As the pandemic destroyed dozens of industries, boaters report a resurgence in those looking to spend time on the water.

When the pandemic hit, Norm Schultz — like many others in his line of work — foresaw doom. As it turned out, just the opposite happened.

“We expected boat sales to plummet,” says Norm Schultz, president emeritus of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, which sponsors the annual Cleveland Boat Show. “But dealers sold everything in sight, and manufacturing slowed down. We ran out of boats to sell. It was a rocket ride we never expected.”

With low interest rates at the outset of the pandemic, many boaters saw a chance to upgrade (much like the housing market). And with many activities restricted or ill-advised, a lot of people who might have spent money traveling considered buying a boat instead.

As a result, some new people got into boating, but what John Zimdahl says he saw more frequently were former boaters getting back into it. That led to a robust market for both new and used boats even through 2022.

“In the last two years, I sold right through the winter,” says Zimdahl, sales manager at Collins Marine in Tonawanda, New York. “There was no downtime. Last year I sold eight or 10 boats in January. That never happens.”

Like many other sectors, the boating industry faced supply chain issues. Companies that made windshields for boats, for examples, started producing personal protective equipment. As a result, prices went up for new and used boats. “I had a few scenarios where I sold used boats for more than when I sold them new,” Zimdahl says.

But now the tide has changed.

Schultz says boat dealers are facing more competition for recreational spending. “Dealers and manufacturers will have to offer incentives again,” he says. “It’s back to real-world marketing.”

Boat sale transactions are getting back to normal, confirms Craig Graham, a broker who co-owns Catawba Yacht Sales in Port Clinton, Ohio. “There is an asked price and there is a negotiation now,” he says. “Since COVID, there’s been no negotiation. If you want the boat, you have to pay full asking price or close to it.”

Graham also notes that boats are staying on the market longer — a function, he says, of sellers pricing them higher than the market might bear, as well as rising interest rates.

There hasn’t been any type of mass sell-off of boats, Schultz says, but it’s a concern in the industry.

Still, he knows he’s not selling a product. He’s selling a mood.

“Boating is the great escape,” Schultz says. “There’s something magical about untying the boat and leaving the dock. You leave a lot behind. A boat isn’t a piece of hardware. It’s an escape machine.”

Cruising Lake Erie
We tend to think of cruises as ocean experiences, but you can also cruise right through Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. Here are three options to check out. 

  • Viking, a luxury cruise company with many overseas tours, now has adults-only cruises of the Great Lakes. The eight-day Niagara & the Great Lakes tour departs from Toronto, sails over a corner of Lake Ontario, then goes all the way across Lake Erie. From Detroit, the cruise heads north through an edge of Lake Huron, then south through Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. On this cruise, starting at $5,995 per person, tourists will explore sheltered bays and woodlands, as well as watch for birds.
  • Adventure Life offers a few Lake Erie tours, either starting or ending in Chicago or Toronto. Aboard the big Ocean Voyager, you’ll sail portions of lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. The tour beginning in Chicago includes stops at Mackinac Island, Niagara Falls and other popular spots. The one that starts in Toronto includes stops at more urban ports, including Detroit and Cleveland. These two cruises last 11 days and start at $5,689.
  • If you want to see all five Great Lakes, check out American Queen Cruises’ Toronto to Chicago (or vice versa) cruises. These nearly identical, 11-day cruises include Niagara Falls, the Welland Canal, Manitoulin Island, Mackinac Island and stops in Cleveland and Detroit. Tickets cost $4,999 to $10,799.