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To simplify only slightly, Southwest Florida primarily has two kinds of people: those who are boating and those who are making plans to go boating. At least a third of the state’s 1 million registered yachts and smaller vessels are in Southwest Florida, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

There are two opposing forces at work within SWFL’s maritime industries sector, a leading component of the region’s economy. Boat brokerages, marina operators and support service providers, such as maritime construction firms that build private docks and seawalls for waterfront property owners—all report a booming demand from the boat-owning public. Yet these companies can’t provide new engines for the boats they sell and can’t obtain the screws, bolts and planks necessary to build docks and piers. And that’s just the beginning. Custom boat builders can’t obtain the fiberglass resins, marine composites and other material to build a boat from the ground up.

In other words, though boating and associated maritime services companies are seeing rising demand for their goods and services, the COVID-19 supply chain collapse is slowing their ability to fill orders.

Each boat owner requires a place to put his or her boat, whether it’s a kayak, a 15-foot runabout, an open fisherman or a 100-foot sailboat or motor yacht. Builders of seawalls, piers, docks, marinas and other slips are in great demand. Boat owners also require other maritime providers, such as boat brokerages, maintenance and repair shops and full-service marinas.

The state of marine

At January’s Charlotte County Boat Show, owners of companies that provide the things boaters need spoke of how they’re doing in this age of inflation and supply-chain interruptions. To gauge the state of SWFL’s marine industries, we talked to marine construction companies that build docks and seawalls, marina owners, manufacturers of non-skid boat decks and boat brokers who sell boats ranging from 17 feet to yachts longer than 100 feet. The answers marine owners gave may surprise you. For instance, COVID-19 can’t be blamed for everything that has hurt SWFL’s maritime industries sector—but more on that later. First, know that people are buying boats, that demand is still very high. 

“The larger boats, typically, we would have well over 100 in inventory,” says Glenn Shallis, a broker with Pier One Yacht Sales. The company, owned by Len Garofoli, employs 50 brokers in eight SWFL locations. “There’s a lot of demand. Most of the demand [is] for our boats … between 40 and 50 feet long. They are easier to trailer, and with COVID-19, people aren’t going overseas on vacation. They have the money and opportunity to enjoy themselves on boats here at home.”

Randy Fowlds owns and operates Bob & Annie’s Boat Yards; business has not slowed at its marinas, and repair shops in St. James City, Punta Gorda and Bokeelia have seen no reduction in business. Fowlds said boats and accessories are still in great demand. 

“I think what COVID has done is get people out and active on their boats,” he says. “You can’t get better social distancing than being out on your boat having fun. We’ve seen just a massive surge in the industry.”

Two years after COVID-19’s arrival, the biggest problem facing marine industries that serve the Gulf of Mexico, the Intracoastal Waterway, Caloosahatchee River and hundreds of inlets and creeks is not demand. It’s getting the things people want to buy.

“We do everything from repairs on boats to selling new engines, new boats with engines and all the accessories that go with them,” says Fowlds. “I can literally sell as much as I want to sell right now, but I can’t get it.”

Among the items he can’t get are outboard engines, the one thing boat owners need to get out on the Gulf for some wreck fishing, tool around the Intracoastal Waterway with the family or visit their favorite dockside restaurants.

“We’ve got more than 300 outboard engines on order right now, and they’re either still in the factories or stuck on ships offshore,” Fowlds says. “The demand has put a strain on the factories, which are working at 100%, but the factories can only put out so much product. They have massive amounts of back orders. The ships offshore are not getting unloaded, which slows down that line from overseas to the consumer on my end.”

Take, for example, the marine construction industry, which is having trouble keeping up with demand. Southwest Florida, home to six of the world’s richest people, is full of millionaires, too. Naples alone has 12,300 millionaire households, according to Forbes. Though COVID-19 did not financially cripple the region, one need not be rich to own a decent used boat. And rich and not-so-rich alike need a place to put their boats. 

“Our customers are a mix of people,” says John Sturm, owner of Florida Marine Works, a state-certified marine contractor that builds and repairs seawalls, docks, piers and other shoreline structures. “Some boat owners want to upgrade their existing docks. And for people who move down here and buy waterfront property, we are installing new seawalls and docks.

“We’ve been busy for years; it hasn’t slowed down at all,” he says. “We get as many calls now as we did four years ago. In fact, we have a waiting list six months out. There is so much demand we can’t get to it all.”

