At SkipperBud’s, it’s crunch time, figuratively speaking, of course.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
There are forklifts, and then there are forklifts.
On a recent visit to SkipperBud’s in Westport, boats of all sizes and shapes bob in the marina waters, painting a picturesque setting with nary a hint of what is to come, as John Swise, operations manager, watches a crewmember slowly back a Sea Ray 330 Sundancer toward shore.
SkipperBud’s removes boats from the water in any of three ways: with a traditional launch ramp and basic trailer for smaller boats; a hydraulic trailer pulled behind a semi that is used for boats up to about 40-feet long; and the forklift, which can accommodate boats up to about 35-feet long.
A forklift hoists SummerOurs out of the water to inspect for damage at SkipperBud’s in Westport.
In this case, the forklift is poised at the edge of a retaining wall, its two huge prongs lowered to just below the water’s surface below. In just a few moments, the 33-foot boat named SummerOurs, is hoisted straight up out of the water and wheeled onto land.
Has a boat ever toppled over? Not here, not under his watch, Swise insists, although he hints at an instance in Peoria … then rolls his eyes, choosing to keep that memory private.
Swise was attending grad school at Bradley University years ago when he took a summer job with a Peoria, Ill. marina and soon learned he had a knack. “The boating environment we work in is very freeing and uplifting. You become a lifer, whether you want to be or not.”
With SummerOurs safely suspended about four feet in the air, crewmembers inspect its hull for damage after its owner reported striking something while out on Lake Mendota. They note a patch of roughed-up paint on the bottom, but initial indications are that it’s only cosmetic.
The propellers are a different story. “We’ll pull his props off because he banged it up pretty bad,” Swise reports. “We have to make sure the prop shafts aren’t bent.”
This particular boat has an anti-fouling paint on its hull to kill algae growth, but because grime still accumulates, the boat will be moved to a rack and power washed.
Algae can accumulate on a boat’s hull in just a few weeks, explains Swise. “It affects the performance. It’s drag, like dragging a carpet behind you. We use an acid bath to get it off.”
Acid washing is a cleaning process conducted away from the water using full protection for the employees and the environment, he explains.
“Most of the products we use, even the degreasers and bilge cleaners, are environmentally safe. We have two state-licensed pesticide applicators on staff who apply the anti-fouling paint,” he notes.
Calm before the storm
Swise, 33, hasn’t had a day off in two weeks, and his voice is a bit raspier than usual this morning, he notes, apologetically. The busy boating season at SkipperBud’s typically runs between May 1 and October 1, but operations have been ramped up since March and will continue at this pace through November. “We have about 118 boats in wet slips,” he says, “and about 160 in dry stack (inside, accessible storage).”
September marks the beginning of the winter storage season, when a total of about 500 boats will be removed from the water in just two months time.
“You just don’t know what the weather will be,” Swise says. “We have to get everything winterized before the freeze hits.” That could be as early as September or as late as November by Wisconsin standards. He’s seen boats get trapped in morning ice because their owners didn’t remove them in time, requiring staff to use an inflatable raft for retrieval.
Depending on the contract, winterization involves cleaning and pumping antifreeze through the engines and water systems to prevent freezing, and it can include other maintenance such as oil changes or impeller changes. “We do a full inspection of each boat and make recommendations as to what preventive maintenance might be completed in winter so it’s ready to roll again in the spring.” A boat can be winterized in as little as an hour or as much as a day.
That’s also where salesmanship enters in, Swise says. “We provide customer service, but we also can’t just wait for work to come in. We sell work.”
In fact, if they’re doing their jobs, maintenance keeps the full-time staff busy year round. “We have a maintenance checklist and if we note issues while inspecting, we tell the owners. It’s better to have the boat ready for spring than deal with things once the next season begins. A lack of maintenance is cheap in the short run, but very expensive in the long run.”
Six factory-trained technicians handle all boat repairs and winterization, after which boats are stored in any of five warehouses. One is heated.
The biggest challenge, Swise notes, is timing. “It’s a short season, and these are luxury items, so there’s not a lot of room for downtime or mistakes.”
On SkipperBud’s property, about 150 boats of all shapes and sizes are housed in a massive dry-stack warehouse near the water’s edge. Stacked on a four-level racking system, they can be launched on demand, typically with just two hours notice.
Another 200 boats are stored over the winter. Larger boats occupy the ground level, taller boats have their own designated spaces, and sailboats must have their masts down. Only a select few are shrink wrapped and stored outdoors.
“We have a 56-foot houseboat that we pull out at Marshall Park in Middleton because our ramp isn’t wide enough,” Swise says. It requires a semi truck to remove, and a fully flagged, wide-load transport to Westport for storage.
In fact, anything that can be moved can be stored, from kayaks to paddle boats to the aforementioned houseboat. Across the street, the company stores about 100 boat trailers, which accounts for another revenue stream. Meanwhile, annual boat storage and service packages, depending on the size of the boat, can range between $500 to more than $3,000.
Swise has worked for SkipperBud’s for three years, but his connection to boating runs longer and deeper. “There’s a culture in boating that kind of gets in your blood,” he says. “It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been in it or around it. It’s a lifestyle.”
He first came to SkipperBud’s as a “parts guy” and rapidly ascended through the ranks. The self-described control freak now supervises 18 workers.
Spring, he says, is the busiest season. “As soon as the weather gets nice, which could be April or June, people want their boats in the water, and they want them in now!”
As winter approaches, boats will consume every inch of SkipperBud’s warehouse space. “We’re working on mapping out the warehouses, but the boats turn over so much,” Swise says.
Soon, the company’s dry stack building will be filled to the brim with hundreds of boats.
It’s a constant juggle for space, and takes two or three employees to figure out the puzzle each winter. A lot is trial and error, Swise admits. “We’ve been doing it long enough. We just put things where we put them and adjust later. The problem is that there’s really not a lot of consistency between products, so a 20-foot Sea Ray on a trailer will not be the same as a 20-foot Scarab.”
Hazards loom, as well. “This is a heavy equipment job. These guys are heavy machinery operators. Two have class A commercial drivers’ licenses. We’re moving two-ton boats around that are suspended from two forks and setting them on wooden racks. You have to be paying attention. There’s no room for error.”
Swise has four boats of his own, but they’re all still in Peoria. He says the frequent desire to purchase bigger and bigger boats is simply a byproduct of the business, calling it two-foot-itis.
“Happens to everyone,” he smiles.
Go to IBMadison.com/IBTV to watch an exclusive video of SkipperBud’s Westport operation.
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