Smooth sailing: With recreational boating on the rebound, Bellingham business expands

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 13, 2013 

NWExplorations

Northwest Explorations employee Brian Hinson helps move the 49-foot charter boat,"Dream Catcher" while it was being prepared for a charter at Squalicum Harbor Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - A rebound in the recreational boating industry has meant expansion for a local company.

NW Explorations recently signed a lease with the Port of Bellingham to occupy about 2,000 square feet of space in the Marine Square Building near Squalicum Harbor. The additional space will be used to expand the company's service and repair department, said owner Brian Pemberton.

He expects the new space to be ready by the start of 2014. The service department works on a variety of boats, handling tasks such as electronic installation and repair work.

The company has three main segments - chartering boat trips to Alaska, selling used Grand Banks yachts and offering boat service/repair. All three areas have done well this year, he said.

"This is one of the best years we've had in a while," said Pemberton. "Our focus is to try to hit a lot of singles and doubles, not home runs in this business, and that is what happened this year."

It's also been a strong year nationally, particularly in July. According to Trade Only Today, a website for marine industry professionals, sales in the main powerboat segments were up 18 percent in July compared to a year earlier. Between January and July, sales in those categories were up 3.1 percent compared to the same period in 2012.

One factor is the economy, Pemberton said. Recreational boating was hit hard during the national financial meltdown in 2008, with several regional boating companies closing.

Pemberton has noticed a difference in how people buy boats: Prior to the financial meltdown, he estimates 70 percent of sales were financed. Nowadays about the same percentage are paying cash, taking advantage of low prices as the industry recovers, he said.

With the mild, sunny weather, it's also been a good season for charter boat tours. NW Explorations uses a flotilla format, with the lead boat having a naturalist and experienced guides along for the trip. The customers range from novice to experienced boaters.

"This (flotilla format) gives people the comfort of traveling by boat with the safety of having experts nearby," he said. "It helps people expand their boating knowledge."

The company currently has 29 employees, with about 16 of them working full time, Pemberton said. That's up from six employees in 2004.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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