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Boat dealers hit rough waters with high demand, short supplies

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Dale Runyon

Dale Runyon, owner of Bayside Marina and Yacht Club, searches for a malfunction in an engine by connecting it to a computer.

While cooling temperatures have slowed boating activity on Smith Mountain Lake, demand continues to be red hot in the industry. New and used boats and even boat parts are in short supply which is impacting boat dealers not only locally, but nationwide.

Popularity for new and used boats shot up during the start of the pandemic last year. Dale Runyon, owner of Bayside Marina and Yacht Club, had trouble keeping up with demand in 2020 with most of his stock of new boats being sold before they even arrived at Smith Mountain Lake.

In 2021, the supply of new boats during the summer boating season continued to be limited. Runyon said Bayside Marina, like other area boat dealers, was given a smaller allotment of boats this year due to a limited supply. His allotment was just a third of what it has been in previous years.

Scott Reynolds, owner of Smith Mountain Boats, has had a similar experience. He usually has between 40 or 50 boats on his lot this time of year. Late last year, he only had five boats.

“Here lately things are getting pretty tight,” Reynolds said.

If someone comes into the dealership to order a boat, Reynolds said it could take between four and seven months for it to arrive due to low supply and high demand. Before 2020, it was less than ten weeks.

The high demand has also increased the average price of a boat by 10 to 15%.

“It’s frustrating for sure,” Reynolds said.

The availability of boat parts has also been impacted by growing popularity. The problem was compounded this year by a nationwide supply chain issues. Runyon said parts he has ordered from overseas are currently stuck in backed up ports waiting to be offloaded.

Repairs that usually took only days, now take months as mechanics wait on parts. Runyon said dealers used to give him an estimated date when parts would arrive that he could tell customers. Supplies are so backed up on some parts that dealers don’t even provide a date anymore.

“That’s hard for us to tell a customer,” Runyon said. “It’s not how we like to do business.”

One local organization feeling the crunch of those supply chain issues is the Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire Department. Briefly in November, the department had three of its boats in need of service and awaiting parts.

“It was terrifying,” Chief Todd Ohlerich said of the three boats briefly being down.

When the needed parts were not readily available, Ohlerich said he made the decision to scrap parts off one of the boats to fix issues with the other two and get them back in service. He said it was a decision he never imagined he would have to make, but felt he had no other options to make boats available when parts were estimated to take months to arrive.

Runyon was tasked with changing the necessary parts between the three boats to get two of them running. He said it was something he never expected he would have to do.

The challenge Ohlerich later faced was finding a replacement lower unit for an outboard motor on the last boat still in need of repair. He said the unit is impossible to find and Yamaha is not providing information on when the part may be available.

While activity at the lake has slowed down, Ohlerich said he wants to have his full fleet available as soon as possible. He said the remaining eight boats have been strategically placed around the lake to assure there is no disruption in service.

Ohlerich has even gone so far as to look at purchasing a new outboard motor in an effort to get the boat up and running faster, but Yamaha currently estimates a new outboard motor could take as long as 18 months to arrive. He said the current motor has had more than a decade of heavy use responding to calls on the lake and is likely nearing the end of its lifespan anyway.

Ohlerich said he is even considering a last resort of purchasing a outboard motor from Mercury to get the boat back in service faster, which would be an even greater expense. The issue is that he would have to then replace both outboard motors on the boat which would double the cost as well as replace the boats controls and gauges to fit the new motors.

Two new motors and new gauges could cost somewhere close to $100,000, Ohlerich said. It is a big difference from the estimated $6,000 cost of a new lower unit, but he said he wants to do what he can to get a lifesaving fire boat back in service as quickly as possible.

“I’m done waiting,” Ohlerich said. “At some point you have to cut your losses.”

The supply crunch is showing no signs of letting up. Reynolds said demand for new boats is still high and he doesn’t expect it to slow down anytime soon.

Runyon also sees the issues continuing into next year and the foreseeable future. “I think its going to linger for quite a while.”

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