely.”


Chris Flynn said he can’t even get into the Petoskey marina’s snowbound parking lot, but come summer, he thinks the marina lot will be jammed for other reasons.

“We should be in good shape this year,” said Flynn, the 144-slip marina’s supervisor. “For a while there, it got close to disaster level.”

Flynn said that the waitlist for a seasonal boat slip is at 112 people, which translates into a multi-year wait. The slip fees range in price from $2,430 to $5,520 a season; transient slips cost $39 per night.

“When you’re paying $400,000 for a boat, you’d think it would be more,” said Flynn, who services a mix of boats ranging from small cruisers to 150-ft. yachts, with most in the 45-ft. range.

Just south of Petoskey, the privately funded Bay Harbor Lake Marina is gearing up for an event-heavy season.

In June, the marina will host a Father’s Day boat show; the next weekend, it will host the largest vintage boat and car show in the country. In mid-July the property is celebrating its 20th anniversary as well as putting on an arts event and its annual yard sale.

All this combined with a 10 percent increase in seasonal slip rentals means “there’s a lot going on,” said Joel Shoemaker, dock master for Bay Harbor Lake Marina.

“There definitely is a resurgence of people either purchasing boats or calling for slip rentals,” he said. “It’s an exciting time.”


Andrew MacDonald says that he has high hopes for this year’s Traverse City Boat & Outdoor Show in April.

“I expect a record year for attendance and a great year for boats sold,” said MacDonald, whose show is in its eighth year. “I’m not sure if it’s the economy or it’s the ‘life’s too short’ mentality.”

A low point for MacDonald was 2008 and 2009, when attendance – and the visitors’ vibe – dropped significantly.

“People are much more interested in pulling the trigger,” he said.

Twelve dealers plus other vendors will be at the show, with pontoons representing 50 percent of the boats on display.

“Pontoons are red hot; you can do so much on them,” said MacDonald, whose visitors come mainly from northern Michigan, Detroit, and Grand Rapids. “Some have bars, some have bathrooms. They’re versatile and with so many inland lakes in Michigan, you can’t go wrong.”

Much of the boat show’s success depends on the weather, however.

“The weather is critical,” he said. “We always pray for clouds, a little rain, and 50 degrees. Then they’ll flock to your show.”


Boat owners filling up their tanks don’t have a choice when it comes to price. Special marine-grade fuel hovered about $4.90 a gallon last year; marina workers say they hesitate to speculate about prices this year but have seen them shoot above $5 a gallon in the past.

For boaters whose vessels burn gallons to the mile as they cruise from Chicago to ports on Michigan’s west shoreline, it’s a small price to pay.

“Some of the bigger boats use well over 1,200 gallons; we take about an hour to fill a boat of this size,” said Petoskey’s Flynn. “And no matter what the manufacturers say, these boats are not fuel-efficient.”

Traditionally a money pit, boat ownership means sinking big money into dockage, winter storage, repairs, and other non-fuel related costs, Flynn said.

“It makes no sense financially,” he said.

“The only thing I would ever consider buying for my family is a tugboat or a trawler. At least those things are fuel efficient.”

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