Nautical distancing: the pandemic is boosting boat rental activity

Boat rental operations in Maine saw a surge in demand this summer as more customers looked for ways to enjoy the outdoors without being around other people.

“I’ve booked everything,” said Shane Ellis of Ellis Boat Co. in Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island.

Ellis has a fleet of 10 cruising powerboats, ranging from 28 to 40 feet in length, which can be chartered by the week.

Its season generally runs from June to September, with most guests arriving in July and August. This year, the season was sold out at the start of 2020. Initially, bookings evaporated with the onset of the pandemic.

“I sent everyone’s money back,” he said. “Everyone was scared they couldn’t get here, so I went from being booked to not being booked at all.”

But when Governor Janet Mills released the state’s economic reopening plan, reservations started to come in again.

“I’ve rebooked everything with different clients,” he said. Many wanted to leave the city. “With the exception of losing mid-June to mid-July, the business has been busier than previous seasons, except it’s a later season.”

Zoom meetings on board

For some, boat rentals have created a floating office – complete with beautiful scenery and built-in social distancing.

“It was definitely what people needed,” Ellis said. “Some people came with their laptops. They asked: ‘Can I have wifi?’ They brought their work with them, taking calls and doing Zoom meetings on their boats.

At Mansell Boat Rental Co., also in Southwest Harbor, owner Chuck Watson had one of his best years for renting sailboats and powerboats.

“After the state opened on about July 2, we saw a flood of people who wanted to be at sea,” Watson said by email.

Kayak Excursions in Kennebunkport, which rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and bikes from mid-June to early September, had a slow start to the season. The business depends on Canadian customers and has been hit hard by the closure of the Canada-U.S. border, owner Stefan Kuenzel said.

Things started looking up when the state instituted testing and quarantine exemptions for Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

“It was last minute,” he said. “We started to see more bookings. It went from very slow to slightly above normal.

He added: “Kayaking, paddleboarding and biking are naturally socially distant. You get the full experience without exposing yourself to a lot of risk.

Port Harbor Marine, headquartered in South Portland, has seen a huge uptick. Among the company’s offerings are boat rentals and a members boating club that offers a variety of boats for its members to use on the water. Port Harbor also offers boat sales, service, storage and a marina.

Yacht club activity was up 28% from a year ago and rentals were up 60% from a year ago, company president Rob Soucy said.

“We are seeing a big increase in interest in boating in general,” he said. “Since the beginning of May, it’s been a summer like you’ve never seen before.”

The customers included more Maine residents than usual, including more young people. as well as more women joining the yacht club. Some customers were new to boating or had sailed at some point in their lives and decided to get back into it.

“People weren’t traveling or taking vacations,” he said. “They had saved their money to do these activities and they turned it into buying a boat or renting a boat.”

He added: “You are on the outside, you control who you are with, you control your environment. We called it “nautical distance”.


Watson said he’s seen a big increase in people who want to be at sea but don’t have the knowledge or experience to do so. For example, one day he received 17 calls within hours for potential bookings and had to turn 16 down because they had no experience driving a boat on their own.

Watson and others offer the services of licensed captains to accompany any boat.

“I check my customers well in advance, so I haven’t had any accidents or breakdowns,” Ellis said. “A few people came here with a little less sailing experience, so we put them with captains. It helps that I have 36ft boats and anyone who isn’t a boater will be really scared to get on a boat that big” without a captain.

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