HARLINGEN — The winds of the pandemic have buffeted Valley businesses relentlessly, and few have escaped the hard impact of the COVID-19 storm.

Yet some have fared better than others, and one needs to look no further than powerboat sales, which nationally were up 12 percent in 2020, the biggest jump since the Great Recession in 2008.

Boat dealers in the Valley were no different, and the only problem they have now is getting manufacturers to deliver new boats for customers desperate to hit the water.

They all say they see no letup in demand for new boats in 2021 among customers who have determined the beckoning waters of the Laguna Madre are as good a place as any to social distance.

At Ron Hoover RV and Marine in Donna, sales manager Omar Fuentes says his store pretty much matched the national numbers.

“For 2020? Yeah, I would say that, they’re up at least 10-12 percent,” Fuentes said.

“This pandemic had a lot to do with it. People are just quarantined, right? And fishing is an outing they can be out there and get out of the house and be with their immediate family together without worrying about getting COVID or anything,” he added.

His biggest seller was the Majek bay boats which are manufactured in Corpus Christi.

Like all of the popular, shallow-draft fishing boats used in the Laguna Madre and inshore Texas waters, mostly Majek, Dargel and Shallow Sport, these boats feature a tunnel for the outboard’s lower unit and prop, making them especially useful in the skinny bay waters.

Fully prepped and equipped with big outboard motors, these bay fishing boats can run between $50,000 to $80,000 and beyond.

“We pretty much sold out of them,” Fuentes said.

General Manager Dustin James uses his foot to push down the boarding step that lets swimmers remount their Yamaha WaveRunner FX1800 High Output Thursday at Brownsville Sports Center. The WaveRunner has been a popular sale for James in the past year as 2020 saw a marked increase in boat sales due to the pandemic.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

At the Brownsville Sports Center, General Manager Dustin James said it was an excellent sales year for Yamaha WaveRunners, too.

“I sold out before summer even started, if that tells you anything,” he said. “They were excellent.”

“They’re three-people WaveRunners but it is good for social distancing for a household heading out to the water and enjoying the water,” James added. “Absolutely, you’re away from society.”

Unlike the sports center, which was declared an essential business due to their supplying and servicing equipment for Brownsville’s fire and police departments, Dargel Boats in Donna lost some business due to shutdowns in Hidalgo County.

“Because of the shutdown down here in Hidalgo County, our sales ended up about the same as the previous year,” said Cleve Ford, owner and president of Dargel Boats. “If we wouldn’t have lost two months, then we probably would have had more sales.”

Unlike other boat dealers, Ford manufactures his own boats right in Donna, so the company lost some production time during the shutdown, too.

Like other dealers, Ford found they had a lot of new boat owners last year.

“We did have quite a few first-time buyers,” he said.

“A lot of people were looking for something to do with their family so they’re not stuck in their house under quarantine,” Ford said. “There’s no movie theaters to go to, there’s no baseball games or football games or basketball games to go to because everything’s been restricted because of social distancing and everything else, and some of the comments were what better way to socially distance than to spend time with your family on the water.”

When it comes to social distancing, bobbing around on the water seems like as good a place for isolation as any.

Some 310,000 Americans who bought a new boat thought so.

“Twenty-twenty was an extraordinary year for new powerboat sales as more Americans took to the water to escape pandemic stress and enjoy the outdoors safely,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “For the first time in more than a decade, we saw an increase in first-time boat buyers, who helped spur growth of versatile, smaller boats — less than 26 feet — that are often towed to local waterways and provide a variety of boating experiences, from fishing to watersports.”

With the pandemic showing few signs of abating any time soon, Valley boat dealers think 2021 is also going to be a very good year for power boat sales — if they can get the boats from the manufacturers.

“We started 2021 with a backlog, and basically if a customer wants to get something for the summer, they’ve got to get in and order it now,” Ford said. “If not, our backlog is already so great it’s going to be a while before they get anything.”

Things are looking similar at Ron Hoover in Donna as well.

“I would say 2021 is going to be the same, continue the same trend,” Fuentes said. “Demand high, supply low.

“We had a lot of inventory when this COVID thing hit, so we had enough for four or five months,” Fuentes added. “Now this year, when summer comes along, we ain’t going to have that many boats. It’ll be more of struggle this year than last year.”

“That’s one little issue there, yeah,” said James in Brownsville. “COVID has really slowed production with manufacturers worldwide.”

Pleasure boating is, taken in the whole, big business in the United States, with the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis figuring its worth at about $23.6 billion a year. Thirty states cite boating and fishing as their top outdoor recreational activity.

“We expect consumer interest in boating to remain strong through 2021 and beyond, with millions of Americans discovering the mental health benefits and joys of being outside and on the water,” Hugelmeyer said.

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