Making A Splash: Local marinas talk pandemic-era spike in boating demand, waitlists for slips, plans for 2022

Has boating ever been more popular?

It’s a reasonable question to ask if you take a look at recent market trends, which show the pandemic as the inciting incident that sent boat sales into overdrive. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), sales of boats and related marine products or services in the United States spiked 9% in 2020 to $47 billion.

That number was a 13-year high for the industry, and while things slowed a tad in 2021 – preliminary NMMA numbers show last year’s boat sales 4-6% behind where they were in 2020 – consumer interest in boating remains at a near-record high. The NMMA is even predicting that this year will top last in terms of boat sales by up to 3%.

If you need proof that boating popularity and demand are spectacularly high, look no further than northern Michigan’s marinas, where waitlists for dock slips are typically hundreds of names long – and where wait times can stretch on for more than a decade.

Long waits aren’t necessarily new for northern Michigan marinas. Few regions are blessed with so much for boaters to explore, and all that water has always either drawn boat enthusiasts to the area or turned existing residents into die-hard boaters.

But even for the experts who know how much northern Michiganders have traditionally loved their boating, the past few years and the demand they’ve brought have been a surprise.

“Without a doubt, boating is becoming more popular,” said Mike Singleton, harbormaster for Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor in Elk Rapids. “Especially when the pandemic happened, it was like people needed to get out of the house and go somewhere with the family, because they were probably just going stir crazy staring at the wall.”

And while some businesses may have struggled through the past two years, Singleton says that wasn’t the case for the marine industry.

“I know a lot of businesses have been struggling with the pandemic, but I think the marine industry really saw a benefit from it, because people felt it was safer to be on a boat with their family and to do those activities,” he said. “I think it really set us up (to thrive), and revenue-wise, we have been doing really well.”

So, what are your chances of scoring a boat slip at a local harbor for docking your boat? Ahead of the summer 2022 boating season, we touched base with eight local marinas to learn about their waitlists, their new developments for this year, and their immediate openings (if any exist).

Duncan L. Clinch Marina, Downtown Traverse City

What’s new: According to Shane Dilloway, dockmaster for the City of Traverse City-owned Duncan L. Clinch Marina, the big project on the docket for the 2022 boating season is a foundational reinforcement of the harbormaster’s building, with cosmetic updates to follow.

Number of slips: Clinch has 119 slips, 71 of which are seasonal and 48 of which are set aside as transient slips. The marina also includes approximately 1,000 feet of dock along the break wall, which can also be used for transient/short-term docking purposes. Dilloway says the slips are divided among seven sizes, or types. All told, the marina’s slip numbers break down as follows: 28 Type 1 slips (24 feet); 15 Type 2 slips (27 feet); 13 Type 3 slips (30 feet); 27 Type 4 slips (35 feet); 14 Type 5 slips (42 feet); nine Type 6 slips (50 feet); and 13 Type 7 slips (60 feet).

Longest waitlist: Dilloway says waitlists for the marina’s 71 season slips are split proportionally among the seven slip types. In total, Duncan L. Clinch Marina has 297 applicants across its seven waitlists. The longest of those lists is for the 42-foot Type 5 slip, which is 65 names long and has an estimated wait time of 11 years. Dilloway also estimates an 11-year wait for the 50-foot Type 6 slip type. The shortest waitlist is for the 24-foot Type 1 slip, which boasts 27 applicants and an estimated wait time of four years. Wait times for the other four slip types range from five to eight years.

Immediate openings: While 2022 seasonal slips are full, Clinch offers significant opportunities for transient boaters to dock their boats for several weeks at a time.

“For our transient boaters, we utilize the Michigan DNR central reservation system, which allows transient boaters to book one of our 48 reservation slips up to six months in advance for a maximum two-week stay,” Dilloway explained.

The marina’s breakwall space is non-reservable and operates on a first-come, first-served basis, Dilloway says. In addition, nightly rates for transient boaters are calculated based on overall vessel length and determined by the city commission from a list provided by the Michigan Waterways Commission.

East Bay Harbor Marina, East Bay Township

What’s new: According to Harbormaster Derek Becker, privately-owned East Bay Harbor Marina is entering year three of a three-year dock renovation project. That project includes reengineering docks with steel I-beams, new decking across the entire marina, as well as plumbing and electrical upgrades.

The marina has also recently acquired nearby properties to expand its private shoreline property by 65%; that shoreline can be used exclusively by the marina community. Finally, East Bay has added a new on-site boat rental company, called East Bay Boat Co., to meet the boating demand for people who don’t own their own vessels.

Number of slips: East Bay Harbor is home to 72 boat slips, which range from 24-75 feet in length. All slips are used as long-term rentals, though Becker says the harbor can offer occasional short-term overnight rentals upon availability.

