LACONIA — As the weather turns from cool to cold, boats make their annual migration from lake to storage, where they nestle down for the winter.
But while many people think of the coming months as the off season for boat dealers and marinas, it is by no means a lull time. From the outside there may not seem to be much happening. But step inside and you will find places humming with activity.
“There’s a whole lot of stuff that goes on during the winter,” says Bruce Wright, president and general manager of Irwin Marine in Laconia.
That activity impacts all parts of the business. In addition to the job of winterizing boats that will spend the winter in cold storage, service personnel will also be doing repair works on boats that need it, the sales staff will be busy making preparations for major boat shows – which rank as the top influence on many attendees' decision to buy – and other employees will be doing maintenance work before the next boating season begins.
Most marinas have heated facilities where boats can be worked on year-round.
The service department at Thurston’s Marina in Weirs Beach has radiant heating in the floor which keeps the building at 66 degrees, warm enough for the technicians to work in their shirtsleeves, said Jeff Thurston, one of the marina’s co-owners. The building is large enough to allow anywhere from 12 to 20 boats to be worked on at the same time, depending on the size of the craft.
In addition, Thurston’s has boat storage racks which are kept accessible throughout the winter, so boats can be easily removed from storage and brought into the heated service center.
At this time of year, mechanics and technicians are working feverishly to winterize boats before sub-freezing temperatures set in.
While some outboard engines can be self-winterized, boats with inboard or stern-drive engines need to be prepared for winter. That, Thurston explains, involves stabilizing the fuel, fogging engine cylinders with an oily mist which prevents corrosion from forming inside the engine, draining water from the engine, and changing the oil to eliminate moisture and prevent corrosion.
Larger boats which have enhanced amenities, like galleys and toilet facilities, need even more extensive winterization, Wright pointed out.
Winter is also when the new models are delivered, and workers spend time prepping those craft to make them ready for sale as soon as customers start coming into the showroom in the spring. In addition, the sales force needs to do the advance work for the late winter boat shows, like the New England Boat Show in Boston, and the Great Northeast Boat Show in Bedford, and then staff the booths at the shows.
Goodhue Boat Co., which owns Goodhue & Hawkins Navy Yard in Wolfeboro and Shep Brown’s Boat Basin in Meredith, will have a presence at between two to five different shows, depending on the year, said Steve Durgan, who works in sales at Goodhue-Hawkins, and who for many years was its general manager. Irwin’s also has a big presence at the Boston and Bedford shows.
Just as technology has meant major changes for a marina’s service staff, it has also brought about big changes on the sales side. The result is more sales occur during the winter than before.
Durgan said roughly 85 percent of Goodhue’s sales originate with a contact through the company’s website which prospective customers are accessing all year-round. That means sales personnel are generating a lot more sales during the winter than before.
And wintertime is when marina workers undergo training meant to keep technicians abreast of the latest changes in engine technology, and to familiarize salespeople with the features of the latest model boats.
Thurston’s has enough business to keep 12 mechanics/technicians working, Thurston said. At Goodhue & Hawkins, the number is 26, according to Durgan. Irwin’s which operates out of four locations, and manages the marina facilities at South Down Shores in Laconia and Mountain View Yacht Club in Gilford, has 70 people on its year-round roster.
The challenge, said Wright, is ensuring that there is plenty of work for all those employees to do.
As Durgan sees it, the current economic climate bodes well for marine dealers. And being a dealer on Winnipesaukee, one of the most desirable lakes in New England, only adds to the optimism.