While numerous upgrades have been made at Shelter Cove Marina, sunset views remain consistently beautiful. COURTESY MYOLOH.COM

The water has seemingly been the one place that has not been impacted by the COVID pandemic of the past 18 months.

The boating industry has been thriving in both interest and in sales. The better pool installers in the Lowcountry are backed up well over a year with new installs. And the tourism industry has led to a boom for the marinas on Hilton Head Island.

“We were shut down for a few weeks by the town due to COVID, but the outdoors has been the salvation for many families, and we’ve definitely been busy providing that rescue,” said Jason Wheeler, harbormaster at Shelter Cove Marina.

The story is similar all across the island. And with demand at unprecedented levels, the marinas are busy at work expanding services to keep up with the ever-increasing crowds.

“In terms of what we want to achieve, the supply chain backup in terms of building supplies is just about the only thing that could hold us back,” said Kuy Scott, project manager at Palmetto Bay Marina.

Palmetto Bay is the poster child for the expansion. The marina has been in the midst of a management and appearance transformation since Millard Oakley, owner of The Boathouse and many commercial properties on Hilton Head Island, took over the once-troubled marina.

The eastern side of the marina, which houses the commercial operation – water sports, charter tours, and the Carefree and Freedom boat clubs – was redone last year, with new docks, top-notch electrical and sewage pumps and dual 10,000-gallon fuel tanks added.

The western side was especially decimated by Hurricane Matthew, and construction to rebuild the docks and expand them begins this month. The latest project consists of rebuilding the two smaller fingers of the linear docks (about 50 feet apiece) and the three longer (400-feet) docks.

Then the longer docks will all have floating dock extensions, giving Pier 1 a total length of 600 feet, 680 feet for Pier 2, and 700 feet for Pier 3.

“These are mega-docks, and the western side will now accommodate a total of 4,600 of linear, side-tie dock space,” Scott said. “The demand for transient slips for larger boats traveling up and down the Intercoastal Waterway has been huge. We have deep water and huge docks for the biggest boats here. It’s like a floating hotel for these ships to be able to dock and enjoy the restaurants on-site and all the island has to offer.”

The project is being aided by a $1.5 million federal government infrastructure grant, which speaks to the need to serve the overflow waterway traffic of the dock-and-dine boaters.

Bathrooms, showers and a laundry area will also be added to the western side, as well as added fuel dispensers, which will take the marina to three gas pumps and two diesel pumps.

Additional boat slips for monthly and annual memberships will also be added, but the bulk of the western expansion is geared to meet the transient boater demand.

Native islander Scott said it’s an honor to be part of restoring the marina to the glory of its yesteryear prime.

“There were a lot of promises made and broken to a lot of folks before Mr. Oakley came about, and there has been a lot of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ attitude from owners and the boat crowd and I totally get that,” Scott said. “But I firmly believe we’re incrementally earning back their trust. They can see by the work being put in that we’re in this for the long haul.”

At Shelter Cove, Wheeler has been equally busy overseeing a number of improvements.

The first thing visitors will notice is new fencing, with a lighter wire fence replacing the dated gray fencing around the marina. The decking has been replaced leading to the docks and a new kiosk has been added to service the growing watersports and boat rentals business.

“We used to service them inside at the shop but now it’s a smooth transaction and right on to the water,” Wheeler said.

Transient slip power and an additional fuel pump has been added, giving the marina two gas pumps and one diesel pump. But the biggest addition for Wheeler has been the addition of new rental boats.

“We’ve added eight new pontoon boats and our partner, Outside Hilton Head, has added two new rental boats,” Wheeler said. “So we went from 10 to 19 total rental boats with three deck boats, three center console boats and 13 pontoons. The rental business has just continued to grow and grow for us and we’re always going to stay ahead of that demand.”

Wheeler is also excited about the addition of Hilton Head Yacht Charters. The company has an 80-foot Hatteras luxury motor yacht complete with full staff and chef and every sea-toy. The ship will accommodate 12 guests and three crew and is available for day and sunset cruises as well as overnight and longer cruisers.

Also new is the 20-person cycleboat, named the Miss Christie. The ship has a state-of-the-art sound system, large ice bins for drinks and snacks and an onboard restroom.

“It’s so cool to see the passengers powering the boat. People have so much fun on that boat,” Wheeler said. The harbormaster is in his third year after serving as dockhand for seven years at the marina and is thrilled to see the evolution of his “water baby.”

“We have a new 46-foot Viking sportfish rental out here, Reel Love, that will take folks out 90 miles offshore to the Gulf to fish. We’re getting back our Tuesday night fireworks at the end of June and so I’m really excited to have the crowds back to enjoy the pavilion we built last summer. It’s full steam ahead for us. The demand is driving us to always provide a better, higher-quality experience for our guests.”

Over at Broad Creek Marina, general manager Nate Jones said that while the marina operations continue to expand, the biggest excitement for this summer will be everything happening around the water.

The marina has added the Paddles food truck to compliment the Up the Creek restaurant with more grab-and-go offerings like tacos and hot dogs. The zip line operation is reopening in late June along with newly reconfigured aerial adventures and a brand new electric go-kart track under the newly branded Adventure Hilton Head.

The boat rental and watersports business continues to thrive, Jones said, and the boat slip waitlist has reached well over 100 customers.

“We have had permits approved to add 70 more slips to our dry storage, and we will begin that this upcoming winter,” Jones said. “We’re so excited for this summer. Folks are itching to be outside, enjoy great food and some new adventures. I can’t wait for folks to see this incredible go-kart track. They’re never going to want to stop racing.”

Harbour Town Marina harbormaster Leslie Whitener said that traffic in the marina is reaching all-time-high levels. The rebuilding of the legendary Quarterdeck restaurant continues, as well as the renovation of the harbormaster offices. Both projects are on track to be completed by spring 2022.

“It’s such an exciting time to be out here and on the water. You can feel it from everyone from our guests to our staff,” Whitener said. “Getting past this pandemic and being excited for a fun summer – that’s what’s on everyone’s minds.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton and covering Southern Beaufort County. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.