Boats in the water

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The boating industry is starting its season more than a month early, according to the owners of several local businesses.

Smith Boys Marina on Tonawanda Island already put three of the 600 boats under its control in the water last week — the earliest anyone with ties to the business can remember.

“Two years ago I had a boat in the water in early April and that boat did eventually get snowed on,” said Rob Smith, a salesperson with 14 years of experience with boats and great grandson of the company founder.

This year, Smith said several customers who had stored their boats at his facility requested they hit the water early this year. Additionally, due in part to a mild winter, Smith said sales at his establishment were up 50 percent since January.

“We’ve sold 49 units since the first of the year,” he said, of boats ranging from 17 to 54 feet in length.

But Smith also has seen a surge in those interested in boating; some retiring and reigniting a former pastime after their children have grown and others simply taking advantage of the area’s proximity to water.

“I hear all the time people saying, ‘I haven’t had a boat in 20 years. Now that the kids are out of school I want a boat again,’” Smith said.

Paul Overkamp has run the Bow and Stern Marine on River Road for the last 31 years. He and his son, Christopher, who is involved in the business, have also seen a noticeable influx in sales, early placement of boats in area waterways and a rise in interest toward the boating industry in general.

Requests have flooded in to bring some of the 225 boats the marine stores out to the Niagara River and other waterways.

The Overkamps will wait to install their 100 boat slips until at least April 15, Christopher said, because they still expect local creeks that feed into Lake Erie and the Niagara River to swell with spring rains, which will inevitably shoot bulky debris — including “50 to 60 foot logs,” full trees and branches — too close to thousands of dollars in investments.

Like Smith Boys, Christopher Overkamp estimates his family-run company’s boat sales are up about 50 percent this year.

“We don’t know why exactly, but everybody seems to be spending money,” he said.

But Paul Overkamp remains cautious and still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of snow in the forecast, though he also noted it’s the first time he can recall the Erie Canal and other local tributaries, like Ellicott Creek, not freezing over.

“We know it’s still the Buffalo area and we don’t know what the weather is going to do,” he said.

Another factor for the early placement of boats in local waters is an unprecedented early removal of an ice boom.

The New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation began removing the ice boom from Lake Erie on Feb. 28, the earliest it has ever been taken out, since it was first installed in the winter of 1964-1965, according to a NYPA representative.

This year broke the previous record of removal, which was set on March 5,1998. Last year, the boom was not removed until April 12. The steel barrier keeps ice from moving into the Niagara River, though this year Lake Erie never froze.

North Tonawanda Harbor Master Jim Mroz said the removal of the ice boom means that boats could now end up in the water at any time.

“When they pull the ice boom it contains a lot of floating debris,” he said. Anything from mattresses to giant branches. We don’t officially open the harbor until around Memorial Day. But if the weather turns and there’s demand we have no choice but to get it open and ready.”

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