British Columbia

B.C. boat dealers report record-breaking sales amid COVID-19 restrictions

As other businesses struggle to stay afloat, B.C. boat brokers say they are seeing record sales and running low on stock, as sailors of all stripes and experience explore safe ways to get in a little recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sales boon comes as many coastal communities ask visitors to stay away

A boat passes a gas station in the Vancouver Harbour on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Jes McFarlen knows how to handle the ebb and flow of life as a boat salesman.

A sales manager for the Parksville Boathouse, the father of two has weathered his fair share of economic disruptions since he got his start in 2005.

But when the business, like so many others, decided to close indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 44-year-old felt the wind go out of his sails — albeit temporarily.

"There was definitely a few weeks where I was worried," he said, "until the phone just kept ringing".

Jes McFarlen, left, says the past few weeks have been the busiest in his 15 years at the Parksville Boathouse. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

As other businesses struggle to stay afloat, McFarlen and other B.C. boat sellers say they have been buoyed by record sales, often running low on stock as mariners of all stripes and experience explore safe ways to get in a little recreation while following COVID-19 guidelines.

With the Canadian government advising residents to avoid non-essential travel, McFarlen says families are dipping into reserves normally earmarked for all-inclusive getaways and instead are putting those savings toward a boat.

"It's not like going to Disneyland or to Mexico," he said. "The value is retained. At 10 years, there's still a lot of money left there when you go to resell the thing."

While sales were steady at the start of the year, McFarlen says the past few weeks have been a real boon, with boats priced anywhere from $5,000 to $750,000 getting snapped up at an incredible pace.

Jes McFarlen, left, says he has a 'bottleneck' of people looking to buy. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Vacation versus staycation

For a buyer like Jim Grant, 60, it was a no-brainer.

The financial portfolio manager had been planning to visit his son in California over the summer. When COVID-19 curtailed those plans, he decided instead to buy a new boat — a 20 foot KingFisher.

Jim Grant had been planning to visit California when COVID-19 hit. Instead, he says he'll spend time boating with his family. (Courtesy Jim Grant)

"People aren't going to stop living," he said. "They're still going to have fun. They're just going to have to find different ways of doing it".

Dwindling inventory, less international interest

That sort of staycation sentiment is also popping up across the Lower Mainland.

West Vancouver's Thunderbird Marine, which deals primarily in used boats, had a record breaking May with 23 vessels sold, compared to 14 in the same period last year.

That's roughly $700,000 in gross sales for the month, according to the company.

But while senior yacht broker Cormac Okiely says he feels lucky to be busy, he's also concerned about dwindling inventory.

"We usually have around 50 to 55 listings around this time of year," he said. "Right now, we're down to about maybe 35 listings, and company-wide we're below 100."

The Parksville Boathouse says its sales have rebounded after the company was forced to close indefinitely due to COVID-19. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Industry associations, though, remain optimistic about supply as the pool for potential buyers remains constricted due to COVID-19.

"There are a number of U.S. purchasers that buy boats in Canada," said Boating B.C. Association's Don Prittie.

"They'll come up here because of the dollar differential and the quality of product sometimes. So, with the border being closed, that activity has stopped and it stopped in both directions."

Coastal communities closed to visitors

U.S. sales aren't the only thing that's slowed.

High-end yacht sales are also stagnant, having slowed initially due to the drop in oil prices.

"It's definitely a double whammy when you talk about Alberta," said Prittie. "They were already in a doldrum, as boat sales were concerned, before COVID".

Boating B.C. also worries marinas reliant on tourism or transient and international moorage may not survive, as the amount of traffic to remote communities is expected to dip.

The Canadian Coast Guard is reminding B.C. mariners that they may not be able to access supplies in remote communities, and should be prepared to be self-sufficient. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In April, the Canadian Coast Guard asked mariners to avoid non-essential boat trips, reminding travellers that coastal communities may turn away non-residents.

Since then, they have updated their recommendation, asking boaters to "proceed with caution and good judgment," with the knowledge that they "may not have access to fuel, supplies and other services," as coastal communities remain closed to visitors.

"They don't want to put undue stress on on local island resources," said Larry Thompson, president of the B.C. Yacht Brokers Association.

"People have to play by the rules."

As he reflects on the busiest spring of his career, though, McFarlen isn't too worried about an influx of unwanted visitors.

"You don't have to go very far on the ocean until you feel like you're all by yourself," he said.

With files from Eric Rankin