Launch The Fleet
By Randy Gaddo
Photo Courtesy Of Randy Gaddo
Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
As the nation emerges from one of the coldest winters in recent memory, recreation specialists will begin to see water enthusiasts flocking back for sun, exercise, and water recreation. However, maintaining a fleet of watercraft and related infrastructure is a never-ending task.
Whether the craft is a relatively simple canoe or jon boat, a more involved pedal boat, a high-maintenance power boat, or even the newest craze—a stand-up paddle board—everything requires maintenance. Plus, the docks, piers, landings, and property that harbor the fleets require special care and attention.
“In a number of places, the infrastructure where people use their watercraft are deteriorating; they’re just not as maintained as they could be due to economic stress,” notes David Dickerson, Executive Director of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents boat, marine engine, and accessory manufacturers.
Dickerson says information from the field reveals that some public and private infrastructure owners are choosing to close down facilities rather than repair them.
“I have heard that owners say, ‘We’re not going to replace this series of piers,’ for example; when they become unsafe, they’re unsafe and that’s the way it is.” He adds that some owners further decide to outsource watercraft rental to private contractors.
“Sometimes the contractor will say ‘Look, if you’ll give us a 30-year lease, we’ll fix the dock, but we can’t put $300,000 out if you’re going to give us a 5-year contract; that’s impossible,’” Dickerson says. “So sometimes this causes a change in how people do business.”
Dickerson further asserts that it is unfortunate when park systems choose to close down these facilities, especially for people who don’t own their own craft. “There just doesn’t seem to be a strong priority placed on these rentals, which is unfortunate for all concerned,” he concludes.
Maintaining A Fleet
Numerous parks departments offer watercraft activities in which the operation is designed so extensive support infrastructure is not required, thus saving on overhead costs. For example, consider SesquicentennialState Park, about an hour’s drive northeast of Columbia, S.C.
This park features a 30-acre lake with a fleet of 10 four-person pedal boats, eight canoes, three 14-foot aluminum jon boats, and two kayaks. Gas motors are not permitted, and there are no docks or piers. The watercraft fleet is stored on shore. This system seems to work well according to Park Ranger Adam Ginn, one of seven staff members who maintain the fleet.
“We have two maintenance staff, and the other five are rangers, but we all cross-train and help out on maintenance throughout the year,” he explains, adding that the pedal boats require the most maintenance.
“It takes four people to pull one of the pedal boats out of the water and flip it over to work on it,” he says. “The most common problem is the pedals breaking, but sometimes a rudder assembly will get bent if users hit something in the water. Each boat also has grease fittings that need to be serviced regularly.”
Ginn explains that the pedal boats get the highest use during the rental season from March through November, surmising that “People with no experience in canoes or kayaks can still operate a pedal boat.” He notes that canoes, kayaks, and fishing boats require less maintenance, but still need attention. “The canoes have plastic seats that break pretty easily, and the other boats require cleaning, preventive-maintenance inspections, and occasional repairs.”
Some parks departments are choosing to partner with private enterprise to offer unique watercraft activities.
For instance, the South Florida town of Davies partnered with Ft. Lauderdale-based Precision Paddleboards to offer stand-up paddle-board classes.
Known as SUP, this newest craze in water fun involves a board similar to a surf board, but designed to be wider, more buoyant, and more stable. Some boards are inflatable while others are made of fiberglass, wood, expanded polystyrene, or other composite materials.
An SUP rider stands on the board and uses an extra-long and specially designed paddle to propel the craft. SUPs are used in a wide variety of ways, such as wave surfing at the beach, exploring of shallow-water areas that are difficult to reach in boats, fishing, and even exercising. SUPs are showing up across the country, year-round; in cold climates, SUP classes are offered in pools, while rivers, lakes, and oceans are fair game in warm climates.
But the boards can be pricey, starting just under $1,000 for beginner boards and increasing for more advanced versions. Reliable paddles average $300. Therefore, public-recreation departments may want to consider partnering with a private entity to offer this water sport in order to offset costs.
Recreation Coordinator Rochelle Kelvos explains that, although Precision Paddle Boards provided the boards, paddles, and safety equipment and the department volunteered its 50-meter pool to offer Intro to Paddle Boarding and other exercise classes using the boards, there was little interest and the class was cancelled.
“We advertised and promoted it, but only had two or three sign up,” she admits. “I think people tend to want to go to the ocean, to the beach, to use them, so we are competing with that. But it is a great concept, and we will probably try to offer it again.”
Despite a slow start, the lesson learned in the town of Davies is that, because of the partnership, the rec department was able to experiment and offer a contemporary activity without incurring high equipment and maintenance costs.
Whether it’s fresh, salt, or brackish, water presents a special set of maintenance challenges, and salt water predictably poses the major challenge.
The recreation specialists at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C., know firsthand the challenges of high-use rental watercraft in a saltwater environment. This town is on the Intercoastal Waterway where boating and fishing are extremely popular.
“For this geographical area, where we are surrounded by water, our watercraft fleet-rental program is one of the most important and popular amenities we offer our patrons,” asserts Ryan Bell, recreation specialist with the Marine Corps Community Services division, which encompasses the corps’ recreation-activities department.
The selection of 20 powered boats ranges from 14-foot skiffs with 25-horsepower motors to 19-foot skiffs and 17-foot ski boats with 90-horsepower motors. There is also a combined fleet of about 30 jon boats with electric trolling motors, canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards, along with all the necessary accessories and safety equipment.
Although the large selection requires an equally large investment, the boats are rented almost year-round.
“Our heaviest season is March through October,” explains John Wright, the recreation specialist with the primary responsibility of maintaining the rental equipment. He notes that jon boats, kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards are relatively easy to maintain, usually just fixing occasional broken seats or accessories. The motorized craft are more complicated, and their intense usage during the long southern summer months makes for more maintenance.
“[Salt] is very corrosive and deteriorates electrical wiring and connections for components, such as lights on trailers or electrical accessories on boats. In summer, the boats are returned and re-rented constantly, so keeping them up and running is a daily challenge.”
There is generally less fishing and boating between November and early spring, so that is when Wright has the time to conduct preventive maintenance on the fleet.
“These are all four-stroke motors that need motor-oil changes, just like a car,” he comments. “I bring them in one at a time for that, plus go over all the wiring, replacing it when needed, and getting all the boats and trailers fixed, cleaned up, and ready to go for spring.”
Occasionally, users create maintenance work during rentals, such as when trailers are backed into trees, boats run aground on sand bars, or boaters inadvertently damage propellers.
Despite the costs, watercraft fleets are a great addition to any parks and recreation department’s programming and one that can provide distinctive family activities.
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.