Drying docks
Marinas deal with low lake

BUFORD - Wendy Phillips has no hope of turning a profit over the next few months, as north Georgia's $5.5 billion economic engine literally dries up.

Trying to survive the exceptional drought that has driven Lake Sidney Lanier to less than 4 feet above the lowest level it has ever reached, marina employees like Phillips have been forced to move boats, extend docks, dredge ramps and pray for rain.

On Friday, the Marine Trade Association of Metropolitan Atlanta filed paperwork in Georgia's war to reduce releases at Buford Dam, citing $35 million in losses or cost increases and 32 jobs lost at area businesses.

Association President Bill Sommerfield said the numbers are low, since few businesses replied in time for the paperwork to be filed.

At Starboard Cove Marina, more than 300 boats were moved from the water to dry docks, Phillips, the dockmaster, said.

Operators at the Flowery Branch location had originally planned to only relocate boats on a couple of piers, but she said if the others had not been taken out of the water, they would be damaged now.

Almost all of the docks, she said, are now sitting on dry land. Only owners of pontoon boats, which can rest on the dry land without being damaged, are being left in the water.

"It's definitely taken a toll on everybody," she said. "The lake beds aren't level so, as these docks hit the ground, they are cracking. We're trying to do some preventative things for when the boats do go back in the water."

While the summer boating season is over, sailing is a popular attraction in the blustery fall, said Vernita Loveridge, vice president of Westrec Marinas, which owns Holiday Marina in Buford.

To deal with the expanding shore, Holiday's crew has physically moved two docks by attaching them to other docks, made one dock free-floating and extended four other docks.

Loveridge called the actions "phase one," but added that she hoped other measures aren't necessary.

About 200 of 1,200 boats have been moved, and she said about 100 customers have pulled out and taken their boats home for the winter.

All of that will cost the marina about $200,000 by the end of the year.

"It's more important for us to take care of our boats, take care of our customers," she said, adding that she is still seeing a lot of sailors.

But Sommerfield, who operates Lazy Days Marina in Buford, said he worries about boaters these days.

"There are so many horror stories of people hitting things," such as trees and rocks in the much more shallow water, he said. "Now they are really having to think before they jump in."

Sommerfield has had to move boats from nearly a quarter of Lazy Days' 61 slips. Most of the boats - more than 500 - are stored in dry stack, and the company promises to have them in and out of the water within an hour.

That promise, Sommerfield said, has gotten harder to keep, since two of the ramps used for the boats have dried up and an emergency ramp in use now has had to be dredged.

Moving docks, he said, isn't as simple as it sounds, with crews needed to move water, sewer and phone hook-ups. So far, the marina has had to spend $400,000 to $500,000 to keep the boats in water.

"It's easy to say; it's not easy to do," he said.