Chain O’ Lakes boat dealers see high demand, short supply as pandemic purchases continue

Boat dealers in and near Lake and McHenry counties had a huge year in 2020 as people refrained from traveling and flocked to outdoor activities as the pandemic limited entertainment options.

Even as public health restrictions loosened in northern Illinois through the first months of 2021, the surge in interest in buying boats hasn’t dwindled, local business leaders said.

In fact, this year might end up an even better one for boat sales on the Chain O’ Lakes, they said.

“What we’re seeing so far is numbers almost higher than last year. So far, from what we see, the season is going fantastic,” said Patrick Short, owner of Five Star Boat Center and Marina in Fox Lake.

But those looking to get a new vessel to use this summer may already be out of luck, as dealers in the area are seeing backorders of popular models pushing delivery dates out as far as the fall months, especially for larger boats.

Boat showrooms in the area haven’t been able to restock fast enough to keep up with demand because manufacturers have struggled to obtain enough parts to build more boats, local dealers said.

“Our manufactures are having a hard time keeping up with the volume coming down the pipeline,” Short said.

With supply short, manufacturers raised their prices and subsequently, the profit margin per unit has tightened a little more than is normal at Fox Lake Harbor, but overall, the bottom line is growing with the jump in the volume of sales, co-owner Warren Moulis said.

“We’ve been here since 1952. We’ve never run out of boats before – until now,” Moulis said.

It’s not just brand new boats that are being absorbed almost instantly once they’re on the market, either. Used boats are leaving dealerships just as fast.

“Used boats, normally we have 75 in stock. We currently have three. Used boats are very hard to get also,” Moulis said.

Gordy’s Marine, a boat dealer with several locations in northern Illinois and Wisconsin, including Fox Lake, also has been trying to coax its clients into selling their used boats back to the dealer to help satisfy the demand, said Jim Kelsey, a sales representative for Gordy’s.

“We have great clients that have multiple boats, they’ve been willing to let one go and custom order a new one for the fall or next season,” Kelsey said.

The rise in demand has been driven both by people new to boating wanting to try it out and experienced boat owners ready to upgrade or add to their fleet, local dealers said.

Another difference between the boating business during the pandemic and years past is the larger number of cash purchases local dealers have been processing recently. People are opting to skip out on financing their boats more often this year to and instead buying the boats outright.

Kelsey also said customers who are still using loans to buy boats are making larger down payments than usual, too, and he chalked that up, in part, to cuts to vacation and travel budgets amid the pandemic.

“We’re seeing that they’re willing to put more money down to get a little better interest rate or whatnot,” he said.

Gordy’s Marine also has seen more desire to join its boat club, which gives people access to boats they can use for a monthly fee without owning them outright, Kelsey said.

“A lot of families are realizing how accessible it really is, even with the inventory shortages and all that. There are more ways to try out boating and come to the water – between rentals, boat clubs and ownership,” Kelsey said.

Short, the owner of Five Star Boats Center, said he expects the high demand for boats will linger until well into next year, considering the current pace of manufacturing vessels.

While the boating industry has been buoyed by the public health crisis, local dealers acknowledged their recent economic fortune coincided with a costly toll on many others that took not only jobs, but also lives.

“COVID-19 helped us, and you hate to say that with so many people suffering,” Moulis said.

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.