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Boaters dealing with high fuel prices

Even before Hurricane Katrina many were changing the way they spend time on the water

Even before Hurricane Katrina many were changing the way they spend time on the water

Even before Hurricane Katrina caused gas and diesel prices to spike, boaters were concerned about rising fuel costs.

As gasoline prices climbed over the $3 mark this summer prior to the storm, boaters were taking steps to cut their fuel costs, and were looking ahead to what they might do if prices kept climbing — but they were determined to get in some more licks on the water as the Labor Day weekend approached.

Rich Rantio of Middleburg, Fla., had run 35 miles offshore in his 26-1/2-foot center console to catch a couple of 30-inch red snapper. The fishing was great — he and fishing buddy Ben Williams threw five or six smaller snapper back — but the cost of getting to where the fish are is becoming a strain, he says. Rantio’s twin 225-hp 4-strokes burn $70 to $80 worth of gasoline every time he goes out. His pickup, with the boat and trailer behind it, gets a sluggish 9 miles to the gallon. That’s another $15 a trip. “I usually take someone with me now instead of going by myself,” Rantio says. He says he plans to keep fishing — it’s what he loves to do — but he might pull the plug if gasoline tops $4 a gallon.

“It’s getting silly,” he says.

And that was before Katrina.

In New England, Mike Sanderson of Salem, Mass., and his wife decided against a boating vacation to Cape Cod this summer because of soaring fuel prices. They chose to go on short weekend cruises instead.

“I understand why the prices are high, but I’m not happy about it,” says Sanderson, who cruises with his wife on a 32-foot express cruiser. (The yacht’s twin 454s chug $200 to $300 worth of gasoline every time the couple cruises on a weekend.) “Everybody’s feeling the pinch. I’ve had to eliminate two-thirds of the cruising that I’d planned to do this year that I’ve done in previous years. Even so, I maxed my fuel budget.”

Prior to Katrina, Sanderson says gas prices leapfrogged from $2.40 before July Fourth to $2.53 the Monday after the Fourth to anywhere from $3.08 to $3.29 just before Labor Day. “Yikes!” he says.

After Katrina, Sanderson says it’s not uncommon to see two or three couples on one boat. “They all chip in to defray the cost of fuel,” he says. Others have turned their boats into “floating cottages,” he notes.

The owner of a gasoline-powered yacht, Sanderson says diesel-powered trawlers are the way to go these days to steer clear of the fuel-price blues. “They’re more fuel-efficient,” he says, “and they get good range.”

Contractor John Matz was filling his 56-foot Sea Ray’s twin 400-gallon diesel tanks at the St. Augustine City Marina en route to his home in Placedo, Fla., after cruising to New York. Matz says the highest price he had run into pre-Labor Day, pre-Katrina for a large-volume diesel refuel was $2.66; the lowest was $2.42.

“There’s not much you can do about it,” he says. “I’ve spent enough on fuel that I could have flown up to New York, stayed at the Waldorf, eaten all my meals in bed and still had change left over. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun as running my boat. It’s a matter of what you want to do.”

Matz, a contractor whose business specializes in clearing large land tracts, says he isn’t as distressed by the cost of running his boat as he is by the rising cost of fuel for his fleet of trucks and heavy equipment. “My fuel costs used to be $3,500 a month,” he says. “They’re up to $6,000 a month now.”

Two fellows who aren’t crying the blues about rising gas and oil prices are Chuck Mitrision and Brian Bosley, both sailboat liveaboards and partners in Noah’s Arc of St. Augustine, Fla., an alternative energy company specializing in solar and wind power. The pair has developed a triple-axis mounting system for two solar panels and a wind generator that adjusts so the solar panels are always aligned with the sun for maximum electrical output. In a sign of the times, owners of 75-foot trawler yachts are hiring the pair to install banks of solar panels on their boats so they don’t have to run their generators as much.

“We’ve been doing a lot of installations on alternative energy,” says Bosley.

Fuel prices around the country vary, but many were north of $3.50 for a gallon of gasoline at the dock after Katrina. And diesel had climbed to more than $3 a gallon. In addition to the impact of the hurricane on refineries and pipelines in the Gulf region, analysts blame high prices on rising oil demand worldwide, in China especially.

“They’re full of B.S.,” says Sanderson — an opinion shared by many boaters. “[Oil companies] are just gouging right now. They are taking full advantage of it.”

Fuel-dock operators offered mixed reviews of the past summer. “I’m really seeing one of the busiest summers I’ve had in 10 years,” says John Liarikos, owner of Sea Fuels Marine Service in New Bedford, Mass., albeit prior to Katrina. “I figured it would be a disaster for us.” Liarikos says his New England customers were determined to use their boats this summer after a cold, rainy spring delayed the start of the boating season.

Don Sansome, manager of the fuel dock at San Diego’s Pearson Marine Fuels, says high prices and poor fishing due to a red tide have reduced his customer volume. “It’s been terrible,” he says. “Not long ago people were worrying about $2, $2.50 per gallon. Now we’re worried about $5 a gallon. I pray to God prices go way down soon.”

Roy Flood, owner of Mako Marine, a 34-year-old fuel dock and diesel repowering company in Freeport, N.Y., says his fuel sales before Katrina were off 80 percent. He says his customers had stopped taking long cruises, settling instead for short trips by boat to the beach.

“When a 34-foot Sea Ray comes in and the owner says, ‘Put $10 in each tank,’ you know he’s not going far,” Flood says. Families are “doubling, tripling, quadrupling up,” sharing costs and staying closer to home, he says.

Richard Janis, general manager of Star Island Yacht Club in Montauk, N.Y., says he didn’t notice much difference in boating traffic even after the hurricane.

“If this storm hit in July, who knows how it would have impacted the boating season,” says Janis. “Now that Labor Day has passed, kids are back in school, and adults have other things to worry about. Boating traffic is naturally beginning to slow down. If you start to see owners in the Northeast not taking their boats to Florida for the winter because of fuel prices, then I think that would be a good indicator.”

Joel Marcus, who owns the gas-powered 45-foot Bluewater motoryacht Just Desserts berthed in Westbrook, Conn., is unhappy by the profits he believes oil companies are making off rising fuel costs.

But, he says, “I don’t have plans to change my boating habits now. Granted, fuel prices can be aggravating, but that’s not a boater’s biggest monetary issue. If you own a boat, you drive it.”

Anna Deane of Old Saybrook, Conn., however, is not operating her 35-foot Bayliner, Wave Dancer, as much as she has in the past because of the price of gas.

“Since the price went up, I’ve been sitting at the dock a little more than usual and have been doing more local cruising,” says Deane. “I’m definitely thinking twice now about longer trips. If prices continue to go up next year, I’m going to have to keep sitting at the dock.”