Fuel costs, economy causing ripples throughout area boating industry

While many a weekend sailor is eager to shove off this spring, there is mounting evidence that the boating industry this season may be in for some rough seas.

Demand for dock slips at area marinas has fallen, and with gasoline prices soaring, many powerboat owners may be spending more time anchored than buzzing about The Sound.

The waiting list at Fairfield's South Benson Marina, one of the largest municipal marinas on the east coast with 600 slips, has shortened from last year, and boats are spending more time dockside, manager Robin Bimmel said.

"We saw a bit of that last year. There were less people going out," he said.

The prices for slips at the South Benson Marina range from $519.40 for a small boat; $773.80 for a medium boat; and between $1,300 and $1,500 for a larger boat. The marina, which has no moorings, employs part-time help as boat owners tend to their vessels with help from the Fairfield Dept. of Public Works.

The average cost of premium gasoline at the gas station in the Bridgeport metro area has risen to $4.61 a gallon from $3.41 a gallon a year ago, according AAA's website. Boaters often pay a higher cost per gallon to fill up their boats at the dock.

Southport's Pequot Yacht Club's 18 slips have sailboats and its junior sailing programs will continue regardless of fuel costs, but the hope is fuel prices don't go any higher, club manager Jeff Engborg said.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed and hoping the fuel prices will go down, but we don't foresee the fuel prices deterring people from commissioning boats," he said.

Most boaters will not pay higher fuels costs until later in the season, which runs to mid-November, because most start out with full gas tanks, said Engborg, who manages up to 40 full-time employees throughout the summer.

Other marinas report that business hasn't slowed from the economy and higher fuel costs.

"Thankfully, we're 100 percent subscribed," said Trey Lang, manager of Westport's Cedar Point Yacht Club, where 95 percent of its vessels are sailboats. "There hasn't been a major effect. We lost some and gained some."

Three employees have been working to get the club ready for the season and more will be added by Memorial Day as college students come back to the yacht for summer employment, Lang said.

The Southport town harbor, which borders the yacht club and offers 160 moorings, is also at full capacity with a waiting list of more than 100 boaters, according to Harbor Master Pat Carroll.

This year, the harbor will grant two more moorings, which cost $300 to $430, including maintenance charges, for the season.

Some boat dealers, however, are feeling the pinch from the economy and rising gasoline prices.

"A lot of the guys are hesitant on buying a big power boat," said Fairfield boater Thomas Black, vice president of General Maritime Corp., a Fairfield-based company that monitors oil tankers. "A lot of the powerboats are just sitting and the prices are going down."

Nonetheless, most boaters are still spending money on keeping their skiffs up to snuff instead of prolonging repairs, Black said.

"If you're a boater, you know that's going to cost you more in the long run," said Black. "People will do maintenance themselves instead of buying a new boat."

It's still too early to see if rising gasoline prices and the down economy will impact the boating industry this summer because most boaters don't have their crafts on the water yet, said Richard Armstrong, managing editor of Soundings, an Essex-based pleasure boating magazine.

"The theory is more people'll spend more time on the docks instead of going out on long trips," he said. "It does remain to be seen, and people in the industry are certainly waiting to see what's going to happen."