30 Years Of Houseboating

Dick Gragert’s HydraNautics and the houseboating industry

October 2019 Feature Emily FitzPatrick

How does a successful business get its start? There are a number of answers to this question, any of which could be right. However, the general response seems to be a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck that steers you in the right direction. In other words, it’s a mystery formula.

If anyone in the houseboating industry has figured out that formula it’s Dick Gragert, the creator of HydraNautics. The likelihood that you’ve met him is strong, especially if you’ve had one of his thrusters installed on your boat. But do you know the story behind how he got where he is today?

About The Legend

Gragert was in the flying business long before he became a houseboater. He served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam where he received two Purple Hearts and a Distinguished Flying Cross. He came to Kentucky as Evil Knievel’s helicopter pilot and then stayed after the stunt performer and entertainer did a jump on Kings Island. Soon Gragert’s interest began to shift as he evolved into an avid barefoot water skier.

“I was wearing out boat drivers going to the lake,” Gragert reminisced. “They only wanted to get out of the sun and into the A.C., so I thought having a houseboat would be the solution. I ended up trading an airplane to Joe Sharp, the owner at the time of Sumerset Houseboats. I was getting everything on it and I asked about thrusters and they said, ‘Dick you’re a helicopter pilot. You don’t need them and they’re not very good anyway.’”

And just like that, Gragert began creating his own thrusters. From there it was off to the races. First, his neighbors saw and wanted them, then friends of friends, and soon enough HydraNautics was taking on a life of its own with Gragert’s hard work keeping it soaring as the houseboat market boomed.

Believing In HydraNautics

A common saying is that in order to be a good salesman you have to believe in your product. Perhaps this explains why Gragert has always blown the competition out of the water with his HydraNautics thrusters. However, Gragert doesn’t just believe in his product. He also guarantees that it will satisfy every customer.

“I would go out to install them I would tell them, ‘Look. If when I fire them up you’re not just tickled to death and it isn’t better than you thought it was going to be then I’ll take them off and go home and you don’t owe me anything.’ I’ve always said that and in 30 years I’ve never taken them off and gone home.”

Once houseboaters try HydraNautics they never go back thanks to its high-quality performance. Gragert estimates there are now about 3,500 boats with his thrusters on them. Installing new thrusters as well as taking care of old ones keeps Gragert on his toes constantly.

Too Close For Comfort

Gragert can recall any number of stories about his time in the houseboating industry, but one of his favorites is from a simple trip to install a thruster on a houseboat in Florida. It was a routine trip. Gragert met with the owner shortly before he disappeared elsewhere and hopped on the houseboat to get to work.

As he worked on installing his thrusters onto the houseboat he could see eyes looking at him and felt things brushing up against his legs, so he hurried up and did the job and got out of the water.

“When they guy got back I asked him, ‘Are there alligators in here?’” Gragert recalled. “And he says, ‘Oh yeah, we never get in the water around here.’ That was nice of him to say after the fact. He also told me how his mother feeds chickens to them off the back of the boat. I don’t know how that guy thought I was going to get those thrusters on there without getting in the water.” 

Alligators aren’t the only oddities Gragert has come across during his time installing thrusters. He’s come across plenty of other animals, such as snakes, and any odd number of situations. However, he has never had a problem getting the job finished and pleasing his customers. 

The Truth About The Future

The houseboating industry has had many ups and downs, but we can all admit that the industry has had more downs than ups lately with many titans closing their doors. There was a time when houseboating was booming, but unfortunately we’ve entered an era where it’s beginning to slow.

“It isn’t always the good guys win,” Gragert said. “You always think the best ones survive, but that’s not always true. But it is what it is. I think a lot of these boats are going to get older. I bought a houseboat in 2004 and I sold it just recently in December for more than I paid for it. Compared to what is available today, some of the prices and what you get don't compare with what you could get in the past.”

One of the major differences between houseboating now and houseboating back then is the cost of purchasing a boat. For many people, it is just too expensive to afford unless they are looking at a used market. However, there is still hope that the houseboating industry will get its boom again, especially since there is so much room for newcomers and old manufacturers that wish to make a comeback.

Why We Keep Going

Despite the tough times the houseboating market has seen, especially recently, Gragert loves his job. For 30 years he’s been the owner and creator of HydraNautics, as well as a houseboater himself, and he looks forward to more years to come of pleasing his customers with his thrusters.

Gragert shared, “I always like to see the smile on that customer’s face when I turn them on the first time. The smile and the amazement. Almost every time they say they didn’t realize they were going to be that powerful.”

No matter what the industry faces, it’s the moments where he is able to connect and makes a difference in the lives of houseboaters that keep Gragert pushing forward. And in reality, those moments of connection are what keep us all pushing forward and looking excitedly toward more days of houseboating in our future.

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