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Waterfront businesses make it through season with pandemic, more "rain" than anticipated

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

While some waterfront business have thrived during the pandemic this year, others have just survived.

"Honestly it was the toughest season we've had since we've began our cruises," said  Steve Wilson, owner of the Buccaneer Pirate Ship and the Southern Star Dolphin Cruise boat.

For more than 25 years the Southern Star has searched out dolphins while the Buccaneer has taken mateys out for the past eight years.

Capt. Cannonball, aka Clifford Attwell, greets passengers as they board the Buccaneer Pirate Cruise in a photo from June.

"We're just thankful that Governor DeSantis saw the difference between the Miami-Dade area and Northwest Florida and allowed us to operate," Wilson said.

The pirate ship and dolphin cruise boats both ran at reduced capacity following CDC guidelines during this pandemic after closing down the first six to eight weeks of the season.

Wilson said they closed for a couple of reasons at the start.

"Everybody was confused on what was expected of us and the rules kept changing. Then all of a sudden there was such a fear and panic," Wilson said, noting people weren't going on vacations, but were staying at home.

"There was no demand to run a trip and there were no bookings," he said.

Related:Four Northwest Florida charter schools receive PPP money, avoid furloughs, layoffs

Even though they had reduced their capacity down to 50 percent, it didn't make a difference, because there was no significant number that wanted to go.

"But more than anything we were just thankful that we got to run our boats," Wilson said.

"Of course we are way, way down from where we would have been with a normal season. We did about half of what we should have done, maybe even a little less than half," Wilson said.

"But we did enough that we will survive," he said.

Wilson said the Paycheck Protection Program helped, but will not carry them through the winter months.

"We did enough to get by," Wilson said. "I had to take some money out of savings, but that's alright.

"We know in business there are going to be rainy days ... we had no idea it was going to be this rainy. But luckily we had a little put aside that we could continue payroll before PPP," he said.

Wilson said his goal right now is to prepare for the winter time with maintenance on the boats and keeping his employees happy so they can have a "terrific" spring.

"From the numbers I've seen, the numbers look very good ... we anticipate perhaps maybe our best year ever in 2021," he said, mentioning area restaurants, fishing boats and other small businesses that rely on tourism.

Related:March 2020 - American Lunch truck makes rounds with free lunches

"I think we were very fortunate to do what  we did this year and stay running ... and next year we look forward to it being the best in our history," he said.

As for 2020, "It was the best we could do under the circumstances," Wilson said.

For waterfront businesses that rent out pontoon boats and personal watercraft, they seemed to have thrived during the pandemic.

Quinton Leith, right, with La Dolce Vita Watersports in Destin gives a safety briefing to customers Mel Beech, left, and Brice Reynolds as they get ready to depart the docks in Destin on one of the company's rental boats Wednesday.

"We've been busy ... like everything out every day," said Josh Guerrero, manager of La Dolce Vita which rents out pontoons and jet skis in three locations on the Emerald Coast.

"I think people are just itching to get out after being cooped up that long," Guerrero said.

Guerrero said they shut down for a month at the onset of the virus when the beaches shut down.

However, when they decided to open back up, business boomed.

"When we opened back up it was like a 100 percent ... full throttle," he said.

Guerrero attributed some of their success to the capacity on their vessels. On the pontoon boats people are usually with their family or friends they are with all they time, and as for jet skis it's just one or two people.

"That absolutely helped," he said, with those who feared being around big crowds during the pandemic.

As for time lost at the beginning of the season, "I don't think you'll ever make up for the time lost or the money lost, but I'm glad it went back to normal ... the new normal," Guerrero said.

Capt. Kyle Lowe, foreground and Mate Danny Brennan of the Special K clean fish after returning to the docks in Destin from a charter fishing trip.

S.E.A. Chase Watersports, also located on Destin harbor, finished the summer season strong despite the pandemic.

"I never thought we’d get close to last seasons record breaking numbers but we did and will actually surpass last year," said Sheri Andrews, of S.E.A. Chase.

RELATED:April 2020 - S.E.A. Chase Watersports passes out pizzas and more during pandemic

S.E.A. Chase, which rents out pontoons, lost a few days early in the season due to the pandemic with no tourists in town and the ban on short-term rentals.

However, by mid-May business picked up and once the STR ban was lifted, "it was game on," Andrews said.

"We were extremely busy all season and actually full today a few days after the end of summer," she said earlier this week.

Tyler Kersanac, standing at center,  with S.E.A. Chase Watersports gives a safety briefing to a group renting a pontoon boat in this photo from June.

Although, S.E.A. Chase always cleans their boats well between guests, they went a little further this season making sure all steering wheels, throttles, etc., were properly sanitized.

"Our guests were great and very understanding of the extra time it took to ensure their boat was safe," she said.

While all business along the harbor took extra care to make sure their vessels were clean, not everyone was willing to get on a boat with large numbers.

Like the Buccaneer and Southern Star that can hold well over 100 people, the Hannah Marie Dolphin Cruise boat at Olin Marler's also had a down season.

More:Destin dolphin cruises and pontoon boats back and running

"Our dolphin cruises were way down," said Kristy Collinsworth of Olin Marler's Charter Boat Service and Dolphin Cruises.

"It's because of COVID ... a 100 percent because of COVID and people not wanting to be on a boat with that many people," she said.

The Hannah Marie, which took out 41 passengers on their Wednesday afternoon dolphin excursion, has a capacity of more than 100. 

"Compared to last year, we're way down. I would probably say half of what it was compared to last year," Collinsworth said.

Passengers enjoy a dolphin viewing excursion aboard the Hannah Marie in the East Pass in this photo from June.

She said once they went back to full capacity on the vessel after Memorial Day, they lost a few people.

"We had a few people who were squeamish getting on. They didn't want to get on a boat with that many people," she said.

As for the fishing end of their business, Collinsworth said, "fishing went well."

She like most are anticipating a better 2021.

"Anything has to to be better than 2020," she said.