New CT boat registrations nearly doubled in 2020: 'The docks are completely full'

Amid a nationwide boom in boat sales during the coronavirus pandemic, new boat registrations in Connecticut nearly doubled in 2020, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Overall, Connecticut saw a declining number of total boat registrations in 2020 for a 14th straight year. But the 10,962 new registrations suggest that more residents across the state turned to outdoor pursuits during the pandemic.

“The overall registration numbers aren’t as good of an indicator of the increased interest in boating as the new vessel registrations are,” stated DEEP spokesperson Will Healey in an email response to a query. “We think that several thousand people did not renew their registration last year because DMV extended the vessel registration expiration date to the end of November when most boats are hauled.”

In some cases, boat dealers like Rex Marine Center in Norwalk are having to expand the lines of brands they offer to keep up with demand — including outboard engines, which were in short supply due to new powerboat models that sometimes utilize several engines.

“Everything is sold out for the next production year ... and there are hardly any used boats available because everybody snapped them up last year,” Rick Delfosse, manager at Rex Marine Center and Norwalk Cove Marina, said. “The docks are completely full. ... I was in the office the other morning and someone was calling — they’ve got a brand new Monte Carlo [yacht], big Italian job. We had to say no, we had no space.”

Connecticut saw big gains in two other major indicators of water activities: boating safety courses, which drew nearly 14,750 people (up nearly 40 percent from 2019), and certifications for the operation of personal watercraft, which surged by half to 11,686.

“I have a good friend who owns a Jet Ski [dealership], ... and they couldn’t keep them in stock last year,” said Dan Mahar, CEO of the Wilton tour and cruise operator Tauck. “They were completely sold out. ... It’s interesting to me that our business was devastated — we pretty much had to shut down for a year — and then you’ve got other businesses that could not keep up with demand, and it’s continuing.”

Connecticut hits the water

The 2019 installment of the Hartford Boat Show at Mohegan Sun, which is among the earliest boat shows in the country in mid-January each year.

The 2019 installment of the Hartford Boat Show at Mohegan Sun, which is among the earliest boat shows in the country in mid-January each year.

File photo courtesy Connecticut Marine Trades Association

In mid-May, the National Marine Manufacturers Association confirmed it will bring back the Progressive Insurance Norwalk Boat Show after a one-year hiatus, scheduling it for Sept. 23-26.

According to NMMA, sales of new powerboats slowed in February from what had been a record pace, while still remaining 34 percent above the levels of February 2020.

On a conference call last month, the CEO of MarineMax said he expects sales trends to extend through this year and beyond. The company has dealerships in Norwalk and New Milford.

“In some cases, people might have a preconceived notion of a boat they really wanted that’s sold out, let’s say for six months to a year,” said MarineMax CEO Brett McGill. “And there’s another boat that meets their needs just as well. And so we’re able to move people to something like that — still a great boat for them.”

Waterfront developers are taking notice. The owner of Noank Shipyard and Seaport Marine in Mystic recently brought the former Direcktor Shipyards facility out of mothballs in Bridgeport.

Now known as Bridgeport Boatworks, the facility will be dominated in the early going by commercial vessel maintenance including a major New York City cruise and ferry operator. But owner Harry Boardsen said he sees an even split down the road for leisure boatyard and marina revenue in Connecticut’s biggest city.

The facility has serviced boats this spring destined for seasonal ports across Long Island Sound in New York, Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and Cape Cod.

“There’s a burgeoning retail market here,” Boardsen said during a tour of the facility last month. “Having the marina here, having the fuel dock here — we’re really trying to put something in that’s new, and sort of redefine Bridgeport in a way.”

Bridgeport Boatworks will add to Connecticut’s options of slips and moorings that exceed well past 21,000 total, according to a Hearst Connecticut Media analysis of vessel slips and moorings listed on Marinas.com, Waterway Guide and individual marina websites. The true number is likely thousands more, given dozens of private yacht clubs and boat yards that do not list their slip counts online.

Boating: not just for locals

A couple examines a Chapparel 21 SSI Ski & Fish model in September 2019 during that year's edition of the Progressive Insurance Norwalk Boat Show, with the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in the annual event's cancellation in 2020.

A couple examines a Chapparel 21 SSI Ski & Fish model in September 2019 during that year’s edition of the Progressive Insurance Norwalk Boat Show, with the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in the annual event’s cancellation in 2020.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

While Stonington tops the Marinas.com and Waterway Guide counts in Connecticut with more than 2,500 slips and moorings, Greenwich and Old Saybrook exceed 1,500 each, while Old Saybrook, Branford, Groton, New London, and Bridgeport are north of the 1,000-slip mark.

Norwalk is well into four-digit territory, too; close to 900 slips are enumerated online, while counts are absent for several more facilities.

Alongside Bridgeport Boatworks, the revived Goodsell Point Marina is among the newest options in Connecticut, opening at the start of May after selling out its full allotment of 80 slips at a bend of the Branford River.

Pablo Arenas, sales and marketing manager for Goodsell Point Marina, said Friday the waiting list for a boat slip is over 300 boat owners.

“It’s not only locals — we have people moving here from New York,” said Arenas. “I just had a guy calling me up from New Jersey — he’s moving to the area and buying a boat. He wanted to know if we had slips available. ... It just keeps going.”

On the opposite bank, Safe Harbor Bruce & Johnson’s — which trails only its sibling marina Safe Harbor Pilots Point in Westbrook with the most slips listed on Marinas.com — entered the Connecticut market with a 2017 acquisition of Brewer Yacht Yard Group.

Last year, Safe Harbor was sold to Sun Communities, which has continued to add to the portfolio with the purchase of marinas on Martha’s Vineyard and in the Florida Keys.

In a late April conference call with investment analysts, Sun Communities CEO Gary Shiffman said he saw a “strong demand, limited supply” in its marina properties this year.

“What we’re seeing is summer marina expectations that are a little bit ahead of ... last year,” Shiffman said “It’s no one thing — just demand, ... escaping the monotony and challenges of the COVID environment, getting out into the fresh air, enjoying being on the boats, on the water.”

Delfosse, the Rex Marine Center manager, noted that some are choosing to do so through boating clubs where they are able to take out vessels for four-hour blocks.

The skipper of the Greenwich, Conn. yacht Eagle steers to windward on a spinnaker run during the Vineyard Race hosted by Stamford Yacht Club, in September 2020.

The skipper of the Greenwich, Conn. yacht Eagle steers to windward on a spinnaker run during the Vineyard Race hosted by Stamford Yacht Club, in September 2020.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

“The Rex Boating Club maxed out with members,” Delfosse said. “They actually bought a couple of new boats which are just coming in — they were ordered last year. ... We are getting people coming completely out of the blue with no experience whatsoever wanting to be boaters, and before we hand them a $70,000 boat, they have a steep learning curve.”

With NMMA reporting more than 320,000 power boats sold last year, the industry eclipsed its prior high water mark in 2010. McGill thinks it is no passing squall of business — and predicts the industry will be able to meet demand.

“I think anybody in the industry is going to tell you that, yes, we see the industry getting back to those levels,” McGill said in April. “Does the industry have the capacity? That’s a good question — I believe it does. I don’t believe there's been that many manufacturers that have gone offline.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman