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Muskegon couple successfully markets mooring invention
"There is a whole lot you have to do before you dare jump in and start paying for injection molds and this sort of stuff. You have to know your product will have demand," said Larry Gray.
Larry and Judy Gray are retirees who came up with a new product idea in 2005 that is now produced by a Muskegon manufacturer and sold to boaters around the nation.
TideMinders are high-density polyethylene balls threaded on a mooring line around a piling. The balls act as roller bearings, allowing the line to effortlessly move up and down on the piling as the tide comes in and out, or as waves rock the boat. The invention helps prevent fraying of the mooring lines and also prevents them from snagging, which can cause a boat to list dangerously.
Normally, boats that are moored for weeks at a time must be checked every few days to make sure the mooring lines are not snagged or badly frayed.
"With TideMinders installed on those lines, you literally set them and forget them," said Larry Gray.
"We still, to this day, cannot understand why nobody else thought of it," said Gray, a music teacher who retired in 1996.
TideMinders come in sets of nine, and close to 1,700 sets have been sold. Recently, the general manager of the Houston Yacht Club decided to provide one set of TideMinders for each slip in its marina, with the thought that the boat owners will probably want to order more once they see how well TideMinders work. Then, in November, the U.S. Navy ordered TideMinders to try on its small boats at the naval station in Norfolk, Va.
The Grays are experienced sailors who once sailed their S2 9.1 30-foot sailboat from Traverse City to Florida, via the Mississippi. In the spring of 2005, they were visiting on a relative's boat on the Gulf Coast. A mooring line snagged on the piling as the tide came in, causing the boat to list. That was evident when they saw Judy's glass of wine sliding across the table, which started a discussion about the mooring problem familiar to all boaters who have been on tidewater or where waves can be significant.
Judy Gray said her husband "kind of tucked that (problem) into the back of his mind." Then, she said, in August, Larry woke up one morning and announced he had the solution: something strung like large pearls on the line around the piling. He explained his idea to Judy, who had some spare inline skate wheels. They tried it and it worked — but they knew they needed "pearls" that could withstand the saltwater and exposure to the hot sun.
Not long after that, the Grays were among the first inventors to join the Muskegon Inventors Network, which had just been organized by Orville Crain.
The Grays also contacted Courtney Gust, the founder/owner of Camcar Plastics Inc. in Muskegon.
"He's an inventor, too, and he loves to take on these adventurous new products," said Larry Gray. He said Gust, whom he described as "a genius" at injection molding, made several prototypes for the "pearls," finally coming up with a type that floats — another plus for anything used on the water.
"I do try to help inventors out," said Gust. Camcar, which Courtney and Teri Gust started in 2000, makes plastic consumer goods, conveyor parts and packaging parts — "hardly any automotive or office furniture," he said.
Gust said he and his staff try to help make inventors' products better and more marketable, and they also will propose design changes that can make the product more efficient to manufacture.
The Grays formed a company, Go With The Flow LLC, and production of TideMinders began at Camcar in 2006. The TideMinders sell for about $50 per set. They are easily put on existing mooring lines, and nothing else is required.
The Grays have applied for a patent, although Judy Gray was quick to note that their application is pending and they don't know when and even if a patent will be granted.
A patent application is "not a certainty at all. Never is, it seems," said Larry Gray.
Just because an idea can be patented doesn't mean it will make money. In his experience as an inventor, Gray said he has learned that "95 percent of all patents never reach the market — the products never reach a sale."
The Grays did a lot of research on the market and product ideas that had already been proposed to solve the problem of snagging and frayed mooring lines. They said a patent search showed dozens of "solutions," the majority of which they decided were too complicated and costly to ever reach the market place.
"We seemed to be on the right track," said Gray.
They tested prototypes for a year, in all kinds of weather. The TideMinders now come in several colors and are guaranteed for 10 years, which helps make the price practical in the long run since it prevents abrasive wear on the lines.
Gust connected the Grays with Dr. Shrink Inc., a company in Manistee that distributes supplies for shrink-wrapping large objects — especially boats — on an international scale. Dr. Shrink became the distributor for TideMinders, since so many of its customers are boating supply stores and marinas. The Grays said worldwide marketing by Dr. Shrink, owned by Mike Stenberg, has been a key part of their success.
TideMinders also received welcome publicity in new product reports published in two magazines. One was Seaworthy Magazine, a quarterly publication by the BoatUS Marine Insurance Damage Avoidance Program, an insurance business. Each issue is focused on information for avoiding boating accidents and damage. The other magazine was Practical Sailor, published by Belvoir Media Group LLC.
Gray said they advertise TideMinders in two publications: Southwinds and Nor'easter, which both focus on saltwater boaters. The product also is listed in the West Marine retail catalog. Other help on getting the word out about TideMinders came from Torresen Marine Inc., a major marina on Muskegon Lake that is well-known to Big Lake sailing enthusiasts.
Legal assistance came from patent attorney Dan Girdwood, and Web site design from Paul Yuen.