Story and photos by Colton Jones / Contributing Writer
The spring and summer of 2020 will be remembered as the year that Nashvillians went to the lake.
On any given weekend since warm weather returned, Nashville area lakes have been a beehive of activity. Precluded from going to the movies or traveling elsewhere due to Covid-19, thousands of folks have taken to the water. While many businesses in Nashville have had a difficult time staying in business during the pandemic, boating has had no problem staying afloat.
“This has been the busiest boating season of all time,” said Caleb Scillian, the manager of Safe Harbor Boat Rentals on Percy Priest Lake in Nashville. His rental boat office has seen an increase in business since it opened its doors to the public in the spring.
During the spring, most businesses in the Nashville area dealt with customers being stuck inside because of the shutdowns, but Safe Harbor had to adjust to the large number of customers they were receiving.
“Everyone has been kind of cooped up all year, and it’s just the perfect kind of getaway,” said Scillian. The rental boats present a way for friends and families to enjoy the accommodations of the rental boats which include grills, slides, sundecks and bathrooms, without putting themselves in danger of coming in contact with strangers and contracting or spreading the virus.
Scillian and Safe Harbor are following the same restrictions that other Nashville businesses are following during each phase, such as not having each boat at full capacity and only allowing a certain number of customers on the rental dock at a time.
First-time boaters have represented a large number of Scillian’s customers during the pandemic.
“It’s always nice to be outside instead of cooped up where germs could be, but also the lake is a dangerous place and you have to take the correct safety precautions to have a safe day out here,” said Scillian.
Safety is a big concern because most first-time boaters do not know the rules and procedures of the lake, the marina rental manager said.
“The TWRA, which is the water patrol, has been kind of heavy on the water this year making sure everyone is having a safe and good time out here on the water,” said Scillian.
In fact, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency reported a record-breaking year of boat traffic on the lakes that they protect.
“Boating traffic on our lakes have been heavier during non-peak times than it ever has. And holidays have been busier than they have ever been,” said Barry Cross, the Outreach and Communications Coordinator of the TWRA.
“Officers were telling me that they were seeing more boating traffic before the traditional beginning to boating, which you know is before Memorial Day weekend,” said Cross. While Covid-19 was sweeping the nation, boaters were cruising across the lakes, because many people who normally did not have the time to use their boats because of work or school now have an excuse to be on the water.
“I think a lot of what we’re seeing is that a lot of people are rediscovering the outdoors or maybe even discovering the outdoors. We’ve sold more fishing licenses this year than we have in years past.” The lake has always been a place where Tennesseans have gone for a source of entertainment, but as so many forms of entertainment were shut down due to the pandemic, the lake found new life.
“If they own a boat or feel like renting a boat, it is an activity where they can get out, it’s there, it’s not canceled and it’s a fun activity to get out and try it out,” said Cross.
The TWRA does not know for sure if they have seen an increase in rental boats or first-time boaters on the water, but there was an increase in water-related accidents.
“We have had up to 25 deaths on the water, and that’s up from recent years. Our goal is to educate people on life jackets, and to be safe and enforce the law to make sure everyone comes home,” said Cross.
Many new boat slip renters have found a new home on the lake, as Adam Gilg, the Operations Manager of Elm Hill Marina on Percy Priest Lake said, “There has been an increase in demand for boats and water access. We’ve had a higher number of slip rentals than we’ve ever seen.”
Elm Hill Marina is one of the largest marinas in the state and presents a place for boat owners to keep their houseboats, bass boats, wake boats, pontoons, and jet skis throughout the year. As the leasing of apartment, condos and houses have decreased during the pandemic, slip rentals at the marina have had a five percent increase.
“All outside recreational industries took a huge spike during corona. Families were looking for opportunities to social distance with their family in a safe way and still have fun,” said Gilg. Owning a boat slip is a recreational space that has given so many families in the Nashville area a place to be together on the water during a time of seclusion.
Elm Hill has followed every guideline issued by the City of Nashville and has made its employees take the proper precautions to stay healthy.
“We had to be careful what we did. You know, we would wash our hands and use sanitizer. We also wore face masks, and that was something that wasn’t fun at first because it is hot outside, but it did keep us healthy and safe,” said Marco Suchite-Ramirez, a dockhand at Elm Hill.
Ramirez has felt grateful to be able to work at the marina throughout the pandemic when so many others were left without a job.
“It has been great to work here and make a lot of good money, but it has its cons you know, it is a serious subject and anyone can get sick at any moment,” said Ramirez.
The marina has not encountered much resistance from their customers about their Covid guidelines, but Gilg said, “People feel like they are outside so they don’t have to use masks and social distance. It has been kind of hard to promote masks and social distance.”Although, Gilg does believe that the majority of his customers have been doing the right thing throughout the pandemic.
Since the spring of 2020, people have been faced with the danger and fear of COVID-19, but the lake has given people a place to go and spend quality time with friends and family when most of the area was shut down.
“I wouldn’t say it is the safest place to be during this pandemic, but it really has been a reliever for people just because they come out here when there is nothing else to do. 2020 was basically just canceled and coming out to the lake just gets all of the pressure of the pandemic off,” said Ramirez.
Many events have been canceled and entertainment options have been shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, but places such as Safe Harbor Rental Boats and Elm Hill Marina have become a new place to relax and let loose in times where it is challenging to do so.
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