Fuel prices may send Md. boaters aground

October 05, 2005|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Those dismayed by the cost of gas on the roads ought to stop at a marina. Prices for gasoline at some of the region's fuel docks are hovering close to $4 a gallon - about a dollar above the average price of gas on the roads this month.

Boaters aren't putting fancy fuel in their vessels. They pump the same stuff you buy at the corner gas station, but for a variety of reasons it costs more.

Plus, powerboats guzzle fuel faster than even the heftiest SUV. At cruising speeds - about 26 mph - some powerboats get as little as one mile to the gallon, for an hourly fuel cost of more than $100.

So even though boaters are used to paying a premium for dockside fuel, this season's prices have affected the activity.

"People are changing the way they are boating," said Scott Croft, a spokesman for BoatU.S., a national boating organization.

"They'll go to a destination that is closer. They are making fewer trips. The bottom line is the engine isn't running as long as it was in the past."

There are not any organizations that specifically track fuel prices at marinas, but an informal survey of a few local marinas revealed that gas is up about a dollar a gallon over the spring prices for gasoline and diesel.

At Tidewater Yacht Service in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, mid-grade gas was $3.999 a gallon. Most marinas only offer mid-grade fuel. At Otter Creek Marina in Abingdon, boaters paid $3.79 for a gallon of gas yesterday.

In contrast, mid-grade gas cost Maryland motorists an average of $3.25 a gallon yesterday, according to a AAA survey of 85,000 self-service stations in the state.

And because powering over waves is far less fuel-efficient than driving down a highway, the price increase is magnified for boaters.

For example, a 30-foot Bayliner gets 1.1 miles to the gallon at cruising speeds, said Karl Bohnenstengel, a service adviser at Riverside Marina in White Marsh. Larger boats can burn 70 to 80 gallons of fuel an hour.

Some are conserving gas by using the buddy system. "A lot of us are taking friends out fishing to offset the cost," said Joe A. Zinner, 70, of Perry Hall, who owns a 25-foot Bayliner. "Going out by yourself is going by the wayside here."

Another way of conserving fuel is to go slower - which is what Joe and Virginia Russell have been instructed to do with their 60-foot Sportfish. The boat has a 1,250-gallon tank and, like most large boats, takes diesel fuel.

This year they got roughly 0.5 miles to the gallon when they motored from Florida to Canada at 27 knots. That was an improvement over last year, when they cruised up the coast at 30 knots, burning fuel at 0.4 miles to the gallon.

The Russells get fuel discounts because of various marine organizations they belong to. "If you are filling up 500 gallons, you can ask for a discount. It never hurts to ask," said Joe Russell.

When the boat is in Florida, Russell buys diesel straight from the trucks, which, he said, makes for a significant savings.

Russell said boat owners don't tend to think about the amount of fuel burned per mile: "I think if they thought about it in those terms they'd take up stamp collecting."

Marinas charge more for their fuel because they have to pay more for it, said Jim Schofield, a manager for the BoatU.S. Marina Program.

Marinas are closed during the winter months, so on an annual basis they sell less product than traditional gas station and do not qualify for the same bulk discounts, Schofield said.

Also, he said, gas docks need to employ a staff that will help boats tie up and properly fill the tanks. Insurance costs are high because they must factor in the hefty environmental fines that can be incurred due to fuel spillage, Schofield said.

"All of these things make them dissimilar [to] rolling up to the friendly Chevron station, using your ATM [card] and then going," Schofield said.

Boat sellers naturally are hoping that buyers will wait out the price increase. A boater can just sit at the slip and have a good time, said Rick Franke, the general manger at the Annapolis Power Boat School. "Many people use their boats like second homes."

He added: "If fuel stays around $3.50 or $4 a gallon, it will have an effect on boat sales."

And pitchmen preparing for the annual United States Powerboat Show in Annapolis said the price of fuel is a factor when they talk to customers.

Nick Harvey, the director of Lagoon America, said he's been selling more and more of his relatively fuel-efficient, multi-hulled motorboats.

"For the people who are doing extensive cruising and are going to live aboard their boats, the fuel budget is a huge part of their overall budget," he said.

His big multi-hulls get about a mile a gallon at cruising speeds - three times better than the competition, he said. "It is because of the catamaran design: We're not pushing water; we're slicing though," he said.

Of course one does not need twin engines to enjoy the bay. Sailors are quick to remind those moaning about fuel prices that the wind is free.

"We don't use 20 gallons [of fuel] a year," said Paul Hyatt, 66, of Suttons Bay, Mich., while browsing over winches at Fawcett Boat Supplies in Annapolis. He and his wife, Paula, sail their 32-foot Catalina almost every weekend in the summer.

And when they hoist their sails, Hyatt said, "The cost of fuel doesn't even cross my mind."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

For archived coverage of the fuel crisis, plus links to area gas-price trackers, visit: baltimoresun.com/ gasprices.

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