Pandemic brings rising tide of boat sales to Bay Area

With double-digit unemployment and shelter-in-place restrictions keeping potential clients at home, Bay Area yacht broker Geli Burgin was certain 2020 would be a bad summer for the boat industry.

And it started that way – in March, at the start of the shutdown, the Burgin Boat Dealer Group only had two vessels under contract. “We were sure that boat sales would increase,” she said. “Who buys a boat during a pandemic? “

It turns out that a lot of people want to buy a boat during a pandemic. Two months later his company, Atomic Tuna Yachts, which has offices in Alameda and Tiburon, is the most active in years. In the past few weeks, the brokerage has 11 yachts under contract, with more in negotiations.

And Atomic Tuna isn’t the only booming boat business in the Bay Area. As social distancing on the trails and concern over air travel persist, residents are increasingly turning to boating as a sure way to avoid a summer of sitting at home.

Richardson Bay Harbor Master Curtis Havel said he had seen a 15% increase in the number of “weekend warriors” anchored in the bay, arriving mostly Thursday or Friday and staying until Sunday.

The GetMyBoat app – think Airbnb, but for boat rentals – saw bookings more than double from a year ago and recorded consecutive record days over Memorial Day weekend.

“Last week we saw a crazy rebound,” said Val Streif, who heads marketing for GetMyBoat. “A lot of people are booking for the end of the summer. They realize that their travel plans are canceled and now they can reallocate that money to something else. “

John-Michael Donahue, communications manager for the National Marine Manufacturing Association, said coronavirus closures are causing renewed interest in boating. In April the group’s website,, saw a 44% increase in the number of visitors compared to this month of last year, and in May visits were up 128% compared to last year.

“There are a lot of newbies out there trying to figure out how they can get out on the water,” Donahue said. “The good news is that boating is open in the United States and is going to stay open because it’s a great outdoor recreational activity that you can enjoy while respecting social distancing.”

Again and again, potential boat buyers are talking about canceled plans, scuttled trips, vacation rentals that are no longer achievable due to the coronavirus, Burgin said. “There are no events, no games, no concerts, no cruises, and people aren’t comfortable getting on a plane,” she said.

A couple who bought him a catamaran had rented a beach house in Cuba for a month this summer.

“They called and said, ‘We were supposed to be in Cuba, but we want to buy a boat instead,'” she said. “Three weeks later, I sold them a boat.

San Francisco yacht broker Don Margraf said high-end boats are doing well. “I have one under contract for $ 64,000, one for $ 110,000 and one for $ 247,000,” he said. “As a company, we have over 100 boats under contract and several over a million dollars. We are on par, which is incredible considering that many ports around the world are closed. “

While boat dealers and shipyards are busy, some marinas are still closed to the public and rental companies are not yet cleared to restart.

A fisherman in Richardson Bay where boating increased during the coronavirus outbreak on May 30, 2020 in Sausalito, California.Kate Munsch / Special for The Chronicle

At Oyster Point in southern San Francisco, the fish pier, boat ramp and restaurant reopened on May 22, according to harbor master Jim Merlo. Boaters must socially distance themselves and wear masks on the pier. He said the marina has been exceptionally busy since it reopened. Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay is still closed, although people who rent slips there can use them. “We get a lot of calls to find out when the launch pad is going to reopen,” Deputy Harbor Master Adam Bloomer said.

Captain Tim Valka operates a 44 foot trawler in Sausalito. Valka, who uses the GetMyBoat app, said the number of inquiries was large, but the sanitary order in place in Marin County does not yet allow charter boat trips. “We can’t legally reopen until the county says so,” he said. “I haven’t made a reservation yet because I don’t want to take the plunge.”

With his charter business currently docked, he is busy working on other people’s boats – as a diver, he cleans the hulls and replaces the zincs, the anodes that protect the metal part of the boats from corrosion. . This trade is more important than usual because boat owners have more time to use their boats.

“I have noticed that a lot more people are working on their boats, cleaning them, getting them ready for use,” he said. “And on Friday afternoon there are a lot more people sitting on the back decks of their boats having a beer, trying to get out of the house.”

Havel feared that rising unemployment from the coronavirus would force more people to join the ranks of “anchors” – the collection of motley ships, many of which are not seaworthy, that anchor in the bay. This has happened a bit – the “anchorages” community has grown from around 115 to 130, but it is still well below the 190 boats anchored in July 2019.

Merlo said the number of live-aboards at Oyster Point has remained constant. About 80 people are on a waiting list at the marina where they limit full-time residents to 10% of slips. The waiting list is about five years.

So far, most boaters entering Richardson Bay don’t stay longer than 72 hours, Havel said. Boaters can also get a free 30-day mooring permit, although the vessel must first be inspected. So far, boaters have not sought to stay more than a few days.

“They come here and find that not much is open to Sausalito,” he said.

JK Dineen is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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