NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Available boat slip and storage opportunities are next to non-existent along the New Hanover County coastline.
The shortage has prompted frantic deals, with people overpaying for the few slips and storage spots left. Some are willing to fork over close to a mortgage payment just to access a slice of the water.
Marinas across town are fully booked, with many abandoning years-long waiting lists. Dockmasters credit the pandemic and growth in the region for the explosion of interest.
Tripp Brice, 37-year dockmaster at Bridge Tender Marina, said interest has quadrupled this year. “You get 30 to 50 phone calls a day,” he said. “Of all sizes — I’m talking about from 15-foot to 200-foot.”
For boats 30 feet and under, Brice estimates there are 2,500 to 3,000 people looking for storage; for over 30 feet, there’s another 1,500 to 2,000 looking.
Brice doesn’t bother with a waitlist. “I threw it in the trash a good 10 years ago,” he said. “I looked at it and said, why am I even doing this? I’m going to die before I can complete this list.”
At Masonboro Yacht Club and Marina down Trails End Road, dockmaster David Christopher also stopped taking names on his two-year waitlist: “I don’t even put anybody else on it because there’s just no reason to.”
Christopher said renters are paying 40% to 50% more for a slip compared to pre-pandemic rates — “they are willing to pay tomorrow and it really doesn’t matter how much it costs.”
He recently had to get in touch with his website developer to scrap outdated pricing from the marina’s website; its slips are owned by individuals, who can choose to rent them out at a price they determine.
“I have a 28-foot dry slip that rented for $700 a month, which is just totally unheard of. The customer paid cash upfront and didn’t even blink an eye. Usually that slip will rent for $475 a month. Maybe $500,” he said. “People are desperate.”
Fuel consumption for Christopher’s forklift, used to transfer members’ boats to and from dry storage stacks and the water, has doubled since 2019. “I could build 100 more slips right now and I could fill ’em,” he said. “But I don’t have anywhere to park the cars.”
He attributes this season’s peaking demand to population growth and spillover from a pandemic-related boost. “It’s always been busy, but in the last year, it’s exploded,” he said. “What better place to be than on the water for social distancing?”
After 24 years at the marina, Christopher has “never seen anything like it.” Showrooms in town are empty, he said. If you can find a boat on display, some lack motors. Supply chains industry-wide are struggling to keep up with demand.
Recently, he started warning people: “[L]ook, before you buy a boat, you need to find a place to put it. Because there’s not enough public boat access. It’s harder to find a slip than it is to find a boat. And it’s difficult to find a boat right now too.”
But it’s a great time to sell an old beater.
“People are selling their used boats for what they paid for them,” he said. “That’s unheard of. That’s never been done in the history of mankind. It’s mind-boggling.”
Wholesale shipments of new powerboats were up 23% in February compared to the year prior, and 9% compared to 2019, according to the latest data available from the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Last year, more than 310,000 new powerboats were sold nationwide, reaching pre-Great Recession levels.
Kathy Raines, office manager at Bradley Creek Marina, likens the swell in interest to the pandemic-induced boom in bicycles, camping equipment, or “anything that’s got to do with outdoors.”
A 22-foot slip at Bradley Creek recently sold for $125,000. “That’s just a crazy amount compared to what it was three years ago, which was $80,000, $85,000,” she said.
As the office manager, all storage or slip-related calls get routed to Raines’ desk. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook for people trying to find slips and there’s nothing left,” she said. “We’re not the only ones — every marina in this town is in the same boat.”
She recently updated the marina’s voicemail that informs callers all wet and dry storage is 100% booked, has a two-year waitlist for 22-foot rentals, and isn’t taking any new names. The voicemail helped cut down on inquiries, she said, which still come in steady, at 10 calls a day.
The surge is more than a year in the making, Raines explained. “It was like Fourth-of-July-weekend busy for us last year,” she said. “We had to increase hours for our dock staff to accommodate later hours.”
Once people realized there was nothing in town left to rent for wet or dry storage, Raines said they started purchasing slips, and now “we have nothing left to purchase,” except for a 55-foot and 65-foot slip.
Demand has led to creative desperation. “I even actually had somebody that rented a 55-foot boat slip to put a 24-foot boat in it,” she said. “So a 24-foot dry slip would actually rent for $6,500 [a year]. Now they’re paying $12,000.”
Boat-sharing on the rise
The slip and storage rental shortage has contributed to the rise of a boat-sharing service, the Freedom Boat Club, according to local franchise owner Zach Hollenbaugh.
In October 2019, Hollenbaugh and his wife launched the service at the Carolina Beach Yacht Club and Marina, which allows members to book morning, afternoon, or all-day boat use from an app.
At nearly 200 members, “we are about to hit our five-year target this month,” Hollenbaugh said. “We’ve been blown away by how many folks have jumped on board.”
Members pay an upfront entry fee and a monthly charge to use the service on either a weekday or weekly basis. For weekly membership, there’s a $7,500 joining fee and $499 monthly cost, with deals and promotions offered periodically.
With seven styles to choose from, members can book a pontoon or go deep-sea fishing. Four times a year, members can use any of the company’s 270 other locations. This weekend, Hollenbaugh is opening his second location at the Topsail Island Marina.
“If you figure that every one of our members could have gone out and bought a boat, but then that’s another 100, 200 boats that could be on the water,” he said. “That space — nobody’s finding that kind of space in the area. We’re able to bring more people to the water in a smaller footprint.”
While demand triggers price increases elsewhere, for Brice at the Bridge Tender, rates will remain unchanged. An 18-to-20-foot slip rents for $4,000 a year, he explained. At 68 slips, Brice rents to the same 30-year, 15-year customers he always has. During the recession, he said he had a 20% vacancy when everyone else had 80%.
“What goes around comes around,” he said.
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