Row Boat Willies

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Rob and Mike Poleski will tell you that the Row Boat Willie’s story was actually started decades ago by their parents. Bill’s Boats was the dream of Mike and Rob’s dad: a dream to build a place on Millers Island and to own a business that was the biggest boat rental around.

Mrs. Poleski stood by her husband, even though she had multiple offers to model and travel the world. In the end, Rob and Mike say, none of the success would have happened if it were not for her being such a big part of her husband’s dreams.

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Things got off to a pretty good start. But times change. In the 1970’s, “old man time” began to catch up with the boat rental business; people started buying their own boats rather than renting them. Over the next few decades, some boat storage and boat launching fees helped keep the business afloat, but the Poleski brothers realized that the previous model would not be sustainable.

So, into the 1990’s, Rob and Mike began the transition from a row boat rental and slip service into more of a marina-style approach with boat slips. At the time, other marina owners laughed – it was hard to believe that the Poleski’s could get the permits to create the deep water and calm water for marina conditions here.

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Acknowledging that it was one part stubbornness and one part ambition, the brothers kept pushing forward through lots of red tape and several years of effort. They invested lots of their own money and resources to make a marina in Millers Island a reality. For a long time, it seemed the conversion was successful and the brothers had made it. They even had plans to add a dock bar named in honor of their father – Row Boat Willies.

Then, devastation struck when Hurricane Isabell hit. The new piers were installed, a protective jetty was in place and the boats slips and racks were completely filled. The storm changed all of that – the piers were wrecked, three buildings were lost, and boats were scattered everywhere. As Mike and Rob recall, “we lost just about everything.”

They wondered if they could even think about coming back from the havoc.

From a makeshift office basement, the brothers decided to make another go of it and the rebuilding began. Fighting through more red tape at their insurance company, the Poleskis starting working together to pick up the pieces. They even had to rent a car two days after the storm (theirs was totaled) in order to make it to the final zoning hearing in Baltimore County for their dock bar. The paperwork was still crinkled from the water; the ink on the paper was still bleeding. County officials were shocked that they had shown up.

But the Poleski’s – and Row Boat Willies – make it through. The zoning was approved, and enough money was scraped together to rebuild the marina and construct the dock bar.

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Ask Rob and Mike, and they will tell you that going through Hurricane Isabelle was bittersweet: At the time they asked, “Why did this happen? Why?” Looking back, it all makes sense to Mike now. As he shares, “Sometimes you have to pay to get good – good so often comes out of the bad.”

And the good has come. Not only does the marina remain, but a small little dock bar that originally only meant to sell a few beers and water has turned into one of the best stops along the Chesapeake Bay.

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