Longest waitlist: Heading into the 2022 boating season, Becker says East Bay Harbor Marina has a growing waitlist of 150-plus people, with the wait time being three-plus years. Wait times tend to fluctuate depending on boat size, with smaller slips having higher turnover rates and larger ones changing hands less often.

Immediate openings: “Due to our high-volume waitlist, we do not currently have any immediate openings at East Bay Harbor Marina,” Becker said. But there are openings at East Bay Harbor Company’s nearby marina, the East Shore Marina in Frankfort, for the 2022 season. East Shore Marina has also undergone a major renovation project with a full-dock reconstruction, among many other upgrades, Becker says.

Elmwood Township Marina

What’s new: Elmwood Township Marina did not respond to the TCBN’s request for comment regarding updates or new developments for the 2022 boating season.

Number of slips: The Elmwood marina has 171 dock slips, with 21 of them set aside as transient slips and the other 150 intended for seasonal use. Slip lengths are 30 feet, 35 feet, 38 feet and 40 feet. Additionally, the marina has 17 boat moorings inside the harbor and 11 moorings outside.

Longest waitlist: The Elmwood Township Marina website indicates a 222-name waitlist for a slip, as of July 5, 2021. Wait times are estimated at three to five years. Waitlist applications can be found on the marina’s website.

Immediate availability: All of Elmwood’s seasonal slips are booked for the 2022 season, but the 21 transient slips are available for boaters just visiting the marina for a few hours or days at a time.

Harbor West Yacht Club, Traverse City

What’s new: According to Commodore Scott Gignilliat, Harbor West Yacht Club is unique from numerous other marinas in and around Traverse City in that all slips are privately-owned. Boaters own a deed to the bottomlands where their slips are located, and a condo association owns and maintains the docks thanks to a quarterly fee billed to all owners.

Though Gignilliat admits that marina infrastructure was somewhat neglected prior to COVID, the recent boom in boating interest has reinvigorated Harbor West’s capital improvement projects. Recently, the condo association levied a special assessment to fund a new water bubbler system, which keeps the docks from freezing during the winter. With that system now in place, Gignilliat says Harbor West will be turning its attention to a comprehensive replacement of existing docks, which should happen in the next 24 months.

Number of slips: Harbor West has 158 slips, most of which range in size from 30-50 feet, though Gignilliat notes there is also one 70-foot slip. All slips are privately-owned, which means rentals only come up when slip-holders decide not to use their slips for the season.

Longest waitlist: The policy at Harbor West, Gignilliat explains, is to maintain a list of names and numbers for people looking to rent or buy a slip throughout a season. At the end of the season, though, the condo association will “throw out the list and start over again in the spring,” to avoid keeping people on the list if they’ve found slips elsewhere.

Last season, that waitlist reached 75-100 names, with most of those people never getting a call.

“If we hear somebody in the marina is looking to rent or sell, we pass a name on; that’s all we do,” Gignilliat said, adding that, in many cases, owners at the marina will end up renting or selling to someone they know personally, rather than going through the marina waitlist.

Immediate availability: At the moment, there is zero immediate availability at Harbor West.

“Pre-COVID, I would say 60-70% of our slips were owner-occupied, and the rest were rentals,” Gignilliat said. “So, a person would own the slip and rent it out, kind of like it was a rental property. Now, we’re probably sitting around 85-90% owner-occupied. Most people are now boating regularly and there’s very few slips for rent.”

Sales come up more often, in part because older boaters who have been at the marina for years are seeing the potential to make a lot of money from a hot market. Still, Gignilliat says most slips aren’t on the market for more than a week – not unlike houses in desirable parts of Traverse City.

CenterPointe Marina, Traverse City

What’s new: According to Bernice Widrig, CenterPointe’s administrative manager, the marina has invested in numerous upgrades to the amenities at its complex, including three shower rooms for boaters to use, an updated laundry room, new power pedestals on slips, one new 40-foot floating dock, and an upgraded Wi-Fi network. Those upgrades join an already extensive list of amenities available at the CenterPointe complex, including a fitness room, an outdoor patio space and winter boat storage options.

Number of slips: Centerpointe has 72 slips, ranging from 25 feet up to 150 feet.

Longest wait list: Per Widrig, the marina’s wait list is three years or longer on any slip size.

Immediate availability: There are currently no openings at CenterPoint for the upcoming summer season. CenterPointe is also unique from other local marinas in that it is both an office building and a marina complex. The complex boasts multiple marine-related businesses – including yacht sales companies, fishing charters, power boat and sailboat charters, and a sailboat school – as well as other office tenants. Widrig notes that tenants in the building have first choice at a slip when they become available.

