We’re No. 3

Despite the short season, Michigan boaters are seriously smitten with life on the water
Illustrations by Jacqui Oakley

Come April, Ray Batt’s free time is given over to The Batt Cave, his 2013 Meridian 441 Sedan Bridge — a 47-foot power boat he docks at the Detroit Yacht Club. It doesn’t matter whether he’s cruising Lake St. Clair or sitting still at the dock listening to the water slap against the hull — as long as he’s on board.

“I have a hard time describing my passion, but for me, it’s a lifestyle,” says Batt, 48, the father of three college-age children. “It takes a lot of our time, a lot of our money, but we are on that boat from the time it goes in the water in April until the season ends in November. It’s a weekend cottage, whether we start the engine to leave the dock or not.”

Like many, many other Michiganians, Batt, of Canton, is hopelessly drawn to the water.

It’s no wonder: Six miles is the maximum distance between Michiganians and a body of water — whether it’s a lake, river, or creek.

Boating (and its partner, fishing) is serious business in the state.

Michigan ranks third in the nation for boat registrations and for boat sales. Plying the waters — whether inland lakes or the Great Lakes — pumps billions of dollars into our economy — $7.4 billion in 2012, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

And this, despite a relatively short season — May to October, for most boaters.

“We’re No. 3, so it’s a sign that in Michigan, boating is a priority in our lifestyle,” says Nicki Polan, executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association. Last year, we spent nearly $650 million on new boats, motors, trailers, and other accessories, a 42 percent increase over 2011, according to the MBIA.

For a few years beginning in 2009, the boat industry suffered along with every other “lifestyle” industry. People looked but didn’t buy. But a rebounding economy is launching lots of boat models — and nautical dreams.

“The industry is definitely rebounding, and rebounding in Michigan faster than in the rest of the country,” says Polan.

The nine-day Detroit Boat Show at Cobo Center in February — a spot of sunny optimism when temperatures outside were stuck in single digits — has doubled in size in the last two years. This year’s attendance exceeded 67,000 people, a 3 1/2 percent increase from 2013.

Dealers reported strong sales at the show, Polan says, which is attributable to opening wallets and the state’s “sales tax on the difference” law, passed in November. Rather than paying the full sales tax on a new boat, the tax is now calculated on the difference in value between a trade-in and a new boat.

“It’s a huge savings for boat buyers and it will help keep boat buying in Michigan,” says Polan. Plus, she says, banks are willing to finance boats for far longer periods than cars, especially because boats don’t depreciate from the moment they’re lowered into the water.

The show featured a fleet of new models that accommodate day cruisers — boats that feature open bows with larger seating areas, BBQ grills, and chairs that swivel 360 degrees. Pontoons are popular, too, this year.

“People aren’t going as far on boats,” says Polan. “By changing some of these cabin cruisers into day cruisers, you get more people on the water to have fun. They focus on the social aspects of boating.”

Barbara Meskin of Sylvan Lake is steeped in lakelife — mostly because she grew up with boats — but she also lives near the lake and serves as commodore of the 102-year-old Oakland County Boat Club in Sylvan Lake. Because pontoons aren’t made to be trailered, Meskin, 47, stays close to home, although on occasion she’ll visit friends on Cass Lake — by car.

When she’s not working, Meskin is in or by the water.

“When you tell somebody you’re going to sit on a boat for six or seven hours, some people wonder how you could,” she says. “But they’re about to play golf all day Saturday.

“Through the years I’ve come across people who look at it as strange,” Meskin adds. “There are definitely boaters and nonboaters.”

In the winter months, Meskin straps on her snowshoes and walks the lake, maybe joining an ice party, which is exactly what it sounds like: a party on the ice. In the summer, the grill is going every night at the Boat Club, so she unwinds there after work.

One of Meskin’s responsibilities as commodore of the club is to maintain its old traditions, like the flower drop on Memorial Day, a fireworks show, and the highly anticipated in-lake boat show that’s held each May.

Marinas bring boats so people can take them for a spin — something potential buyers can’t do at a boat show, Meskin says.

About 21 percent of the state’s boats are registered in the tri-county area, with the highest number in Oakland County.

That doesn’t mean boats stay in Oakland; if they’re bigger, they may well be moored in Macomb County, which boasts 60 functioning marinas, miles and miles of shoreline, and, according to Bassmaster magazine last year, the best bass fishing (in Lake St. Clair) anywhere.

It didn’t take Bassmaster’s plaudits to recognize the resources Macomb has, of course, but it served as a reminder of the county’s potential as a boating and fishing mecca.

A few years ago, Macomb launched the Blue Economy Initiative, a multipronged approach to redeveloping and developing downtowns along Lake St. Clair to enhance lake views and lake and river use. There are 55 projects and programs in progress, says Gerard Santoro, who is heading up the initiative for Macomb’s Office of Planning & Economic Development. They include enhancing walkability by creating zoning districts, offering more canoe and kayak rentals, encouraging new businesses to open in downtowns, and offering students opportunities to study freshwater technology.

“If you go outside Michigan, other cities take their shorelines much more seriously,” says Santoro. “The No. 1 destination in the Midwest is the Navy Pier in Chicago. People want to get out, experience the water … the opportunity to use our freshwater assets has been greatly underutilized in the last 50-60 years.’’

Joel Piatek of St. Clair Shores, owner and operator of Fish Headz Charter Fishing, has always taken full advantage of the boating and fishing opportunities in the county. Piatek, 43, is a competitive angler and the charter captain of three boats he operates on Lake St. Clair for other anglers and for cruisers who just want to see the sunset.

You could say the lake runs through his veins.

Piatek grew up on Harsens Island, his bedroom window facing out onto the water. It took a while, but he found his calling on the water, too.

“I worked in IT for a dozen years, all suited up. Sixteen or 17 years into that I was wondering what my longevity was going to be,” he says. “I got my captain’s license and never get into a suit and tie — unless it’s a wedding.”

Plying the Waters: Great for State Economy

It’s no surprise that recreational boating is huge in Michigan, given that we’re surrounded by the largest bodies of fresh water in the world — and that each of us is
no more than 6 miles from a lake, river, or stream, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Here’s a look at how Michigan’s recreational boat industry looked in 2012:

Source: National Marine Manufacturers Association

Total sales for new power boats, engines, trailers, and accessories: $650 million (a 42 percent gain over 2011 retail sales)

Recreational boating-related spending: $3.2 billion

Total boating jobs: 58,863

Recreational boating industry businesses: 1,404

Number of boats per household: 1 for every 5

Number of recreational boats: 771,439, of which 635,168 (82 percent) were power boats

Total boat registrations in 2012: 804,088

Sport fishing in Michigan, like boating, is big busines. A look at the numbers:

In 2013, more than 1.2 million fishing licenses were issued — a 6 percent increase from 2012.

In 2011 (the latest year for which statistics are available), 1.4 million residents and 347,000 nonresidents fished in Michigan’s waters.

In 2011, Michigan ranked third (behind Florida and New York) in its numbers of anglers. (more than 1.7 million)

In 2011, Michigan ranked second (behind Florida) as a destination fishery for nonresidents. (347,029) They spent $326 million in the state.

In 2011, Michigan anglers logged 28 million days fishing, ranking them behind Florida and New York.

In 2011, Michigan ranked first in the number of days anglers fished the Great Lakes — 11 million generating $287 million in state and local tax revenues and $2.4 billion in retail sales.

Sources: Michigan Department of Natural Resources — Fisheries Division — Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2013 and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (a study that is updated every five years)