Gas prices tug at boat owners

By Khurram Saeed
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication:May 24, 2008)

HAVERSTRAW – Memorial Day weekend traditionally marks the start of the boating season but record fuel prices are forcing boat owners to reconsider how they’ll spend their summer on the water.

Fewer and shorter trips appear to be popular ways to cope. In some cases, people are holding off on putting their boats in the water.

On Thursday, a gallon of diesel was selling for $5.29 at Panco Petroleum’s fuel dock in Stony Point and for $4.99 at Haverstraw Marina, which was selling a gallon of regular grade gasoline for $4.37.

A day trip up the Hudson River in a modest 28-foot powerboat can easily devour hundreds of dollars in fuel – and will certainly make boat owners think twice before setting out on such a long journey.

“There is clearly going to be less boating this year because of the high cost of fuel, not only because of that but because of the high cost of everything else,” said Norman Feinberg, co-owner of Haverstraw Marina, one of the largest marinas on the Hudson. “Some people will take a pass.”

Feinberg said renewal of slip rentals at the 887-slip marina is down by 5 percent compared with this time last year, a possible indicator of hard times for middle-class boat owners who find they can’t absorb the higher fuel costs.

On the flip side, high fuel prices might make flying too expensive, leading some people to decide to simply vacation on their boats – staying close to home or dockside.

“I won’t use the boat less, I’ll just use it for different purposes,” said Daniel Stahlie, a financial adviser from Ossining who owns a 23-foot power boat called Malibu that he bought three years ago.

Stahlie’s boat is specifically designed to safely pull water skiers, meaning it has a heavy hull and an eight-cylinder engine. It also means that it drinks a lot of fuel.

One of his favorite rides is a 36-mile round trip to Bannerman Castle from Half Moon Bay Marina in Croton-on-Hudson. That consumes 29 gallons of diesel fuel, or about three-quarters of his boat’s 38-gallon tank. At $5 a gallon, the trip today would cost Stahlie $145.

“I like doing trips like that but my boat is not fuel efficient,” said Stahlie. “It’s like driving an SUV.”

To save money, Stahlie, his wife and two young children will avoid taking those longer trips.

Stahlie recently bought a Volkswagen Golf GTI, which gets 32 miles per gallon, so he could get rid of his BMW SUV, which gets 15 mpg.

“What I spend on the boat in extra gas I’ll definitely save on the car,” said Stahlie, who typically makes the 3-mile ride to Croton Point Park, where he water skis.

Steve Plotkin, manager and dockmaster of Half Moon Bay Marina, said the fuel prices might turn out to be good for business.

“No one is using the boats as much as they used to but they are coming down,” said Plotkin, whose marina opened March 1.

The 173-slip marina features high-speed wireless Internet access, cable TV, nearby restaurants that offer free delivery to the docks, and lovely surroundings.

Throw in family, friends and food, and people are happy to just get away from the house, he said.

“They just sit and watch TV and go on the Internet here,” Plotkin said last week. “A lot of them are saying this is the cheapest vacation we could get away with.”

Adele Pascucci, who keeps her 32-foot sailboat at the marina, doesn’t have to worry about gas prices as much as powerboat owners, but is mindful that keeping a boat will cost more this year.

“We will make sure we go out on days when we can use wind power,” said Pascucci, an Ossining resident. “There’ll probably be fewer days when we say, ‘Let’s go for a ride,’ when there’s no wind.”

Pascucci, principal of Immaculate Conception School in Stony Point and a licensed captain, considers her boat her “summer house on the water.” It sleeps six, has a kitchen and they basically use the sailboat’s 21-horsepower motor only to get in and out of the marina, or when they head north on the Hudson because the channel starts to narrow near Newburgh in Orange County.

Boaters will adapt, she said.

“Even last year when gas prices started inching up, more people were staying put in the marina,” Pascucci said. “You don’t give up your boating, you just take a different approach to it.”

How gas prices will affect transient boaters is also an unknown.

Feinberg, of Haverstraw Marina, was hopeful a new restaurant that’s opening at the marina next month would attract out-of-towners. Not all boaters are wealthy, Feinberg noted, and some are looking for ways to cut costs during uncertain economic times.

“Some of them have sold their boats. Some of them kept it in storage. Some have brought it to their homes and put it in their backyards. People become pretty adept when it comes to saving money,” Feinberg said.

Joe Hanchrow owns a 40-foot powerboat known as a trawler.

Gazebo V is not exactly built for speed – top speed is 8 knots – but its 120-horsepower engine sips diesel. Despite having a 350-gallon tank, it burns only 2.5 gallons an hour, perfect for a leisurely ride to Bear Mountain State Park or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Hanchrow, a musician from New City, fell into a bit of luck recently. The private Minisceongo Yacht Club in Stony Point, of which he is a member, decided to shut down its fuel dock. So it pumped out gas and diesel at last year’s prices – basically what they paid for it. Hanchrow put in 100 gallons for just $3.27 a gallon.

“I can go for years without filling up,” Hanchrow said.

Stahlie, the water-ski boat owner, wishes he were that lucky. He typically uses his boat eight weekends a year, but he’ll still keep a close eye on fuel prices.

“If it was to go much, much higher,” Stahlie said, “then I’m going to change my behavior.”

Capt. Charlie Gruetzner, president of the Hudson Valley Marine Trades Association, didn’t believe fuel prices would affect boating much. Secluded coves, breathtaking views and first-class restaurants are a relatively short trip away for most boaters in the Lower Hudson Valley.

“For true boaters, this is a lifestyle. It’s not like a hobby. It’s not something people just kind of use as a toy,” said Gruetzner, a Carmel resident who works as a marine surveyor, the equivalent of a home inspector for boats.

People consider their boats a sanctuary from the pressures of the outside world, he said. Given the current state of the economy as well as the nation, perhaps they need their boats more than ever.

“That’s what calms me down,” said Gruetzner, who owns two powerboats. “Life is stressful.”

Reach Khurram Saeed at ksaeed@lohud.com or 845-578-2412

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