Bowers Harbor Yacht Club, Old Mission Peninsula

What’s new: “We’ve replaced all of the docks over the last five years, so everything’s new at Bowers Harbor,” said John Roth, the marina’s harbormaster. “One thing that we have that some marinas don’t have yet is a ground fault electrical system.”

Ground fault electrical protection is important for marinas, Roth explains, because it reduces the risk of electrical feeds throughout a harbor electrifying the water around the docks, which can in turn lead to electric shock drowning – a common, tragic phenomenon near marinas.

Number of slips: Bowers Harbor has 50 slips in total: two 55-foot slips and 24 slips apiece in the 30- and 40-foot categories.

Longest waitlist: Similar to Harbor West Yacht Club, Bowers Harbor Yacht Club is a private marina, which means most of the slips are privately-owned. Unlike Harbor West, though, Roth says Bowers Harbor does have seasonal rental slips.

All dock types are booked out for the 2022 season, with waitlists about 20 names deep for both the 30- and 40-foot slips. Because more boaters have been looking to buy slips, Bowers only has about six slips up for rent in any given season. Renters from the previous season get first dibs on rental slips for the new season, and turnover is virtually nonexistent, Roth says.

“If we change over one boater per season, that’s pretty normal,” Roth said. “If two boaters changed over, that would really be quite a change for a year. So, unfortunately for all those people coming into the boating industry right now, there’s not a lot of availability at our harbor.”

Immediate availability: Years ago, Roth says, it wasn’t uncommon for boaters who docked their vessels at Bowers Harbor to plot summer boating trips that took them away from the marina for significant chunks of time.

“We had several owners that would take month-long boat trips in the summer, opening up slips for potential transient boaters to dock for a night or two, or maybe for a week,” he said.

Those temporary docking opportunities are harder to come by now, and Roth thinks it’s because boating habits have changed.

“Not a lot of people are taking long trips, he said. “They may go a day to Suttons Bay, or Northport, or Charlevoix, or Elk Rapids.”

Instead, most boaters head out for shorter cruises around West Bay and are back in their slips by dusk. That means the marina stays full, with limited options for transient boaters.

Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor, Elk Rapids

What’s new: Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor, owned and operated by the Village of Elk Rapids, has a long list of new developments on tap for this season and beyond.

The most important one, according to Harbormaster Mike Singleton, is adjusting the dock heights. Unlike some other marinas in the area, Edward C. Grace has fixed docks, which means they don’t rise and fall with the lake levels. Instead, marina staff have to raise and lower every single dock manually when lake levels fluctuate.

With Lake Michigan levels receding after high water years in 2019, 2020 and 2021, Singleton is anticipating a need for significantly lower docks this year. On a similar note, the marina will need to dredge its harbor entrance to make sure that it is deep enough to accommodate bigger vessels. Longer term, Singleton says the marina is looking to add a new pergola performance space, which will host live bands, plays, outdoor movies and other events.

Number of slips: In total, Edward C. Grace has 265 slips, of which 213 are part of the marina’s lower harbor, which offers access to Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay. The remaining 52 are on the Elk Lake side, in the upper harbor. Lower harbor slips range in size from 25-70 feet, with the most common slip size clustering in the 30-38-foot range. All slips in the upper harbor are 25 feet in length or shorter. The smaller slip size is mostly by necessity: To get to Elk Lake and the upper harbor, boats must pass under the US-31 bridge.

Longest waitlist: Of the 213 slips at Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor, all 52 on Elk Lake and 100 or so of the lower harbor slips are seasonal rentals. Those slips are all booked for the 2022 season, with wait times varying depending on harbor and length. Upper harbor slips, Singleton notes, tend to be a little less in demand, with waitlist times typically landing in four- to six-year range. In the lower harbor, Singleton says that smaller slips “seem to come and go more often” and estimated the wait time at five to six years.

“Any boat that’s greater than 38 feet, though, is probably somewhere between eight and 10 years,” he added.

Immediate availability: Any immediate availability at Edward C. Grace is clustered in the 100-plus transient slips in the lower harbor. And while those slips occasionally see boaters who have made treks from nearby areas like Traverse City and Charlevoix, Singleton notes they tend to be populated by boats that have made much longer journeys.

“We get them from everywhere,” he said. “We get them from Wisconsin, Illinois, Canada (when the border is open) – you name it. There’s Yoopers docking here, and even people who go all the way down the Mississippi River, shoot out of New Orleans, go to the Caribbean, and then come back up through New York and work their way back.”

Luhrs Landing, Torch Lake

What’s new: According to Luhrs Landing Owner Bruce Casey, the marina’s big development this season is a 40% increase in the size of the business’s rental fleet, which is expanding from 12 boats to 17. Casey says the expansion is a direct response to the growing interest for boating and other outdoor activities that’s been impacting northern Michigan since the start of COVID.

