Boatworks keeping busy
By Holly Smith Peterson
At Swantown Marina the smoke-dark seascape is chock-full of vessels dipping and tilting in the salty winter wind. It's just business as usual at the Port of Olympia.
Boatworks keeping busy in 2011March 7, 2011 Holly Smith Peterson Business Examiner At Swantown Marina the smoke-dark seascape is chock-full of vessels dipping and tilting in the salty winter wind.
And while those cluttered lines of white-bottomed sailboats and yachts along the timber docks might seem surprising to the dozens of joggers and bikers moving along East Bay Drive on an early Saturday afternoon, it’s just business as usual at the Port of Olympia.
In fact, despite rising fuel prices and plummeting personal incomes, it could be even considered good times for the marina.
The 733 boat berths — during the middle of January and February, no less — were at 87 percent capacity.
That contrasts to other marinas throughout the United States, which have seen tenant drops of more than 50 percent during the past year.
“In comparison to the rest of the Northwest, we’re doing really well,” said Bruce Marshall, the Port’s harbor director. “Our occupancy is down 4 percent or 5 percent from seven or eight years ago. But if you look at what’s going on in Florida, where marinas are down 40 percent or more, that’s not bad at all. And in the summer, we can get up to more than 100 percent occupancy by using the guest moorage slips.”
Currently, the vessel mix at Swantown is comprised of roughly half sailboats and half power boats, the latter including some personal yachts and a few commercial vessels.
The bigger the better, too, according to marina workers, who said that the larger the ship, the higher the demand for leasing space.
“We actually have more vacancies in the small ship berths because the owners of smaller boats can pull them out of the water on a trailer for a time, such as for the winter,” Marshall said. “A few large ships haul out. But for the most part, the big boats can’t leave, so they stay here in the water.”
The major reasons for pulling boats out are moving or maintenance. Marshall said no one is moving, because there’s a steady demand for Swantown’s premium space.
Still, he said that despite the seemingly secure occupancy rate, the port isn’t banking on steady business for the coming years.
“What we’ve found out here is that while we’re recession-resistant, we’re not recession-proof,” Marshall said.
One of the contributors to fending off an economic dip is Swantown Boatworks.
With this highly used vessel-repair site, Swantown effectively functions as two separate businesses in one unit: a popular marina where owners also have the opportunity to maintain their boats at their leisure.
The Boatworks crane hauls out 720 to 800 boats a year, some of which are repaired or refurbished by on-site marine companies. Other work is done by private service shops hired by the owners.
“We just haul them out and block, then let private entities handle the repairs,” Marshall said.
With a high rate of long-term tenants, though, Boatworks is a vital component of Swantown’s success. As Marshall said, every vessel will need at least routine maintenance at some point.
“It’s elective, but it’s different for each owner,” he said. “You can maintain your boat slowly or wait until the worst happens and then put in big money. And how long they stay out of the water is gauged on the amount of maintenance and the time it will take. It just depends.”
But the Swantown’s Boatworks business is definitely booming. And on-site Pettit Marine is a particular success story. Last year the company tripled the size of its space and opened a new bay because it had so much business.
“We just couldn’t take it all,” said owner Walt Pettit. “Last year I had to lay people off. We were turning people away because we couldn’t take the work.”
Pettit, who has been in the boatworks business for more than 40 years, said that a major factor limiting boat repairs in the Northwest is winter weather. Without a covered facility, work simply can’t be done.
However, with his company’s expanded and enhanced facility right on the water, Pettit is poised to take on more business during the coming months. And he’s already seen a marked rise in boat bookings.
“This is a service, and service providers in a slow economy have the greatest potential,” Pettit said. “Boats have to be maintained and the older they are, the more maintenance they need. People aren’t taking their boats out these days; instead, they’re deciding to catch up on repairs. And many of the owners are either physically unable to do the repairs or they don’t have the time. This has been an opportunity.”
As for the future at Swantown, whether for the marina or Boatworks, harbor director Marshall had the final word.
“We’re kinda thinking the worst is behind us,” he said. “Business isn’t going back up as fast as it did down. But at least it’s going in the right direction.”
Writer Holly Smith Peterson can be reached at hpeterson@BusinessExaminer.com.