Even on a weekday afternoon, a line of cars jams up at Grays Bay on Lake Minnetonka as they wait to launch their boats. Vehicles fill an overflow lot. In the water, anglers dodge droves of Jet Skis flooding the bays, where sailboats bob in the wakes of powerboats zipping by.
The boats are back.
As the boat season peaks this July 4th, local businesses are embracing an influx in boats on Lake Minnetonka after a battered economy and escalating gas prices put a dent in one of Minnesota's biggest industries.
"It's been the best year in probably the last five years," said Aaron Bean of Greenwood Marina in Excelsior, who has a waiting list for his 110 boat slips for the first time in years. "Boaters are dying to be out, and they're willing to pay for it."
Registrations of new boats nearly doubled last year from 2009 and this year, the Hennepin County Sheriff Office's water patrol is ramping up officers' hours while marinas reel in higher profits.
An early ice out and unusual streak of warm weather this spring and summer have given people the "itch" to be out on the lake, Bean said. Other boaters and marina owners are less convinced that the extra traffic indicates a total rebound for the boating industry, but national numbers show some mend is on the way across the country.
Boating participation jumped 10 percent last year to an estimated 83 million Americans -- the largest percentage of boaters in the nation since 1997, the National Marine Manufacturers Association announced recently. The industry also had its first increase in retail sales since 2006, growing by 6 percent in 2011 to $32 billion of sales in boats, accessories and marine services.
At the launch, 'it's gotten worse'
On popular Lake Minnetonka, the state's ninth-largest lake, Marti Karschnik of Plymouth and her husband avoid bringing their 17-foot Seaway and three-seater Jet Ski out on weekends, opting for calmer weekday mornings.
"This year it seems like it's a lot busier earlier [in the year]," she said after taking the Jet Ski out last week. On weekends, she said, the Grays Bay launch can have up to a two-hour wait. "The last couple years, it's gotten worse."
In Minnesota, which has the most boats per capita in the nation and an estimated 2.3 million boaters, the economic slowdown and high gas prices hit the industry hard. After a drastic drop in 2010, new boat registrations steadily climbed from 11,000 in 2009 to 20,000 in 2011. About 808,000 boats are registered this year in Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Officers with the water patrol say it's difficult to tell if traffic congestion is any worse than previous years, but enforcement actions have increased across the board.
Boating citations and verbal warnings are all up this time over last year. Boating while intoxicated arrests rose from 48 in 2010 to 75 in 2011, and careless boating arrests and careless consumption arrests also increased. The number of accidents, however, declined.
Lt. Art Saunders said the statistics could reflect this year's extra staffing of Water Patrol officers on Lake Minnetonka from 6 a.m. to 4 a.m., four hours longer than in past years.
"Our presence out there really controls what happens," he said. "Everyone tries to share the lake, but it does get difficult; there's only so much room."
Returning to the water
Professional fishing guide Bob Turgeon, who is on Lake Minnetonka nearly every day, said public accesses such as Grays Bay's are always packed this year with boaters deterred from the lakes a few years ago now returning and new boaters discovering it for the first time.
"It's busier than I've ever seen it," he said. "It's crazy out there this year."
This year, some boat dealerships reported a boost in business, even expanding stores.
Others are less convinced a recovery is here.
Gabriel Jabbour, owner of four marinas on Lake Minnetonka, said business is up from the past two or three years. But, he said, some boat slips are still available and boat congestion on the lake isn't any greater than it always is. In fact, Jabbour said he doesn't expect to see the throngs of boaters and boat purchases from five years ago for another several more years, if at all.
"Business is better, but [boat purchases] are going to be a long, long ways away from where we were," he said.
The state tracks boat traffic, but the most recent statistics are from 2009, showing a steady decline in the number of boaters statewide over the years. However, the DNR estimates that boat launches on public accesses in Lake Minnetonka in the summer of 2010 was up by about 400 boats compared to 2004.
Tom Jacob, owner of the Excel Boat Club in Excelsior, said business is up on weekends and the boat club's 200 memberships sold out earlier than it ever has, with people ponying up the $5,000 membership at the beginning of the summer.
"I think it's back to normal, the way it was four years ago," Jacob said. "People are back in the water."
Staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib