North Channel marinas weather COVID-19 crisis, focus on domestic traffic

Spider Bay Marina

MANITOULIN – Marina operations across Manitoulin Island were looking at dismal prospects earlier this spring, as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic left many uncertain as to whether they could open at all this boating season, but although transient numbers and US clientele are missing from the waterfront, things are mostly better than originally feared.

“From what I have been hearing and seeing, the traffic is definitely very down overall this year,” said North Channel Marine Tourism Chair Stan Ferguson. “But it is encouraging to see from the data coming out of Boating Ontario Canadians are staying closer to home this year.” 

“In fact, the numbers are actually up for seasonals and that is incredible when you take a look from where we were in the spring.”

The Expositor contacted area marinas and discovered that marinas are reporting that their seasonal slips are largely full. 

Seasonal slips are reported full to the gunnels at Little Current’s Spider Bay Marina and Boyle’s Marine, Bay Street Marina in Assiginack and the Aus Hunt Marina in Kagawong. Other locations are juggling things around to try and accommodate transient traffic.

“We can shift our transients around to accommodate another seasonal if need be,” said Northeast Town CAO Dave Williamson. “Spider Bay is right on budget this year, but our waterfront docks are down by two-thirds.”

“We have a lot of Americans every year,” said Stasia Carr, Gore Bay clerk/treasurer, who noted that has left a bit of room in their municipal docks.

“We are far from normal,” agreed Gore Bay dock master Lee Hayden. “But what is normal anymore, right?” Mr. Hayden confirmed that the Gore Bay facility normally hosts an about 60 percent American clientele in its seasonal slips. Many were given the option of holding their slips over to next year for a nominal fee, and quite a few have taken up that offer, boding well for next year. With empty American slots, the marina has room available for some seasonal boaters and transients for this year.

“We are certainly doing better than we expected to,” said Mr. Hayden. 

There has been something of another surprise in this season’s mix, according to anecdotal evidence observed by the dock master. “There are a lot less Canadians in the smaller boats, but our numbers are actually up in the greater than 35-foot class. Anything above that is up, and of course all Ontario boats.”

“We are down in staff this year, with three of us instead of the usual five,” said Mr. Hayden.

Fuel sales are somewhat down across the board at Island fuel docks and marinas, as well as other ancillary items with reduced traffic, but still holding reasonably well.

“The big boats are coming still,” agreed Kevin Rose, proprietor of Little Current’s Harbor Vue Marina. “Motor sales are doing well,” he added, pointing to a sudden upsurge in small boat sales. But the loss of the US customer base has had an impact, along with others who have a long jaunt to get here. 

“Half of my boats didn’t even leave the harbour,” said Mr. Rose.

Mr. Rose pointed out that although the season started seven weeks late, it was a relief to see it ramping up once July hit. “I have 16 families to worry about,” he noted, referencing the employees who depend on his business for their livelihood—echoing a concern of business owners large and small during the pandemic.

When it comes to Kagawong, the town could not have picked a more perfect year in which to revamp its waterfront, said Billings clerk/treasurer Kathy MacDonald. “We didn’t expect much in the way of transients this year; we might be able to squeeze in two.”

Next year, the Aus Hunt Marina will host 41 seasonal slips and 17 transients.

“We are not doing on water service calls for the public,” said Marlene Boyle at Boyle’s Marine. “We sell batteries and stuff at the store here and we will bring it down to the dock for you, but our guys are not getting on boats, and I don’t blame them,” she said. Not only are boats close quarters, but boat owners are famed for looking over the shoulder while work is being done. “It’s just too close,” said Ms. Boyle. “We have been doing work for our regulars, but that’s just about it.”

So while the waterfront activity has plummeted when it comes to transient boaters, with a companion fall in associated sales, the pandemic impact has been blunted significantly by the number of Canadians sticking close to home.

“It certainly does seem to be following our best hopes at the start of all this,” said Mr. Ferguson. “We knew we were going to lose the US boaters, likely for the entire season, but the local traffic is staying strong with Canadians sticking closer to home. Boating remains a vibrant summer activity for folks and its one you can enjoy even if you have to keep your distance from everyone.”