For decades, San Diego County's docks bristled with towering masts and massive motors, until the recession spoiled the seemingly endless summer for many of Southern California's boat owners and marinas.
Just recently, thousands of boaters waited, sometimes for years, for a coveted slip at a desirable marina. But boat repossessions and desperation sales thinned those lists and left unheard-of vacancies at many marinas.
"You walk around marinas today, and you can shoot a cannon through the place and not hit anybody," said Harry Nelson, owner and president of Almar Ltd., which operates marinas in San Diego, Oxnard, Ventura, Alameda, Ft. Bragg and Mexico.
Surely an exaggeration, but Nelson reflects his industry's growing alarm as vacancies reach 30% in some marinas, including Campland on the Bay Marina in Mission Bay. Even where vacancies are lower, operators are still stunned by the exodus of so many boats in less than a year.
The battered economy has left fewer middle- and upper-middle-class people able to afford the luxury of boating. Those who can afford it are less likely to take the financial risk on such a non-essential item.
Carl Groos, a recently retired plumber from San Clemente, is trying to hold on to the sleek 27-foot boat he keeps at the Oceanside Marina, but it's not getting any easier.
He pays $2,500 a year for slip rental, about $400 for boat maintenance and $300 more for insurance. He now is considering sacrificing his beloved boat to bad times.
"It's tight," he said. "It's getting to be a little beyond the working man."
Those who cannot sell their vessels in a market that is glutted--so much so that buyers are flocking in from other states and countries for bargains--simply haul their boats from the water to avoid paying slip rent, maintenance costs and insurance.
It's the same at the 540-slip Marina Cortez on Harbor Island in San Diego, where Dock Master Carol Pagliuso saw the economy's stormy waters arrive last summer, bringing 11% vacancies at a previously full marina.
"People come in and say they simply lost their jobs," she said.
Vacancies are found almost everywhere in Southern California, to one degree or another.
Mark Richter, assistant director of property management for the Port of Los Angeles, which leases land and water rights to 18 separate marinas offering about 4,800 slips, has seen more small boats up to 35 feet pulled up and hauled ashore.
Boat owners suddenly look at the $8- to $10-per-foot rental cost and consider that putting it on a trailer in their driveway would mean a fraction of the cost, Richter said.
"People are making that choice," he said.
Joni Anderson, operations supervisor at the Long Beach Marina, with nearly 4,000 slips, said "definitely, people are pulling them out and putting them on a trailer or up on blocks."
The trend has been sudden and dramatic.
"Up until a year ago, we had lists for 80 or 100 people, people waiting four or five years to get into the marina," Anderson said. Now, there's a 5% vacancy rate, which might not seem like much, except it means $648,000 in lost income this year.
"That's significant," Anderson said.
At Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles, the mother of all Southland marinas, last year's 5.5% vacancy rate is expected to top 10% in April among the 6,000 berths there.
Anxious marina operators around the state are suddenly offering incentives to keep boats from leaving, either for dry land or for cheaper marinas.
"We have had one operator who has lowered his slip rates," said Kenneth Foreman, senior real property agent for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which runs Marina Del Rey.
"It's hard for us to tell whether the rest will follow," he said.
About 90 marinas dot the Southern California coast, 87 of which responded to a survey by the Long Beach Marina. Seventy-seven reported vacancies. Several reported 30% of their slips empty.
In Orange County, the 2 1/2-year wait for 26-foot slips is now only a few months at Dana Point Marina, while up north at Newport Dunes Marina, 100 new berths sit without boats--a 25% vacancy rate, according to the Long Beach survey.
Peter's Landing in Huntington Beach reported an 18% vacancy rate.
And, the Ventura Port District, which leases property for four marinas, is witnessing a 10% vacancy rate.
Some marinas never had a vacancy until recently, such as the 29-year-old Oceanside Marina, where Harbor Master Don Hadley watched last year's waiting list of more than 300 names shrink to 26.
He partly blames a controversial slip-fee increase, but said the recession is the major culprit.
"There are no new people coming into the industry. They're sitting on their dollars," Hadley said. "Or, they don't have any dollars."
Brokers agree that boat sales are down but say the explanation goes beyond the recession.