Doug Trewhitt spent two years waiting for the Marina del Rey slip where his 26-foot powerboat now resides.

Like thousands of boat owners before him, he was willing to bide his time until the perfect spot opened in 2008.

What a difference a year can make; today he can't even find anyone willing to lease the space for three months while he takes his annual summer boating trip on the Colorado River.

"I'm surprised," said Trewhitt, 53, a manufacturing company owner who's been trying to sublet his slip at the Boat Yard since December.

The director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which owns the marina and leases most of its anchorages to independent operators, goes a step further.
"I've never seen it like this," Santos Kreiman said of the row upon row of empty slips.

Like death and taxes, one thing was always certain at the world's largest pleasure-craft marina; you could count on a waiting list to get your boat a home. With the recession, however, there has been a dramatic turnaround; what once was hot property is now going begging.

The numbers paint a stark picture: With a total of 4,731 slips in the marina, the vacancy rate has grown from 2.8 percent last year to 9 percent today, Kreiman said. Historically, most of Marina del Rey's slips which rent for about $300 to $1,300 per month, depending on boat size have been nearly impossible to land.

The unprecedented situation is partly caused by the county's plan for an ambitious $1.5 billion marina makeover that includes five new hotels, six apartment buildings and six boat-related projects, some of which involve the rebuilding of marinas.

More to the point, however, is the economic downturn, which has hit boat owners just about as hard as it has homeowners. Some now owe more on their boats than the crafts are worth, while others are unemployed or have seen their disposable income evaporate.

As a result, many owners are unable to keep up payments or even find buyers for their boats in the tight market. Some crafts are being abandoned or junked, while other owners are moving smaller boats out of expensive slips into driveways, garages and backyards.

"Things are very slow," said Horia Ispias, dock master for the Dolphin, Panay and Holiday marinas, which offer a total of 800 slips and traditionally had long waiting lists.

At the moment, 10 slips are occupied by boats whose owners have stopped paying the monthly fees, and an additional seven are vacant.

"We have good tenants, but most are adjusting to maintain their standards of living. Right now we're just hoping to hold on," Ispias said.

Hardest hit

Hardest hit are the slips for smaller boats. Among those 25 feet long and under, Kreiman said, marinawide vacancies have more than doubled in the last year from about 2 percent to 4.7 percent in February. The increase has been even more dramatic among boats in the 26- to 35-foot range, which are still considered small. Their vacancy has shot up from just six-tenths of a percent to 3.7 percent, more than a six-fold increase.

And it hasn't gotten any better as the year has gone on, with vacancies continuing to mount.

One of the sites where the trend is most evident is the Esprit Apartments and Marina on Marquesas Way, the area's newest apartment complex. Esprit has 437 units and 227 slips, which are open to both complex residents and outsiders. The complex was completed in July and managers were certain that the slips would be filled by now; instead, only about 40 percent have been leased.

"Marina del Rey has historically been 100 percent leased," lamented Doug Ring, the new development's managing partner and one of Marina del Rey's major lessees. "No one planned on the current economic situation. Had I had enough foresight to see it coming, I probably would have moved to the middle of the desert and covered myself with sand."

Still, Ring said, he hopes to have the majority of his slips leased out by the end of the summer.

"We are in a very highly fluid situation, and like every other landlord of apartments, retail, boat slips or anything else have to come up with a strategy that may be different from that of others," he said.

Though Ring declined to discuss the details of his survival "strategy," others in the marina said they expect prices on the slips to be lowered.

Another anchorage where prices have fluctuated is Bar Harbor Apartments & Anchorage, which has 252 slips that are about 70 percent filled. About a year ago, Assistant Manager Lenai Price said the anchorage stopped offering new slip leases in anticipation of the planned demolition and rebuilding of the apartment complex and its docks.

When the project was delayed, the slips went back on the market in January for three week at $250 to $1,000 a month, about 16 percent to 18 percent lower than normal. "(The sale) helped us a lot," Price said.

But the bottom line is that anchorages for which customers once lined up now have to compete.

"Just a couple of years ago it was tough getting a slip, especially a smaller one. Now they're available everywhere," she said.

In demand

Even the marina's several yacht clubs, where members get reduced slip rates with their membership fees, have been hit by the downturn.

The 500-member Del Rey Yacht Club, for instance, still has a three- to five-year waiting list for its 305 slips. Yet the club, which charges one-time initiation fees of $1,000 to $5,000 plus dues of about $200 a month, is seeing fewer potential members walk though its doors.

"Some are trying to get rid of their boats, but they can't unless they give them away," lamented Pauline Dror, the club's commodore, or president. "Our slips haven't been affected, probably because people are having trouble selling their boats."

Indeed, one Marina del Rey yacht broker reports a 50 percent sales decline in two years. Boats are "a luxury item and consumer confidence is low," said Steve Curran, who manages the marina office of San Diego-based H & S; Yacht Sales.

The company's average customer, he said, buys a 40-foot sailboat for about $250,000 new or $100,000 to $200,000 used. But it's not just the price that is turning off potential owners in this rough economy. Sailboat owners who now outnumber their powerboat brethren also must pay about $200 a month for maintenance and $800 a month for a 40-foot slip.

H & S; has offered numerous incentives, most recently paying its customers' sales tax, to get people through the door. "We've seen a nice surge just in the last few weeks," Curran said. "I think the moon was lined up right; what we're dealing with is emotionalism, and people don't stay down forever."

At least one Marina del Rey business may actually be benefitting from the crunch.

Greg Schem, owner of the Boat Yard, which repairs and services watercraft, said that business there is good.

"We're as busy as we've always been repairing boats," he said. "People clearly aren't buying new boats, but repairing what they've got." Or, in some cases, paying Schem to demolish them, which he does several times a month.

"You're sitting there with a boat worth zero, paying insurance, paying for a slip, paying for cleaning and you say, 'You know what, I've just got to stop,' Schem said. "People upside down are finding ways to get out."

As for Trewhitt, his craft is not in danger of being repossessed. But though he is still taking it to the Colorado River, the sail boat is otherwise seeing far less use.

"In an economy like this, you're working a lot harder with a lot less discretionary time and money," he said, "so I don't take it out very often."

And if things get much worse, Trewhitt said, he has an easy solution: "I can always let the slip go."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.