So, what’s the problem?

It’s getting the wood, screws, bolts and other materials to build docks and piers, said Tim Fisher, owner of Comdivers Marine & Salvage Corp. of Charlotte County. He and other members of his family build docks, boat lifts and seawalls in Charlotte County and elsewhere in SWFL.

“We have daily issues with just about anything you can get,” Fisher says. “You never know when you can get screws, you never know when you can get piles or lumber. You go to get it and they’re out.”

And who knew that a shortage of polyvinyl chloride pellets, manufactured in laboratories, was impeding dock construction? PVC beads, which can be molded to manufacture dock planks, are also used to produce the fenders for boats, as well as the plastic shock absorbers that prevent boats from hitting docks. “Any of the manufactured material comes and goes, including the PVC pipes for channeling electricity along docks,” Fisher says.

High demand for PVC and other dock materials has raised the price of marine construction, he said. “We have to pass that on to the customer. Industrywide, costs have gone up about 30% over the past two years.”

Economist Raj Srivastava of Florida Gulf Coast University said this state of affairs will continue.

“Now, with increased demand for boats and marine craft, there will be a corresponding increase in need for docks,” he says. “The backlog of permit applications will increase because one permit is predicated on another.”

The permit and supply chain woes

The supply of marine construction materials isn’t all that has been interrupted, said Mitchell Smith, of Eco Marine Solutions. When a homeowner wants a new dock, a waterfront condo developer wants to dredge a channel or a country club wants to put in a waterside boardwalk, several government agencies must review the plans and give their permission. It takes months longer to get permits to build a dock or pier these days.

Coronavirus staff absences at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Water Management District, as well as county and municipal planning agencies, have slowed the permitting process. They are still working through a colossal permit backlog.

“We’re probably looking at two years out for new customers,” Smith says. “To get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Charlotte County Community development permit, the agencies come out and do a preconstruction, pre-permit approval inspection. The Army Corps is short-staffed, the county is short-staffed, everyone is short-staffed. They are probably three to five months behind schedule.”

Here’s where things get surprising: Winter storms in Texas, Louisiana and other coastal states also added to supply chain woes, specifically for bottom paint and other boat building materials. In February 2021, as constituents shamed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for flying to a Cancun vacation as everyone else froze, power outages froze production of resin and other raw chemical ingredients for anti-fouling paint, glues and other marine finishing products, needed by SWFL boatyards such as Bob & Annie’s. Pipes and fittings in the chemical plants burst and required massive repairs, shutting them down for weeks. Hurricanes hurt production too: Hanna in July 2020, Laura a month later, Beta a month after that and in September 2021, Nicholas.

“The freezing temps and the hurricanes even affected materials for pontoon boats; we had a hard time getting the foam that provides buoyancy in the pontoons,” Fowlds says. “When hurricanes hit the coast of Texas and Louisiana, they also damaged plants that produced resins for fiberglass, bottom paint and weather-resistant polyester or vinyl finishes for gelcoat.”

Bob & Annie’s also sells boat ladders, captain’s chairs and other marine accessories; the supply chain for everything is uneven, operating in spurts.

“If you could throw a number of items against the wall, there will be a shortage of something,” Fowlds says. “It is a struggle for business, but I like a struggle.”

On a positive note

Felix Diaz started his Fort Myers company, D’Novus, in 2015. The company uses a computer scanner to measure boat decks and all the angles from bow to stern. A computer then takes the measurements from the scan and automatically cuts custom sheets of non-skid deck covering. Diaz, his brother or another employee apply the peel-and-stick matting. He said he has not had trouble obtaining the deck matting for his customers. 

“The marine industry is good,” says Diaz. “We currently have inventory for everything. We have the adhesives, the colors, because we stocked up before COVID. My provider—3M—is still good.”

Kyle Good of Good Event Management and his father, John—who were both upbeat at January’s Charlotte County Boat Show—also operate the Bonita Springs Boat Show and the Fort Myers Boat Show. They said attendance at those events never slowed during the COVID-19 shutdowns. 

“Vendors were still buying space at the shows, we experienced larger crowds than previously in some cases,” Kyle Good says. “People enjoy getting out and going to outdoor venues. Boats are something you gotta see and touch. And boating is a great way to social distance.” 

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