“There’s only 52 boats available to rent on Torch Lake and there’s just a lot more people coming up,” Casey noted of the need for more rental capacity.

Number of slips: Luhrs Landing has 45 slips, all of them the same size and capable of accommodating vessels of up to 30 feet in length. All those slips are set aside for full-season rentals, with no transient docks available at Luhrs Landing. While Casey said that increased demand and boating traffic in northern Michigan have caused a lot of marinas in the area to raise their prices from $2,500 last year to $5,000 this year, he told the TCBN that Luhrs is keeping its rates at $2,500 per slip rental for the full 2022 season.

Waitlist: At the moment, Casey estimates that Luhrs Landing has a seasonal slip waitlist that about 70-80 names deep. Turnover on those slips is low enough that he’s not sure what the likely wait time is, other than to say, “People don’t give them up very often.”

Immediate availability: There are no transient slips available at Luhrs Landing and no seasonal slips that are currently vacant or available to rent for the 2022 season.

 

A New Marina

If you’re hunting for a boat slip on Grand Traverse Bay, there’s good news: More capacity is on the way.

Last fall, a developer by the name of Pat Johnson brought a proposal before the Elmwood Township Planning Commission to build a new 64-slip marina off M-22, just south of Discovery Pier. The new harbor, called West Shore Marina, is planned to include 64 slips ranging in length from 25-68 feet. Johnson’s plan also calls for a renovation of an on-premises house into an office and bathhouse, as well as the development of a marina parking lot on the other side of M-22.

If this project sounds familiar, that’s because Johnson previously brought the concept before Elmwood Township – and got approved – in 2019. That version of the undertaking later stalled out due to COVID-19. The original design would have included both a marina and a 146-room hotel on the other side of M-22. Johnson has expressed interest in pursuing the hotel portion of the development at a later date, but is focusing on the marina for now.

In January, the Elmwood Township Planning Commission approved Johnson’s special use permit request – albeit, with several conditions. Specifically, Johnson and his partners must meet all Elmwood Township zoning requirements, obtain relevant permits from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), conform to requirements laid forth in a project plan review by Elmwood Township Fire Chief Keith Tampa, and  provide the township with updated information about the project (including timeline, legal descriptions, and more) as those details becomes available. Johnson must meet these requirements before seeking a land use permit from the township.

Provided that Johnson can get necessary permits from MDOT, EGLE, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers – and provided that he meets the other conditions set forth by the Elmwood Township Planning Commission – the West Shore Marina project could commence construction as early as this spring. At earliest, though, slips likely wouldn’t be available until the 2023 boating season.

A Big Boat 

What are the biggest boats to dock at northern Michigan marinas – either seasonally or on a temporary basis?

Unfortunately, most harbors in the area said they weren’t able to disclose specific information about their boaters or the vessels that dock with them. Speaking about the boating season to come, though, Mike Singleton – harbormaster for the Elk Rapids-owned Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor – pointed to one particular yacht as the “big-ticket item” bound for the marina’s docks this year.

That boat is called “Ziggy,” and it’s a motor yacht from the Taiwanese boat maker Ocean Alexander that will be making harbor at Edward C. Grace this June as part of a regatta event. That regatta will host “right around 30 boats” from Ohio, per Singleton, and the Ziggy “mega yacht” is the biggest and grandest of all.

Just how big are we talking? According to Super Yacht Times, Ziggy is 35.6 meters long, which equates to about 116.8 feet – more than 40 feet longer than Edward C. Grace’s longest dock slip. The boat has a gross tonnage just under 300 GT, boasts enough space to accommodate 10 guests and five crew, and is capable of carrying 5,151 gallons of fuel on board and 600 gallons of water. All told, the Ziggy ranks 3,045th on the list of the world’s largest yachts, though it is the sixth largest yacht ever built by the Ocean Alexander company.

Singleton noted that Ziggy is making the voyage to northern Michigan fresh off an unveiling (and a “Best of Show” victory) at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which itself is described by the publication Boating Industry as “the world’s largest in-water boat show.” The boat has drawn attention in part because of its glass-heavy design, which brings extensive natural interior lighting to every deck of the vessel. That natural light helps allow for luxurious spaces throughout the boat, with impressive views from the lounges, bedrooms, dining area, and more.

Going to market at the Ocean Alexander 35R, pricing for the Ziggy hasn’t been announced yet – at least not publicly – but industry experts have estimated a price tag around $14 million. Luckily, you can see the boat in northern Michigan without spending that much cash: Singleton said it will be arriving in Elk Rapids “around the 10th of June.”

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