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Remote-controlled boat rental finds smooth sailing

Larry Johnson is making his living remotely these days.

The former aeronautic engineer has turned entrepreneur, leaving his job at Aberdeen Proving Ground to rent remote-controlled model sailboats to visitors to Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, and sell the boats from an online hobby store.

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For Johnson, a longtime lover of remote-controlled toys, the move is a marriage of hobby and heart, but the business also is tapping into a growing interest in model yachts across the nation.

According to the American Model Yachting Association, the governing and sanctioning body for model yacht racing in the United States, membership in its clubs has grown about 30 percent over the past three years, and shows no sign of slowing, said John T. Hanks III, executive secretary of the group. He said new low-cost products have helped drive interest.

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"Part of the growth that has taken place in the last few years can be attributed to several model manufacturers producing kit models that can be purchased in the local hobby shop and will let the owner get on the pond for $150 to $200 with a minimum amount of time involved," Hanks said.

"This has exposed a whole new group of enthusiasts to the hobby [and] sport of model yachting. Naturally, not all of these new skippers will continue with their sailing, but a percentage do and they are then drawn to the AMYA," he said.

With businesses such as the one Johnson has started, a would-be enthusiast can satisfy curiosity about the models for less - patrons can rent Johnson's sailboats for $6 for a half-hour or $10 an hour.

Johnson also sells the Laser sailboats he rents from his Web site, cehobbies.com, for $429. He expects to expand his selection in the store to include other remote-controlled toys.

Although RC Sailboat Rental has operated at the lake only for a month, Johnson said customers are lined up waiting for him to open some weekends, and he often stands at the pier watching all seven of his boats floating in the man-made body of water at the center of Columbia. Once, he said, he got choked up.

"I say, 'Wow! I can't believe these people are paying to use my toys,'" he said.

People certainly seem drawn to the 41-inch-long boats, whether to watch the grace of the wind-powered vessels gliding in front of full-size versions that are on the lake, or to stand on the dock and adjust the sails and rudder with the remote, guiding the boat's course.

"They've been dying to do the boats," said Barbara Corso, who was visiting from Philadelphia last week when her sons Daniel and Frank asked to rent. "They wanted to get some, but they're not cheap. I tell them save their money and they can get one."

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Johnson said he started RC Sailboat Rental in Baltimore's Inner Harbor last year after seeing a similar business in New York City's Central Park. He moved to Columbia this year with a slow start, after the Columbia Association - which manages its property in town, including the lake - decided to cut the paddle boat rental business that had been there more than 20 years because it wasn't attracting customers.

For Johnson, the rental business is a natural extension to the online business, which sells the boats and his handmade boat stands. The boats also are less costly for Johnson as a dealer, and of all the remote-controlled models available, least likely to be damaged. A lead ballast in the bottom of the boat ensures that it will not topple, sturdy sails allow sailing in winds as high as 35 mph, Johnson said, and on the lake, they have little to run into.

Johnson said he expects to continue the rentals until next month, but he has ideas to make the business more profitable next year - he is working on plans to allow local businesses to advertise by putting their logos on the rental boats' sails for the season. He hopes to generate sales from sailing schools, which sometimes use the toys to teach students the basics of sailing before putting them on real boats. He also hopes to reopen at the Inner Harbor next year.

Johnson said he will continue looking for ways to increase business, but for now, he is encouraged by the response.

"I'll refine the business as I go," he said. "If you find something that's hot and people respond to it, you should do it."


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