Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19

Boat, kayak and scuba tours cut back, but still going

Fourth in a series

Local boat companies are sailing along fairly well despite a lack of tourists due to COVID-19.

Ben Doerr, owner of Sail Bainbridge, got creative to keep afloat in early spring when things were shut down.

“I put out a call for help from the community offering sailing credits to put cash in our coffers,” he said, adding the credits could be used at any time and never expire.

“It was pretty moving,” he said of the support. “Bainbridge has a history of keeping things alive. It’s a special part of the story.”

Doerr moved to Bainbridge Island with his wife Deb Henderson five years ago. He has been a professional musician for 18 years.

“That has really stopped with COVID-19,” he said, adding summers had been a balancing act between sailing and performing indie-folk on guitar, writing songs and singing with his trio St. Paul de Vence.

Sail Bainbridge uses a 44 foot Pearson Countess Ketch for its tours. “We wanted an ocean-going boat so we were looking for something bigger,” he said, adding they wanted to sail to places like Mexico and Alaska. “But we couldn’t afford it.”

After a few OK years, Doerr said he had a banner year last summer. “It took awhile to get our feet wet,” he said. “We finally made a name for ourselves,” after being part of the Grand Old Fourth last year and getting bookings through that.

He was looking forward to this year, until the coronavirus hit. “We were sitting here with great weather, and the boat was ready to go,” he said.

When they finally opened they were limited to two people onboard from the same household.

“It was awkward everyone wearing a mask, and wondering if we’re being safe enough. I’m still wondering that,” he said, adding they do deep disinfecting and cleaning before and after every sail.

Now they can take up to six people, preferably from the same household. “We’ve been quite a bit busier than I really thought” we would be, he said. “I was pretty worried.”

Doerr said more local people have been sailing this summer, fewer from Seattle, out of state or international locales. But since local people aren’t able to go to places like Hawaii they’ve had money to buy bigger packages from him – whole day sails rather than for two hours.

“I prefer longer excursions. You get to know people better,” he said.

Doerr said he’s still a little uneasy about doing overnight trips. “Multi-day are trickier with COVID-19,” he said. When customers sleep onboard: “I don’t stay on the boat. I row ashore and go home for the night.”

When it’s farther away like the San Juans, “I sleep outside on the deck. I don’t share their air.”

Meanwhile, Capt. Scott Sawyer also is playing it safe aboard the Rumbera.

“We query about symptoms, and if it’s yes you can’t go,” he said, adding full refunds are given if anyone in your party is showing signs of COVID-19.

Social distancing can be a challenge on a sailboat so, “We don’t mix people who don’t know each other,” he said.

Everyone must wear a mask, customers must pay online, information is kept for contact tracing, and, of course, there is disinfectant and, “hand sanitizer everywhere,” Sawyer said.

One thing that has hurt his business is the moratorium on Air B&Bs. He had a link to that organization that brought him a lot of business previously.

Thankfully, the Staycations are keeping him shipshape.

“There’s a huge drive to get outdoors in the fresh air and not be around other people,” Sawyer said.

A third company also sails out of Eagle Harbor, Dreamboat Adventure Sailing. It operates the 44-footer named “Oh Joy II.” Capt. Harry Pattison offers trips to Deception Pass, and also a live-aboard training cruise, among others.

Kayak and scuba

Sailing isn’t the only outdoor adventure on the Winslow waterfront affected by coronavirus restrictions. Exotic Aquatics Scuba and Kayaking has been serving locals and tourists for 29 years.

Changing restrictions have been frustrating for Pam Auxler’s business. She was only allowed to rent kayaks after May 5, but then, “He rolled us back a little ways,” she said of Gov. Jay Inslee.

Auxler said she had to lay off almost all her staff, “The margins just weren’t there.” A few are back this summer. One didn’t return for fear of getting COVID-19.

“People have to feel safe,” Auxler said. In a previous life, she was in nursing. “Protection of people is essential in my world,” she said.

Then Inslee allowed some kayak tours after Memorial Day, but groups were limited to five. “We have a dozen usually” three or four times a week. “We’ve been lucky to have one or two,” Auxler said.

Much of their business is walkups – people going along the waterfront and seeing the kayaks to rent. Now it’s all online.

Luckily, they have been doing well with Staycations.

“They want to get out of town. They’re tired of being home,” she said, adding they had 85 kayak rentals on a recent Sunday. They’d been getting about 25, but in past years often hit the 130 mark.

Personal flotation devices can only be used once a day, while kayaks must be washed down and sanitized in-between uses.

Scuba also has been a challenge. Public pools are closed so it’s hard to train, although Auxler found a way around that by using a private pool. Guided dives are limited in the number of people, and they have to travel to the dive site in separate cars, which is inconvenient.

“We’re respectful of the island. Divers and kayakers are a loyal group. We can make it if we all come together,” she said.

Auxler put in a plug for support with the city in keeping its concessions stand on the waterfront. “It’s important to have a private business down there,” she said.

She said they are cooperative, work with tour guides and other recreation like biking to make the Winslow waterfront an outdoor adventure. “I’m just trying to keep us alive,” Auxler said.

Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19
Outdoor recreation doing OK despite COVID-19