Keeping lake lovers happy on their boats

Sam Mahaffey with some of his merchandise in the Lake Region Repair shop near Wares Crossroads.

Sam Mahaffey, co-owner of Lake Region Repair Inc., became an expert as a young man on how to repair motors and other mechanical equipment.

He got started watching his father, who owned a gas station and repair shop. The family lived near Youghiogheny Reservoir in western Pennsylvania, where Mahaffey worked in high school at a marina. He learned how to mix gas and oil for engines and took care of rental boats.

One of the benefits of Mahaffey’s successful career in data communications was that he was often able to work from home. He and his wife and co-owner, Barbara, took advantage and bought a home near Lake Anna in 1998. Four years later, he launched his business after noticing how the existing boat repair shops around the lake were always overwhelmed with work.

“It was not unusual back then in the spring for shops to have a four-to-six week backlog of repairs waiting to be done,” he said. “I figured there’s got to be room for one more.

“It took off a lot faster than I expected. I thought it would be a small shop, but we’ve had three expansions and added a lot of people, to where we now have a fairly big business.”

The Mahaffeys employ two other family members, Trina Ruckle, their niece, and Lee Rankin, Sam’s brother, and 10 others. During the summer they typically add a couple more staff. The business sits at the corner of Chopping Road and Zachary Taylor Highway (Route 522), close to the heart of Lake Anna’s commercial center.

The biggest change Mahaffey has seen since he started the business is the composition of boat traffic and when boaters are active on the lake. With the arrival of wakesurfers and wakeboarders, he now sees more activity in the early hours of the day and in the evenings, because these boaters seek calmer waters and don’t want to compete for space with other power boats, pontoons and people towing people on inner tubes.

“The users have adapted okay,” he observed. “There’s enough lake for everybody. It’s the same as the highway — everybody just has to realize the infrastructure has to be used appropriately.”

The mechanics of wakeboats aren’t much different than for other boats, he said. Owners add ballast to weigh boats down and produce a larger wake, but the engines and other internal components aren’t terribly different.

The Mahaffeys sell these and other powerboats, jet skis and pontoon boats. They also sell a lot of docks and boat lifts, including ones that sit in the water for people who don’t own waterfront property and lease a slip on a common area dock.

Most of the business’ clients are individual homeowners, but they also sell boats and do repairs for commercial customers who rent boats and personal watercraft.

Another change Mahaffey has seen is a dramatic increase in the boat prices. He recalls some people years ago that wanted to buy multiple types of boats to meet different family members’ needs. With that an unlikely solution for most lakers, more people these days will choose to buy a pontoon boat with three logs to try to please everyone.

“It can carry more people than a traditional fiberglass boat, it rides better, you’ve got plenty of power to pull skiers or kids in tubes,” he said. “Most people aren’t professional skiers or wakeboarders so they don’t need a $100,000 boat.”

This time of year, business is starting to pick up as owners bring their boats in for inspections. Mahaffey advises people not to put their boats in the water until they have done a thorough check-up, even if the boats were covered during the winter months.

“Anything that’s been sitting for months is subject to things going wrong with it,” he said. “All the wildlife that’s out there is looking for something to eat. Mice and squirrels chew on the wires hanging down for the transducers, and once they’ve punched a hole in your gas line or eaten through your bellows, you’ve got a problem.

“The other thing people forget when they go to the water in the spring is to put their drain plugs in. They launch and all of a sudden they’ve got a hole in the boat. It sounds like a simple thing, but you’d be amazed how many people forget and their boat quickly takes on water. Your boat could sink right at the dock. And you’d best not start your engine at that time.”

Boaters should also check their engine compartment to make sure no fluid leaks have developed, he said.

“Mechanical stuff wants to be used on a regular basis,” he said. “Gas goes bad, seals and bearings dry out. It’s inevitable with boats that they’ll go through a period of not being used.”

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