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Clarkston’s Thunder Jet is one of the boat brands riding a tidal wave of newfound enthusiasm for water sports that emerged during the pandemic after what proved to be unfounded worries that demand would be dampened.Thunder Jet boats are made at Brunswick Corp.’s Clarkston operation, which also manufactures Spartan boats for Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s.It hired 19 employees in 2020 and expects to add another 20 positions this year, according to the facility’s general manager, Dave Huguelet.The site Huguelet oversees is one of the area’s largest welded, heavy-gauge aluminum boat producers, with its staff of 75 making hundreds of boats a year. The plant is a subsidiary of Brunswick, which also makes boats under the names Boston Whaler, Bayliner, Heyday, Sea Ray and Lund.The number of boats Thunder Jet had at its dealerships at the start of the year was down 50 percent compared with last year, and it may take as long as two years to get those levels back to what is considered a healthy inventory, Huguelet said.“This is not something that’s going to go away here in a month or two,” he said. “We’re very gun shy to hire unless we think there’s long-term opportunities. We don’t want to hire someone and then turn around three months later and fire them because we don’t have the demand.”In addition to expanding the staff, upgrades are being made in the plant’s existing footprint, which is anticipated to increase output “north by 25 to 30 percent,” he said.The trends fueling increased demand surfaced in June after weeks of worry that began when the pandemic started.Brunswick temporarily shuttered all of its plants for five weeks to establish safety protocols to protect its employees from the illness, such as adding paid hours in addition to sick leave employees could use if they believed that they had contracted COVID-19, Huguelet said.“We’ve had no case that I think started at our facility,” he said.During the shutdown, people in the boating industry agonized about how popular boats would be as unemployment rates soared in the region and throughout the nation, Huguelet said.“Consumer confidence really tanked at that point,” he said. “But it’s been amazing how quickly it came back. Once we started back up by June, it was clear that the retail was on fire. It’s been on fire ever since, relative to the year before or historically.”The National Marine Manufacturing Association reported sales of freshwater fishing boats, including pontoon boats, reached a 13-year peak in model year 2020, with United States customers buying 143,000 vessels.Executives at Renaissance Marine, another Clarkston boat builder, are seeing similar trends. The business has the same number of employees as before COVID-19 and is recruiting to fill vacant positions, said Bruce Larson, director of sales and marketing.“We have experienced unprecedented demand for the products we build,” Larson said. “Our dealers are currently asking us to produce more boats than our current model year production plan provides for.”Consumers want to buy boats for a number of reasons, Huguelet said.His staff makes vessels for lakes, rivers and the ocean, which are anywhere from 18 ½ feet to 30 feet long and retail from $30,000 to $200,000, with the most popular models selling for about $70,000.Families were willing to spend money on those types of boats partly because travel was so restricted, he said.And it’s possible to enjoy boating while following guidelines about controlling the spread of the coronavirus, such as staying 6 feet apart from people who are not in your household.“We have a lot more new boaters that have come into the industry,” Huguelet said. “I think that actually bodes well for long-term growth. ... The pandemic created a situation where (people) tried it and they liked it, so now they’ve gotten into the sport.”
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