December 6, 2022

Who’s in the Harbor?

From competition for slips to rising gas prices, here’s what marinas Up North are expecting this summer
By Ross Boissoneau | June 11, 2022

For those who make their living at marinas and those whose summertime lives are largely defined by them, it’s the busiest and the most wonderful time of the year.

But just how slammed are marinas these days? Is there enough room for all the boats? How big and how many are there? Are the waters still rising? And speaking of rising, are the increasing fuel prices impacting business?

Glad you asked.

Out on the Water
Let’s start with the fact that the pandemic gave a huge boost to all outdoor activities, including the entire boating industry. “Since COVID, we have noticed a big increase in new boaters, as people want to stay in their own bubble as much as possible,” says Chris West at Mackinaw City Marina. “There is no better way to do that than cruising the Great Lakes with friends and family.”

Mackinaw City Municipal Marina has 83 slips total, 62 of which are seasonal slips and 23 that are transient for day-boaters and short-term visitors. The marina also has some 500 feet of broadside dockage. At press time, the marina only had a couple of seasonal slips still available for boats up to 42 feet in length.

That’s the story across the North. Duncan L. Clinch Marina in Traverse City boasts 119 slips for a maximum of 150 boats, including the breakwall. (The breakwall is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and available for up to two weeks.) Of the permanent slips, 71 are seasonal, and there’s a waiting list of over 300 people. The most popular of the seven slip sizes is 42 feet, and that waiting list alone is nearly 70 names long.

Further north, Petoskey City Marina recently expanded to a total of 144 slips. They are equally split between seasonal and transient, and seasonal dockage is currently operating from a waiting list for one of the 72 seasonal slips. Crew member Nathan Spadafore says 15 of the slips are for boats over 50 feet in length, while the rest are 42 feet, meaning they are available for any watercraft that size or smaller.

Spadafore anticipates the summer will likely be another busy one. “We expect to be full most of July and August. July 4 is already full,” he says.

As for how high gas prices could affect the summer, opinions differ. “It is early in the season to know what the summer will look like for us, but I am sure fuel prices will play a role in our transient boater business,” says West.

“We sold a lot of fuel in 2020 and 2021: 70,000 gallons, 40,000 diesel,” says Shane Dilloway, dock master at Clinch Marina. “I’m not sure, but it might go down a little bit [this year].”

While fuel sales may decrease, there won’t be any lack of business at Clinch. Dilloway agrees that the pandemic ushered in a number of new boaters. “There’s been an uptick for sure. Reservations have been just as high if not higher.”

Bigger Is Better
One trend in the boating world is the escalating price of fuel—another is the size of the craft plying the waters. Hint: They’re getting bigger.

“The average size is 35 feet, and they’ve gotten larger over the years,” says Dilloway. “A lot of those [whose boats are] 24 feet and less are trailering. They launch and then take them out.”

West says the shift toward bigger watercraft is resulting in an increased number of requests for bigger slips, which can be a challenge to fulfill. “I think a lot of older marinas are feeling the pinch of not having enough large boat slips,” he says.

He notes that when Mackinaw City Marina was built in the early 1970s, watercraft over 45 feet were rare. The marina had an abundance of 32- and 42-foot slips, with few 60-foot slips. “To combat this problem, we removed 10 of our 32-foot slips and made that into 300 feet of broadside dockage, which allows us to accommodate the larger boats that come through the area,” West says.

While boats are getting bigger, whatever the size, powerboats far outnumber sailboats, though West says the number of sailboats continues to increase each year. In Petoskey, Spadafore estimates 70 percent are powerboats, while Dilloway says in Traverse City it’s not even that close. “It’s 90 percent powerboats, 10 percent sailboats,” Dilloway says.

Leveling Out
And while all the talk the past couple years has been about the effects of erosion amidst record-high water levels, that’s no longer the case. Data from NOAA show levels are significantly down from last year. This will be Spadafore’s third year at the Petoskey Marina, and he says he’s seen a decrease in the level both last year and this year. “My first year, it was super high. It was slightly lower last year, and the water level is down quite a bit this year.”

For marinas, this is good news. “The water level two years ago was (so high) we had to shut down a section of our electric pedestals. Now it’s open again,” says Dilloway.

Manistee Is Back to Boat-Making
Michael Kamaloski is a lifer, and he’s happy about it. He’s been working in the boating industry since the summer of 1976, and today he heads the Thoroughbred Boat Company in his hometown of Manistee.

His career goes back to his first experiences at the Century company, which began building boats in Manistee in 1929. He got a job there to help pay his way through college and discovered his life’s passion. He worked with the company until it flew him to Florida, where he was told his job—along with all other Manistee-based operations—would be relocated to Panama City.

The job was on the move, but not Kamaloski. Instead, he took a position with Four Winns in Cadillac. “I wore all the different hats, learned all the facets” of the business, he says. He was with Four Winns for 20 years, then got into brand management, brand design, production development, and the financial side with the investment firm that purchased it.

When the now-renamed BRP closed its engine division, Kamaloski decided to take the plunge. His dream had always been to bring boat-building back to Manistee. He also wanted to resurrect the vision of that long-ago time he’d first started working in the industry, so he named the company for Century’s tagline: “The thoroughbred of boats.”

Kamaloski targeted what he saw as an untapped market for luxury powerboats, and the first result of his endeavor was “Maiden Manistee,” which retails at a price point of $185,000. Kamaloski says the response has been overwhelming, and with a lifetime of contacts in the industry, he’s heard from potential customers and dealers from across the country.

The 64-year-old now has 10 employees working for him and has big plans for 2022 and beyond. The company has two boats completed, with a third in process. “I want to bring in two to five more people in the next 30 to 60 days,” Kamaloski says. That will allow the company to produce one boat per month, revving up to two a month. It’s simply a matter of acquiring enough of the components, most of which he says he is sourcing from the state or at least the Midwest. If all goes according to plan, Thoroughbred Boat Company will produce 50 boats by next year.

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