Owner of lakefront restaurant gets feet wet offering line of boats
John Weinrich has spent more hours than he cares to count over the past 21 years running NewPort Shores, a popular dining spot on the shore of Lake Michigan in Port Washington.
On the nicest of those days, Weinrich admits, he looks out the expansive bank of windows overlooking the lakefront and dreams of setting sail.
Then, he began to wonder how many other people are looking for an easy way to take to the waves.
From that daydreaming came his latest venture. Weinrich is now the exclusive dealer of Nauticraft boats in Wisconsin.
“I have been looking into simple boats for about four years, both for myself and as something I could rent to people,” he said.
That exhaustive research led Weinrich to the Nauticraft Corp., a manufacturer of molded polyethylene boats based in Muskegon, Mich., just across the lake.
“My deliveries come over on the SS Badger. When I got the first one off the boat, I can’t tell you how many people stopped me and asked, ‘What kind of boat is that?’” he said.
To the uninitiated, the boats look like glorified paddleboats that vacationers use to splash about inland lakes.
Weinrich said such a comparison seriously underestimates the seaworthiness of the vessels, which come in two-person and four-person models.
The basic boat relies on a sophisticated pedal system that uses a Kevlar reinforced belt to drive a rear-facing propeller. Weinrich said sufficient thrust is generated to move the boat at a steady 6 mph.
“These are definitely not toys. They are stable as heck and are easy to maneuver. You know your kids will be safe in one of these if they are wearing a life vest,” Weinrich said.
“I’ve had one out on the lake with a couple of the restaurant staff. They were walking around and it was perfectly solid.”
The boats have a low profile that makes them aerodynamic, and they sport a removable polycarbonate windshield.
A bilge pump and ballast system add to the craft’s stability.
Upscale models of the boat offer a supplemental electric motor and can be equipped with a free-standing sail.
“This is a green option to boating. There is no spilling motor oil onto the water and no over-filling of gas tanks,” Weinrich said.
The boats incorporate semi-reclining, padded seats reminiscent of those on recumbent bicycles.
“A lot of people use the boats for exercise. I know cyclists in Colorado who are always concerned about getting side-swiped by semis,” Weinrich said. “With these boats, they can head out to a lake and have races without worrying about getting hit by a truck.
“The most popular models are the boats that have battery-powered motors. People can go out for a paddle, and when they get tired they can head back using the motor.”
The Nauticraft boats are not cheap, but Weinrich said you get what you pay for.
The basic model sells for about $3,200, and the deluxe model — which comes complete with electric motor and trailer — retails for about $6,500.
“If you are familiar with the old paddleboats, you would pay about $600 for them and use them for a couple of seasons until they broke down,” Weinrich said. “These boats are built to last for generations. They could be passed down from parent to kid.”
Weinrich said he plans to have boats available for rental, targeting families who are planning to spend a week on an inland lake and don’t want to haul a big powerboat.
“These things are really light and easy to haul,” he said.
Being the only dealer of the line in Wisconsin, Weinrich envisions the product drawing people from all around.
“I can see someone getting ready to spend a week on Lake Geneva, wanting to rent one of these. They would come to Port to pick the boat up, and maybe end up spending a little extra money in town,” he said.
“It may not be much, but it could help bring new business to town.”
Weekly rental rates are based on the model boat sought, but Weinrich said the cost would be “no more than a couple hundred dollars.”
He is also selling the boats, and is surprised how quickly his first boat sold.
“If someone comes into the restaurant and says they want to buy a boat, I’ll probably even buy them a meal,” Weinrich said.
The boat business is a departure for the affable restaurant owner, but he said he has never been the kind of person to play things safe.
“I’ve always had more plans than I’ve known what to do with,” Weinrich joked.
JOHN WEINRICH POSED (above) with a pedal-powered Nauticraft Escapade boat outside his Port Washington restaurant, NewPort Shores. At left, Rich Plier, who is a a cook at NewPort Shores restaurant, doubled as a willing pilot behind the controls of the boat. Photos by Mark Jaeger