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GRAFTON — Laura Stemm picked up a used speedboat last June for $75,000. She and her husband wanted a safe way to get out of the house with their baby and toddler. “For us, it was about the only thing we could do,” she said.

Since then, the boat’s value has jumped to almost twice what they paid, said Stemm, of Grafton.

Like bikes and RVs, boats offered an outdoor escape from crowds — and computer screens — during the pandemic. Sales of powerboats in the U.S. last year were higher than since before the Great Recession, demand has continued to climb in the first half of 2021, and the rising tide has lifted every segment of the boating industry: dealers, renters, mechanics and marinas.

Boats are selling faster than they can be made, with 2023 models already being claimed. Prices for used boats are soaring, owners are on waiting lists for harbor slips, and repair work is backed up, sometimes for months. On rivers and lakes, swarms of midweek boaters rival the masses that used to be limited to Saturdays and Sundays.

Grafton Harbor‘s 50-person Hakuna Matata cruises along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers just reopened to full capacity a month ago. But that loss was more than compensated for by boat rentals, which run $295 for four hours.

“Those went like wildfire,” said co-owner Jan DeSherlia.

The five-anchor marina is bustling — and could be even busier. Three new boats for the rental fleet have yet to arrive. The waiting list for the harbor’s 250-spot slip is ever-expanding.

Freedom Boat Club has bolstered its fleet and doubled its memberships over the past year, said co-owner K.C. Kettelson. The St. Charles franchise, one of 275 across the country, opened in May 2020, just as people were emerging from lockdown and looking toward a long summer with few recreational outlets. Members lined up to reserve pontoons, bowriders and deck boats.

Mark Dearmond of O’Fallon, Illinois, joined in August. For a fee — memberships start at $4,000 a month — he and his wife could take their daughters on excursions to the sandbars along the Mississippi River.

They went 12 weekends in a row.

“I didn’t know there was a boating scene in St. Charles until we joined the boat club,” said Dearmond. “Everyone was out on boats.”

Even before the pandemic, sales at the 3,600 U.S. boat dealers had been brisk, said Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, based in Minneapolis. Over the last five years, fishing has been flourishing, with high schools adding teams and colleges offering scholarships. And recent job flexibility has transformed lakes into outdoor offices.

“Any way people can get out on the water, they will,” Gruhn said. “Boating is like the original family-friendly, socially distancing outdoor activity.”

Steve Schwer of Oakville, who works in industrial services, sometimes teleconferences while trawling on Table Rock Lake.

He had to pre-schedule his regular service work on his charcoal gray Skeeter at Dupo Marine Center. The dealership’s repair shop had a six-week backlog. Twice as many people as usual have been trying to squeeze in appointments, said co-owner Monty Cordry.

Dupo’s sales floor had dwindled to one display boat last month. Cordry has orders in for more, but no idea when to expect them.

Most boats are built in the United States, but their components come from around the world. When factories shut down in spring 2020, it triggered a logjam. February’s ice storms in Texas — where resin, vinyl and upholstery are made — caused further delays. And the stuck freighter at the Suez Canal in March held up shipments of electronics.

Cordry won’t predict when there would be an ebb in enthusiasm for freshwater pursuits.

“Now that people are out there to enjoy it, I think it’s going to continue on,” he said. Owners will upgrade to newer models or rig out their rides; renters will become buyers.

That’s good news and bad news for Gary Hart of Creve Coeur. The lifelong fisherman is happy that more people are taking up the sport. But it makes him feel a little hemmed in, even on the 92-mile expanse of the Lake of the Ozarks.

“I’m a guy who likes solitude when I fish, and it’s hard to find solitude now,” he said.

The retiree waited out the Memorial Day crush at home and then packed up his grandkids for a vacation at Bull Shoals Lake in Arkansas. His 2016 Ranger is newly outfitted with $20,000 in navigation technology.

“I can find a penny in a hundred feet of water,” he said.

The updates — a trolling motor and three Garmin displays — only took a couple days, but Hart had to wait several weeks for his appointment at Tri-State Trolling Motor in Wentzville.

Tri-State specializes in electronics installation and repair, and sells kayaks and canoes. Bob Douthit opened the business in 1991.

“It has just gone crazy,” he said. “No matter how much stuff you bring in, it’s not enough.”

These days, Douthit spends a quarter of his time on the phone with manufacturers, trying to track down the add-on motors that make sneaking up on fish easier. He’s had to buy more through distributors, which cuts down on his profit margins.

Lewis Boats in St. Peters carries some small bass boats for under $30,000. Performance pontoons can top $100,000. Aluminum fishing boats fall somewhere in the middle.

“Last year, we pretty much sold through everything we had,” said Billy Sullivan, who has worked at the dealership for three years.

That’s not the ending he expected in March, when he nervously eyed the dozens of boats on the lot. Dealers pad their inventory in the winter to prepare for the spring buying frenzy.

“We thought we might end up sitting on it,” he said.

But by last June, they had surpassed sales from all of 2019. This year is on pace to exceed last year’s record — if they can keep products in stock.

Kelly’s Port at the Lake of the Ozarks usually has hundreds of boats on hand; going into the early-summer buying season, it was down to a couple dozen. Kyle Kelly and his brother co-own the dealership their father opened more than 40 years ago. They thought this year would settle down after a record-breaking 2020.

“But 2021 has blown the doors off of last year,” Kelly said.

Families who have never owned a boat have fueled much of the surge; more than half his buyers are new to the pastime.

“You get multiple generations on a boat and put your cellphones down,” he said. “With all the crazy stuff going on with COVID, it realigned our perspective on life.”

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Colleen Schrappen • 314-340-8072

@cschrappen on Twitter

cschrappen@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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