Fuel prices leave boaters docked

Growing up in Ohio, Bill Higgins had a life-long dream of owning a boat. Higgins, now 66 and retired, was enchanted by the challenge that awaited him on the water.

Now, rising gasoline prices are forcing him to cut back on his dream.

Higgins, who says he purchased his 56-foot power boat in 2002, says he cruised about 7,000 miles in it last year. This year, because it costs him about $4,000 to fill up the boat's 800-gallon tank, he says he plans to cut his trips to about 2,500 miles.

"The price of fuel has really changed our outlook," Higgins says.

High gas prices are hitting recreational boaters and the boating industry across the USA in a variety of ways, says Scott Croft, spokesman for the Boat Owners Association of the United States, which represents approximately 650,000 boaters.

Croft says boaters he's spoken to say they are not running their engines as much as they were.

"They're consciously making the decision to use less gas," Croft says.

"A lot of people are spending more time at the slip," added Mike Anderson, director of the American Boating Association.

Higgins says it is more cost-effective to stay docked because he does not have to run his generator, which burns about 2 gallons of gas every hour.

Boat sales are also feeling the effects of rising gas prices.

Ellen Hopkins, director of marketing communications for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, says sales are down through May about 15-16% compared with May 2007.

Kevin Ketchum, chief operating officer of California Yacht Marina near Torrance, Calif., says boaters spending less time on the water may be having one positive impact: an increase in marina business.

"We think the downturn of the economy is actually helping our business," he says.

Tom Tate, a harbor master at Korth's Pirates Lair Marina in Isleton, Calif., says that he has seen increased activity. "This was a busier Fourth of July this year than last year, and last year was a low-fuel-cost year," he says.

Even with the increase in activity, though, Tate says gasoline sales at his marina have dropped about 30% from last year.

At the Seven Points Marina at Raystown Lake in Hesston, Pa., houseboat rentals are up, and there is a waiting list for their 946 boat slips, says Pam Prosser, the sales and marketing director.

Prosser says she sees a lot of people vacationing closer to home from within the state, as well as from the surrounding Maryland, West Virginia and New Jersey areas.

Despite the overall boating downturn, Croft doesn't believe the industry should worry too much. "Boating is a lifestyle," he says, adding that boaters are "going to find a way to make it work."

George Schneider, 56, of Branchville, N.J., has reluctantly found one way.

"I have to get my friends to contribute gas money," he says.

Contributing: Abbott Koloff of The Daily Record in Morris County, N.J.