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Colorado boat sales boom as people use rivers to keep adventure flowing during coronavirus

Salida stand-up-paddle board maker Mike Harvey calls the demand “insane,” joining a chorus of watercraft retailers and manufacturers reporting record business

As the cool Colorado runoff drains down from the mountains, kayakers, rafters and people riding SUPs have decended on the Montrose Water Sports Park in Montrose Colo., Wednesday May 27, 2020. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The rivers are rising and paddle shops and boat makers across Colorado are reporting record sales as more families dip a paddle in the state’s waterways. 

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“It’s like strumming the perfect chord on your guitar. It just feels right,” said Mike McCormack, an Eagle dad who has two boys, 11 and 14. He just bought his first raft, a 15-foot, self-bailing Star Super Bug. “This summer is about adventuring in place and the boat brings that adventure in reach. It’s the one thing the whole family agrees on. This was an investment in our family.”

Colorado is a hotbed of watercraft design, with innovative entrepreneurs creating all kinds of boats, rafts and boards for navigating the state’s rivers and lakes. And those designers all are reporting the busiest few weeks in the history of their businesses, with families placing boat orders as pandemic-related safer-at-home orders flow on

When the ski resorts closed, ski shops reported a run on backcountry skis. As public transportation ground to a halt, the world’s bike shops were cleaned out. RV and camper dealers are reporting record sales as families explore a new way to vacation. And now formerly quarantined Coloradans are rushing the rivers. 

“It’s on fire right now. Insane,” said Mike Harvey, the co-founder of Badfish, the Salida stand-up paddleboard maker that has seen booming sales through May. “Best four-week period we have ever seen.”

Grand Junction resident Ben Garland, a former Denver Bronco football center and current player for the San Franciso 49ers rides a Badfish paddle board in the Montrose Water Sports Park in Montrose Colo., Wednesday May 27, 2020. Garland said it was his frist time on a board. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

It’s the same story across the state. 

Phil Walczynski estimates he lost about $500,000 in sales after he was forced to shut down his 35-year-old shop in Wheat Ridge. The month-long shutdown began in late March, just as business ramps up at Down River Equipment, where a team of craftsmen make customized raft frames for all types of adventurers. Walczynski was able to keep a portion of his staff working through the shutdown and saw call volume and online orders double in the first weeks of May compared to last year. But of course, he said, walk-in traffic is way down. 

“In general, most people feel like the river is a good place to stay separated from the general public while still being close to your primary group. Everyone is ready to get outside,” said Walczynski, noting growing interest among first-time buyers seeking family escapes on the river. “But I actually feel like we’ve seen less of this type of customer since things have started loosening up. We’re mostly seeing folks who have some experience.”

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

Steamboat Springs stand-up paddleboard maker Peter Hall last year purchased Colorado Kayak Supply Online. He has seen “solid demand” both for his Hala Gear inflatable SUP boards and river gear orders at coloradokayak.com

Hall said buyers are snatching up inflatable kayaks and shorter rafts, which he called “the easy button for solo river time.” They also are buying and upgrading rafts.

“The raft is the RV of the river and people are excited to get out there,” Hall said. “They are making more of their own plans for adventure. We are also seeing more people finally deciding to get into SUP after watching their friends for so long.”

Paddle shops that were canceling orders for Badfish boards are now calling Harvey with big orders, he said. 

“I think paddleboarding and river sports are the perfect activities for the times. If you’re standing on an 11-foot paddleboard you have the perfect social distance,” Harvey said. “Maybe two months of being on limited movement highlights what’s actually a priority: being healthy, spending time outside and being with those closest to you.”

Telluride resident Ali Griswold paddles her Alpacka Raft through the Montrose Water Sports Park in Montrose Colo., Wednesday May 27, 2020. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Thor Tingey at the 20-year-old Alpacka Raft in Mancos saw sales drop 70% in the last two weeks of March after year-over-year growth in the first two months of the year. The rebound was slow in April, but as rules loosened and stimulus checks landed in May, orders for the handmade Alpacka packrafts have boomed. 

“The last few weeks have been among the busiest in our history,” said Tingey, who has spread his workers across four buildings along the Mancos River to provide nearly 1,000 square feet of space per employee. “Since we are a build-to-order operation, it’s been quite the challenge to manage the higher sales volume — and I’m not complaining. We are thrilled to be back to work.”

Brand new paddle boards and demo boards along with other river equiptment sit on display at the Montrose Surf and Kayak shop in Montrose Colo., Thursday May 28, 2020. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Nate Robinson this winter feared he’d ordered twice as many raft trailers than he would need for summer season at his Rifle Truck and Trailer shop. In the last two weeks, he sold every raft trailer on his lot and the summer selling season hasn’t really begun. 

”We could probably use another 20. It’s been awesome,” Robinson said. “Everyone appears to be canceling their Disneyland vacation and they are staying local and investing local.”


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