Think of pleasure boating, and the images of happy couples cruising the seas in sleek craft come to mind. Yet behind this carefree concept, the recreational boating industry has a long and often unsung history of giving back to communities and charities.
Case in point, in the 1940s General Dwight Eisenhower requested Nautique to perform the herculean task of building 400 boats in only 15 days to aid the war effort. The Orlando, Florida-based company, nowadays a subsidiary of Correct Craft, did so. Since then, clean seas, therapeutic boating outings for military veterans, and learn-to-read efforts buoyed by boaters delivering books to people in need are just a few of the long-standing philanthropic projects supported by America's boat builders and marine accessory manufacturers.
It's no wonder that when a new battle broke out, the COVID-19 pandemic, the boating industry stepped up and continues to help in creative and consequential ways.
"At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our industry answered the national call to help fight the spread of the virus," says Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Chicago, Illinois-headquartered National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), which represents more than 1,400 members. "From converting manufacturing operations to produce personal protective equipment (PPE), and donating supplies and gear to help in the fight against COVID-19, the boating industry provided 500,000 units of PPE and other essential materials. This is just one of the latest examples of the boating industry rallying together to give back, and it most certainly will not be the last."
Life-saving face masks and face shields were among the first items desperately needed by health care workers and first responders who treated the tidal wave of virus patients. The subsequent generosity, resilience and sheer ingenuity on behalf of boat dealers and builders was nothing short of amazing.
For example, Pasadena Boat Works had some 14,000 specialized N95 face masks in storage when the pandemic hit. Rick Levin, co-owner of the Pasadena, Maryland-based dealership that represents brands such as Bulls Bay, Pioneer and Avenger Bay Boats, has always been philanthropic. He has worked to resurrect the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay and helped kids undergoing chemotherapy feel less self- conscious by giving them masks with fun stickers, hence he had a supply of masks on hand.
Levin and his staff packed up the masks, along with the stickers in shapes like bushy mustaches, wild cats and peace signs, and donated them to the Maryland Department of Health. The masks not only came in extremely handy, but their decorative touch put a smile on the faces of weary health professionals.
In Florida, Nautique turned its upholstery shop into a mask-making factory. The department's staff used their home sewing machines and fabrics, plus the wake boat builder purchased additional machines and cloth to make masks for local hospitals. Orlando Health contacted Nautique because the hospital had a special medical fabric but no ability to convert it into masks. Nautique stepped in and did the job.
Nautique's parent company, Correct Craft, also jumped in to help. The Maker Effect Foundation, an Orlando-based nonprofit, had more than 10,000 pounds of PETG plastic, such as the type that water bottles are made from, and a network of organizations with laser cutters ready to cut the plastic. However, the foundation didn't have a way to process the huge 1,700-pound spools of plastic into easier-to- handle 80-pound rolls. That's where Correct Craft got involved.
"These plastic rolls were then distributed to Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Melbourne and Miami resulting in over 25,000 face shields that were distributed to health care institutions," says Ian Cole, the Maker Effect's co-founder. "In total, our foundation and our partners throughout Florida produced over 50,000 pieces of emergency PPE. This would not have been possible without Correct Craft helping us solve production problems."
On the West Coast, West Marine sent snorkel masks to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Sutter Medical Group and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Professionals at these sites determined what adaptations were necessary to transform the masks into respirators.
"We made approximately 1,200 converted masks available to hospitals able to utilize these adapted masks," says Lorene Frank, regional marketing manager for the Watsonville, California-based boating supply and fishing equipment retailer. "Ocean Reef, who partnered to provide the masks, also pledged to donate the same number of adaptors so hospitals would receive the full kit."
Beyond PPE, the Mettawa, Illinois-headquartered Brunswick Corporation's Power Products businesses also offered aid, says Lee Gordon, Vice President of communications and global public relations. "Marinco produced electrical equipment used in mobile hospitals and temporary emergency treatment centers. Blue Sea Systems designed and produced arm-actuated door handles to eliminate hand touching at their Bellingham, Washington, facility, and Mastervolt provided power systems to emergency vehicles and field hospitals."
Boating is one way Americans can enjoy the outdoors and socially distance as the pandemic continues. It's telling in sales. A January 7, 2021 NMMA report reveals that 2020 marked a 13-year high for U.S. boat sales, plus retail sales of new powerboats in America increased 12% over 2019. It's good news for boating, and the industry hasn't missed a beat as it continues to donate. This is true as the initial concerns over PPE have shifted to diverse challenges across communities such as education, hunger relief, family and child services, and other issues that have emerged during COVID.
"As Tige wrapped up one of our most successful years of all time, we are also fully aware of the pandemic's ripple effects across the world," says Courtney Wagley, director of marketing for Abilene, Texas-based Tige Boats, Inc. Early on, Tige joined the PPE effort by donating up to 500 face shields per day and creating a training video and templates so other boat manufacturers could mass-produce shields, too.
"One additional philanthropic project was supporting our local Salvation Army and providing Christmas gifts for children in need. We hosted a Salvation Army tree in our manufacturing facility, and for every gift that an employee purchased, Tige matched with a gift for another child. Altogether, we were able to buy Christmas presents for over 350 kids this year."
Switlik, a Trenton, New Jersey-based manufacturer of inflatable marine safety and survival products, donated $5,000 each from its foundation to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and Silver Fins Retired Rescue Swimmer organizations. The company also produced protective medical face shields last spring and partnered with other small, local essential businesses to sew isolation gowns for an area hospital.
Food and PPE figured prominently in how the Brunswick Corporation's Mercury Marine division worked hard at giving back in 2020. On one hand, Mercury Racing and Power Products divisions utilized their 3D printing capabilities to make and donate more than 11,000 masks for hospitals near its headquarters in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
On the other, Mercury, who for many years held its Fill the Boat food drive for the Fondy Food Pantry, continued its campaign against hunger in other ways since the walk-in pantry turned into a drive-thru grocery operation last spring.
"In June, a Mercury employee drove up to the pantry's outdoor food distribution session with a $1,000 check in hand from the workers at Mercury's Plant 17. He didn't want to give his name. And the company held a food drive in September in conjunction with an e-recycling event. That food drive brought in 2,317 pounds of food, and we were thrilled with the donation, says Mallory Gilbertson, the Pantry's board president. It was a huge contribution to our food inventory for the fall and meant a lot to all of us."
Meanwhile, Steve Irby, founder of Stillwater, OK-headquartered Kicker, maker of marine audio products, turned a long-standing tradition of company lunches into something more impactful in the wake of COVID. Irby ordered dozens of lunches over the past year from local restaurants for take-out. This boosted revenues for these hard-hit small businesses while also rewarding Kicker's employees for their extra efforts.
"We knew they (Kicker) were spreading the business around town, and we showed them that we appreciated the support by over-serving," says Drew Williamson, a third-generation restauranteur and owner of Meditation Catering in Stillwater.
Founded in 2015, West Marine's BlueFuture is another good example of how a company's pre-pandemic philanthropy is targeting COVID challenges. The BlueFuture initiative provides ongoing grant support to community-based nonprofits that promote water life adventure, education and recreation for young people nationwide.
"Grant recipients dedicate their time and resources to ensure that future stewards of the water have a safe place to learn, play and build a better tomorrow. These community-based programs also tend to have fewer resources in general but are now among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Especially now, it is incredibly important to get kids out on the water," says West Marine's Lorene Frank.