Seas the Day

From manufacturers to marinas, the boating industry is booming in southern Rhode Island

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Back in mid-April, while a few warm days had provided hopeful teasers of the approaching summer, the coastal water temperature was still a frigid 46 degrees. For anyone out on the water, cool sea breezes offered a blunt reminder that it wasn’t quite time for bathing suits and flip flops. Jumping in the ocean for a swim, sun tanning on the bow, and tubing weren’t on the list of viable options for the typical day boater. Yet, despite the cold, West Kingston resident Roberta Ricci already had her 22-foot Boston Whaler motor boat in the water for a few weeks. Her willingness to wear a jacket and winter hat on her summertime vessel came down to one simple reason: “I love the ocean.”

More specifically, Ricci loves the possibilities that ocean cruising in South County brings. From fishing, to visiting Block Island or Jamestown, to teaching her grandchildren how to pilot the boat, she is hooked on the saltwater activities and rich family memories her craft brings. “Every time I go out on that boat, I think ‘we’re so lucky,’” she says, and she’s not alone.

Rhode Island is home to multitudes of local and transient boaters, and the rich nautical culture, endless opportunities, and picturesque views could make anyone feel fortunate. Fishing poles can reel in anything from fluke to black sea bass, the clay cliffs of Mohegan Bluffs make a grand and picturesque display to the passing sailor, and coastal coves offer a calm place to anchor for a picnic and swim. These assets are what make the Ocean State’s boating industry so massive and economically impactful, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Ricci’s boat is docked at Safe Harbor Silver Spring Marina in Wakefield, which is also home to MarineMax – a dealer and resource that helps new boats get out on our waters. MarineMax exists nationwide, with locations in places as far as Florida and Texas, but it is Rhode Island’s incredibly all-season boating that keeps a thriving facility here.

According to Blake Phillips, general manager of MarineMax Rhode Island and Massachusetts, our boating industry is flourishing because Rhode Island simply offers everything. “The truth is Rhode Island boating is some of the best in New England. It’s one of the best from a ‘things to do’ standpoint – from day destinations like Block Island, to excellent fishing, and some amazing waterfront restaurants, there’s no shortage of things for the boater and family – let alone how truly historical every waterfront town is,” he reflects, his enthusiasm for the region evident. Phillips also names shopping, activities for children, and nighttime entertainment as additional advantages, showcasing just how well southern Rhode Island caters to every type of boater. “I’d put Rhode Island as the ultimate destination on a boater’s agenda for anyone on the East Coast.”

It’s no secret, then, why boat dealerships like Wakefield’s MarineMax are booming. While the area’s suitability for boating stimulates marine sales on its own, the pandemic added fuel to the already-burning flame, causing business to skyrocket. When work places were closed, plans were disrupted, and health was put at risk, many began prioritizing a “live in the moment” attitude and embracing the experiences they always dreamed about. For many in South County, that dream experience is having a boat, and the demand for sea vessels has surged as a result. “Our business is off the charts – and we’re in a hiring frenzy to deliver the boating dream to more buyers than ever,” Phillips says, adding, “We’ve had a record month every single month for the last year.” Purchases are booked out for months and inventory is nearly impossible to hold onto. Day boats, like small center consoles, are the most popular purchases because they offer the perks of boating without the hassle and cost of owning a larger vessel. Phillips doesn’t see this inferno of purchasing going away any time soon.

Bill Munger is the founder and owner of Conanicut Marine Services Inc., and owner of Conanicut Marina in Jamestown, which houses visiting boaters who flock to the area in the warmer months. He and his wife began their family-owned business from scratch over 40 years ago, and their growth and success is apparent by their beautiful marina, as well as their ferry, charter, and other services. While local boaters fill moorings and docks, Munger names the transient boaters who come to experience Rhode Island’s summer waters as the “the life” of the area. “It’s the visiting boaters that provide the energy to everything in the state – restaurants, barbershops, you name it.”

The importance of visiting boaters was plainly displayed when sailboat races were cancelled and travel restrictions were put in place last summer. This made it very difficult for out-of-state boaters to stay in Rhode Island, and as Munger explains, “It meant we had empty slips, empty moorings, empty everything.” Fortunately, that situation is looking very different for this year. With travel restrictions eased and people appreciating and buying boats, Munger is seeing his marina’s bookings and slips filling up again for the summer. “We’re seeing a lot of energy in the boating community,” he says.

This energy from both transient and local boaters not only impacts our restaurants and other businesses, as Munger mentions, but it also affects the various jobs and careers behind marine services. In addition to office staff and dockhands, “there are boat riggers, marine technicians, sailmakers, canvas makers, electronics engineers,” Munger says, to name a few of the careers created by boating culture. “The marine industry is very vibrant right now, and there are many, many job openings in the marine industry, particularly in the boatyard aspect of things.” In fact, he says, “Every single marine trade right now has capacity to add skilled labor,” and even inexperienced candidates are being hired and trained on the job.

Another need created by boats in our water relates to environmental health: While it may not be glamorous, pumpout boats and floating restrooms are a necessity when our waters are full of locals and transients. Marine Boatbuilders is a pumpout boat and floating restroom manufacturer based in Warwick, and their products are responsible for keeping our harbors and waterways safe from boat discharge. Rick Audette Jr., vice president, explains how the company began as a way to remedy the pollution issue that kept Block Island’s Great Salt Pond closed for shellfishing in the ‘90s. Audette’s father was an avid Block Island boater, and when he saw how bacteria from boat discharge was harming the pond, he started his company to help clean it up. The state of Rhode Island soon made Block Island a no-discharge zone for boaters, prohibiting vessels from dumping waste in the water, and other zones followed. Today, boaters can’t discharge waste within three miles of the Rhode Island coast, which means these boats need some environmentally safe and sanitary way to get rid of waste.

“I think there’s been an increase over the last few years. There’s definitely more people recognizing that pumping out is the right thing to do. People want to follow the rules and want clean waters,” Audette states. The more pumpout boats available, the more likely it is that boaters will use them, so both the private and public sectors are ordering vessels. In order to keep Rhode Island waters as appealing for boaters as it is, our waters need to be healthy. It’s a system that keeps the manufacturers behind that service alive and well.

Charter fishing enables any landlubber to get out on our waters and enjoy the fishing experience. An added advantage? It makes fishing easy, and oftentimes brings more success than new fishermen could have on their own.

“Where you fish depends on what you’re fishing for. You decide where you’re going to go based on experience,” says Seven B’s Captain Russ Benn, and he offers a wealth of fishing experience to those booking his charters. In addition to having fishing success, Seven B’s prioritizes safety, follows all rules and regulations, and takes the hassle of caring for and cleaning a boat out of the equation. With southern Rhode Island’s fishing reputation and the popularity of getting out on the water, it’s no wonder Capt. Russ Benn has stayed in the business for over 50 years.

Now, it’s summer: The waters have warmed up and boating season is in full swing. Time for sails to march across the horizon line, transients to flock to the area, fish to be caught, and new and old boats to be launched in our waters. It’s not just a seasonal pastime for southern Rhode Island; it’s an integral part of the region’s identity, with a far-reaching impact that brings life and opportunity to so many. 

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