Ray Fernandez runs Bridge Marina on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, the state that, after New York, has so far been the nation’s hardest-hit in the Covid-19 pandemic. When everything started shutting down in March, just ahead of the annual commissioning season for Northeast boaters, Fernandez and his team placed about 2,500 phone calls to Bridge Marina’s clients. Spring had not yet fully sprung in New Jersey, but it was fast approaching, and the clients could see on TV that in other states, boaters were already out on the water having a rip-roaring good time.
And yet, even after a whole winter spent stuck inside, let alone the recent weeks of state-mandated shutdowns and social distancing because of the pandemic, the vast majority of Bridge Marina clients felt cautious about getting back on the water.
“The general consensus, a good 75 to 80 percent, was, ‘Thanks for calling, we want to go boating, but we’re going to wait and see,’” Fernandez says. “Our friends in Florida, Maine and Connecticut, their responses versus ours, it’s night and day. It harkens back to 9/11. Everybody felt it, but here, we really felt it.”
That reality of different regional experiences—in everything from stress and fear levels to government-imposed restrictions and hospitalization curves—is going to permeate boating all around the United States this summer. Experts predict the emergence of Covid-19 hot spots, along with spiking and flattening hospitalization curves, but can’t say for sure when and where the worst situations will arise. Nobody running marinas right now, or taking their boats out on the water, has ever done so amid a pandemic of this nature. Everyone is trying to understand what best practices for safety need to be implemented, and how those practices can, and perhaps should, differ along the East Coast and beyond.
“What’s challenging for marina owners and operators is that they’re under state by state, and locality by locality, different restrictions,” says Eric Kretch, legislative and outreach coordinator for the Association of Marina Industries. “You might see one state with very few restrictions, and then other marinas are under really strict guidelines. It’s a real challenge, and every business is different too.”
New Jersey, because of its high hospitalization and death rates so early on, is likely to serve as an example of how the nation’s strictest marina procedures might look. In Fernandez’s case, the first big test came in early May, when the state saw temperatures inch up to 80 degrees for the first weekend since last summer. If ever a parade of what New Jersey’s governor calls “knuckleheads” were going to appear and ruin boating for everyone, that weekend was likely to be the time. Fernandez tried to get out in front of the situation by clearly communicating the reality boaters would experience when they arrived. There would be no dockhands available to help with lines, he told his clients. Anyone entering the marina property had to wear not only a mask and gloves, but also a life jacket, including while walking on the docks—because no staff would be there to supervise for safety. All payments had to be made online, with no exchanges of cash or credit cards in person. He told clients to bring extra facial coverings, hand sanitizer, and any food and drinks they’d want aboard, because restaurants and stores would remain closed. And he asked every boater to use Apple’s self-assessment tool for personal health, to decide whether to come to the marina at all.
“Then we asked them not to corner other people while parking, don’t socialize on the dock, don’t help other people with lines, always have your mask on until the boat has left the slip,” he says. “On the water, no rafting up, and acting with greater etiquette.”
Every single client followed each instruction without complaint. “They picked up their boats and departed, and that was it,” Fernandez says.
Marina owners and boaters in other states with fewer Covid-19 cases may feel like the Bridge Marina procedures are overkill, but should a hot spot pop up in those states next, the good news is that boaters seem willing to adapt their behavior in order for everyone to continue enjoying the waterways.
“Boaters still want to boat,” Kretch says. “People are engaging with the marinas, wanting to know whether they’re open and, then, what are the new operations being implemented. A lot of boaters expect things to be changing, and they want to get on the water, and they’ll do what it takes to get on the water.”
Early indications are that America’s waterways will be as full as ever this summer, according to Mike Melillo, co-founder and CEO of Dockwa, which works with nearly 1,100 marinas to allow digital slip reservations and more. Dockwa’s data shows that as of April, when states were clamping down with stay-at-home orders, transient bookings dropped about 50 percent nationwide. On the Intracoastal Waterway, they nosedived 90 percent.
But as of early May, transient bookings for June, July and August were still on pace with bookings from the same months last year. One of the top worries boaters expressed was not whether to book a slip, but instead about cancellation policies. Everyone wanted to plan for boating this summer, but also for the, “What if?” that comes with government-imposed shutdowns that could return along with local outbreaks.
“That means people are still looking to use their boats this summer, and it means that marinas need to be very lax on their cancellation policies,” Melillo says. “That’s what cruisers are really concerned about right now.”
Melillo had heard of marina operators as far south as North Carolina removing dockhands from regular operations the way Fernandez did in New Jersey, to protect staff from potentially infected clients. Many marinas were moving to online payment formats, he says, and April was Dockwa’s biggest month ever of requests from marinas to join the company’s online slip-booking system.
“There’s not a lot of cohesive guidance coming from the federal government, so we’re telling people: Just don’t be stupid,” Melillo says. “Assume that all of the same precautions you need to take at a grocery store, you need them at your marina. Have hand sanitizer and masks.”
Some parts of regular marina operations are harder to figure out than others, of course. Fernandez said in early May that he was able to achieve social distancing in his service areas, which can be limited to essential staff, but he had yet to become comfortable enough to reopen the fuel dock. Maybe in a week, he said. Maybe in another week after that.
Melillo says he expects fuel docks and boat ramps to pose the biggest challenges among the public this summer.
“Those are two of the few places where you get a lot of people getting out and congregating and touching things,” Melillo says.
Dockwa is also encouraging marina owners to keep digital records of every boat arrival and departure, even more so than usual. Doing so might help all the boaters who were on the docks on a given day should even one of the boaters turn up positive for Covid-19 later, requiring contact tracing of everyone else who may have been exposed.
“If and when there’s an outbreak, if regulators come in and you can provide supplemental information to them to help limit the exposure, that’s a proactive step you can take to be helpful,” he says.
Another reality that boaters need to think about is whether they are able to handle their boat without help, or if they perhaps need a refresher class. With no dockhands around to assist with lines and fenders, boaters at some marinas will truly be on their own. Some have relied on dockhands for years and may not remember how it feels to be completely do-it-yourself as an owner-operator.
“There are simple things, like having lines ready and fenders out so you won’t need people to help you,” Fernandez says. “Usually, there are four or five dockhands helping people land the boat, tie up the boat and get the cover on. In this environment, we can’t do that. We’re having to educate the boaters and remind them about the things they need to do to be safe boaters.”
Even still, Fernandez says, that first sunny weekend in May, Bridge Harbor’s phone was ringing like crazy with people wanting to get out on the water. The marina offers a boating club for people who aren’t owners, but who want to take out a boat as a rental. He got 10 calls about that program in one day.
“Three of the 10 calls were non-boaters who were thinking that boating was a great way to get out,” he says. “It’s great for social distancing.”
New Jersey is likely a leader in that type of thinking, too, if only because its residents have been stuck at home for longer than residents of states without Covid-19 outbreaks. Where people have been under strict lockdowns, and wherever people understand that there’s a real threat of more lockdowns to come, there is also a true desire to behave properly—whatever that means—to protect the option of going boating at all.
“Everybody is tired of being cooped up in their house,” Melillo says. “We all need to play our part here. You can’t be an ignorant person and throw the rules to the wind. The marina owners are trying to help you, and you need to help them so we can all enjoy this summer out on the water. Local legislators are really paying attention to boating as one of the only ways for people to get outside safely. We want to show them that they are right.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.