Marine business hurting from fuel prices
Friday, May 30, 2008
Memorial Day weekend showed mixed signs for area boat business owners who believe rising fuel prices will likely force people to stay off the water this summer. But many local boaters say they’ll still have their weekend fun despite the higher cost to do so.
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Staff photos by DARWIN WEIGEL
Kirk Cantrell of Solomons varnishes the trim on a 48-foot cruising boat Friday at Washburn’s Boat Yard at Calvert Marina. Cantrell said he works 12-hour days, six to seven days a week for seven months, then he takes off for the Bahamas on his own boat for five months of relaxation.
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Liz and Gary Isbell of Jackson, Wy., load up their 57-foot cruiser Friday in preparation for putting it back in the water at Washburn’s Boat Yard at Calvert Marina. The couple left this week for a season-long cruise to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador.
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Staff photo by GARY SMITH
Charles Chisley of La Plata looks over life jackets and rain gear at the Boaters World store in Waldorf on Saturday. Chisley planned to take his boat out on the Potomac over the Memorial Day weekend.
Quick tips for reducing fuel use on boats|
Slower speeds on the water will reduce use. The proper use of trim tabs reduces drag, especially while accelerating up to planing speeds. Minimize the amount of time idling at the dock. Minimize the use of onboard generators. Use dock-side electrical power in lieu of generators. Have a float plan so route is clear and planned. Make sure the hull is clean. Don’t under-power the boat. It’s important you have enough motor to handle the load. Check the propeller. If the boat is slow ‘‘out of the hole” or lacks top-end speed, it might be the wrong propeller. A well-tuned engine uses less fuel. Use the grade of gasoline specified by the engine manufacturer.
‘‘It’s put a lot of things on the back burner. The recreational market is the first thing that goes by the wayside. Our floor traffic isn’t near what it should be,” said Francis Guy, co-owner of Guy Brothers Marine in Clements.
Guy said fuel price increases mean people are reluctant to purchase new boats and parts, especially when it might cost hundreds of dollars to run an older, less fuel-efficient boat for just one weekend. It would cost $40 to $50 to tool around on a personal watercraft like a Jet Ski for an afternoon. A newer, more fuel-efficient motor runs about $8,000.
‘‘Normally at this time of year on the Friday morning before a holiday weekend, it’s standing room only,” he said.
There were two customers in the store at 10 a.m.
Guy said cutbacks in boating depend on an individual’s habits. Are they every-weekend kind of boaters or a-few-times-a-year boaters? Large or small watercraft? All of those factors affect whether or not boat owners plan to stay on land.
Budds Creek resident Jay Estevez said gas prices won’t keep him from taking his two low-horsepower boats out for fishing and crabbing with his son every weekend.
‘‘I’m still going to do it,” he said. ‘‘You gotta buy [gas]. For me it’s still not so bad.”
Estevez says he will spend about $200 to $300 in gasoline to run his boats each month this summer, compared to about $100 a year ago.
Gas prices also won’t dampen Jim Letcher’s summer fun.
‘‘It hasn’t stopped me yet. I’m to enjoy my life, no matter what it costs me,” Letcher, who owns 31- and 16-foot boats and a Jet Ski, said.
‘‘It doesn’t look good right now. It’s usually busier than this,” said Joe Dodson, proprietor of the Solomons Boat Ramp, late last Friday afternoon. ‘‘People will do the Memorial Day thing and after that I think it’s going to slow up.”
Dodson doesn’t blame them. In just a three-day fishing excursion, he spent $620 fueling his 34-foot boat.
‘‘I’m not gonna run as much as I used to,” he said.
Boat companies have told Dodson that while new boat sales are way down, used boat sales are up.
‘‘It’s kinda early to tell,” said Harold Combs, co-owner of Port Tobacco’s Goose Bay Marina and Campground, about whether gas prices will keep boats in the slips. ‘‘At this point, there seems to be a lot of activity. The local regulars are still excited. The stress of high gas prices tends to make people relax and recreate more. People really look forward to their weekend fun. Are we going to give up recreation? I don’t think so.”
While Combs said boats in the 24-foot to 48-foot range have been few and far between in the water, smaller boats have been prevalent. Boaters are taking them out, but probably going half the distance, he said.
‘‘A majority of the boats we have here are just as fun to sit [still] on as they are to drive. Everybody needs a break,” he said.
More than 74 percent of boats are owned by individuals or families with a household income under $100,000, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s 2007 Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract. The study reported new traditional powerboat unit sales were down 8 percent and boating sales decreased 5 percent from 2006 to 2007.
New power and sailboat sales exceeded recreational vehicle sales in 2007, with 395,200 total boats sold and 308,670 total RVs sold. The number of boats in use rose to 17 million in 2007, an increase of nearly 60,000 from 2006.
The report indicated boating participation increased in 2007 by 10 percent to 59.1 million. Only 1 percent of the 2,400 boat owners said they did not plan to use their boat in 2008 due to the high cost of fuel; 3 percent of owners did not take their boat out in 2007 because of fuel. Use remained steady in 2007, with an average cruising time of 33 days per year.
Although gas prices have yet to keep people who already own boats away from water, Combs and Guy said the future of the industry is up in the air, since the extra expenses may keep many potential boaters from buying watercraft.
‘‘The long term effect is real scary,” Combs said.
A tank of gas away
While local boaters might be cutting back because of gas price, ‘‘staycations” — out-of-towners coming to take vacations only a tank of gas away — may favor the area’s local economy.
Combs said Goose Bay’s campground was full this weekend for the first time ever.
‘‘Many of them are electing to stay local. I’m betting two-thirds of them are within an hour away,” he said.
‘‘I think it’s a trend that started some years ago, when gas prices started to hike, somewhere around 2004, 2005,” said Michael Kelly, owner of the Brome-Howard Inn in St. Mary’s City. Kelly said it’s too early for them to tell whether there will be a spike in the trend.
The Solomons Victorian Inn was full with out-of-town Marylanders this weekend, and Kim’s Key Lime Pie and Coffee Shop said while business is typically slow, they’ve found about 90 percent of their customers are day-trippers who either drove or sailed down.
Paul and Pat Fangheiser came to Solomons last Friday for the day to check out the ‘‘quaint” town. Only 98 miles away from their home in Ashburn, Va., it was a good alternative to vacationing further away because of the cost of fuel, the couple said.
‘‘It’s just a great seaside town and a scenic drive down,” Paul said.
‘‘Day trips are easier. It makes you feel like you’re on vacation, even if it’s only for 24 hours,” said Shelly Martin, who came to Solomons last weekend from Hagerstown, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away.
‘‘Especially if you’re short on time and money,” added her son, Cole Lechleiter.
Six Flags America Amusement Park in Largo is even offering a buy one ticket, get a second one free Web deal to encourage Marylanders to get away locally with their families as gas and food prices continue to rise.
‘‘While families across America are feeling a strain on their wallets, they still want to have fun and spend time together this summer,” said Chris Haenn, Six Flags America park president, in a statement.
Danita Boonchaisri, marketing and communications specialist for the Calvert County Department of Economic Development, said based on what she’s seen, people will still travel this summer, but will change their travel habits.
On her trip to South Carolina over the Memorial Day weekend, she didn’t see bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 95 like she’s used to on a holiday weekend.
‘‘There was no one on the road,” she said. ‘‘I do think people’s travel habits will change. One of the things we’re trying to do is get people to explore their back yards. There are things you can do [in Southern Maryland] without the expense or the hassle. We’re close enough and we’re quiet enough. I think people still need to get away. They’ll still go on vacation.”