The “hole in the ground” at 405 Squire Pope Road is a perfect representation of what’s going on with the Hilton Head Island boating scene.
The Boathouse is not only still operating, but is thriving at a time when Hilton Head’s boating industry is seeing unprecedented growth.
General manager Grant Kaple said that the space formerly known as Schilling Boathouse – founded by Dr. Fred Schilling in 1987 and run by his son, “Captain Bill,” for two decades – is expanding.
The former 22,000-square-foot facility has been torn down to make room for a newer facility to better support The Boathouse’s growth.
“T-Top boats didn’t exist in 1987, and your largest outboard was 25 feet with twin 100 or 150-horsepower motors. So the racks weren’t big enough and the dry stack storage wasn’t built for the boats of today,” Kaple said. “So we’re building a facility that gives us a better sales and service space and more storage that fits the times.”
The average 1987 model was 6,000 to 8,000 pounds, whereas the biggest model they sell today is Grady’s 45-foot boat that weighs in closer to 30,000 pounds, with four massive 425 horsepower Yamaha motors. The new space will add an additional 10,000 square feet, but more importantly, it will be configured to meet today’s boating designs.
“We used to think of storage more linear than cubical, but with the T-Tops, it’s all cubical now,” Kaple said. “We’ve been running at 98 percent capacity and have an extensive waiting list of folks looking for storage.”
The new building will grow storage capability by 65 to 70 spaces for a total of roughly a 350-boat capacity. The sales and service and office space part of the building will be more compact than before to better utilize the space while still offering a full array of boating products, and will allow for more boats to be displayed inside.
The company is also working to extend the docks, which requires approval from multiple state and federal agencies.
Kaple said he and company officials are aiming for a June 2021 completion. It’s just one part of continuous growth by Island Marine LLC, the company behind The Boathouse.
The company closed its 15,000-square-foot Moss Creek location and moved to the old Stuckey’s Furniture building at 5279 North Okatie Highway on the Okatie/Ridgeland line. The new facility opened in spring 2019 and more than doubled the facility space and spans five acres, compared to 1.5 in Moss Creek.
“There is a lot of traffic that goes between Savannah and Beaufort and the majority use that Route 170 corridor coming from Route 46. We’re seeing so much growth there and we’re perfectly positioned to meet their boating needs,” Kaple said. “It’s just 11 miles from The Boathouse to Okatie, but man, it’s a whole different world. The island folks stay on the island and this new crowd doesn’t want to cross the bridge any more than they have to.”
One other advantage of the Okatie location: with so many tract homes being built, many new neighborhoods don’t have space or don’t allow boat storage in driveways or yards. So the just-about-completed storage facility will have 30 to 50 boat spaces with gated trailer storage to meet the community’s needs.
Then there’s the company’s new space at Palmetto Bay Marina, a spot that itself is in the midst of a rejuvenation after being decimated during Hurricane Matthew. New owners are beginning the second phase that will include restoration of the south side docks, and Kaple said the Boathouse crew is moving into a building space formerly leased by Palmetto Bay Yacht Service.
“They’re still there, we’re just taking a spot in the back of the building to have a service facility there,” Kaple said. He said the location is vital to the Intracoastal Waterway traffic.
“You’ve got 45- to 75-foot sportfishing boats and 100-foot transient boats going up and down the Intracoastal and come low tide, they need deep water to not get caught in sandbars. Harbour Town is sometimes limited by depth, but Broad Creek has 20 feet of water even at low tide,” Kaple said. “This allows us to service all the traffic that uses Palmetto Bay as a stopping point to refuel and hit up all the great restaurants there and on the island.”
Kaple said the construction of the facility should be ready right in line with the marina’s completion of the new docks. He said they aim to eventually move a fork truck over to the new facility.
Going from one to three physical locations was a challenge – the company shed the “Hilton Head” from its title to reflect the Okatie expansion – but Kaple applauded his veteran staff for moving into new management spots and making the transitions seamless.
“Guys like Chris Stone and David Hughes are why we’ve been able to grow,” he said.
The company has seen revenues grow exponentially since 2012, growing from 10 staffers when Kaple arrived from Columbia in 2008 to 27 total staff today. Even a worldwide pandemic could not slow down growth.
“What we’re seeing here, it’s indicative of the whole industry. Hilton Head has become a poster child for that growth,” Kaple said. “We were all bracing for bad things with COVID, but all the money folks were putting into travel, vacations and cruises, they wanted something to do and boating filled that need.
“And the migration of new folks here, it’s for real. I’m normally begging to sell a boat this time of year and right now, we’re lucky if we can keep up with the demand,” he said.
Boat manufacturers’ 2021 stock has been sold to dealers as stock or sold at retail. Kaple said the Boathouse has limited 2021 stock on hand and a few more stock models scheduled in the next few months. If customers don’t like what’s in stock, any new orders will be 2022 models, which will be delivered in August or September.
“The industry has grown; there’s more manufacturers in South Carolina than ever, that just speaks to the demand,” he said. “And with all those boats, service is more important than ever. We have two master Yamaha service techs, where most places don’t even have one. That means we spend less time on diagnosing issues because these guys have seen it all.”
He said the industry is likely 18 to 24 months away from catching up to the demand, but he and his fellow island boating industry veterans say the Hilton Head demand won’t slow down.
“People move here, they want to take advantage of the surroundings,” he said. “It’s that simple, and I don’t blame them one bit.”
Have an interesting Boating Life story to tell? Contact reporter Tim Wood via phone or text at 843-290-6242 or by email at email@example.com.