The high price of fuel may be changing the way Mainers use their boats and where they use them.
“Boaters are going to boat,” said Peter Dunham of Big Lake Equipment on Moosehead Lake in Greenville. “They’ re going to buy gas and continue to do the sport they like to do.”
But he admits boaters are changing their habits.
“They’ re not going on long trips and they’ re not driving as fast,” he said. “Those guys with the big boats are just idling up and cruising.”
Despite anecdotal reports that boat traffic on Big Lake overall seems to be down, Dunham said business has been steady and the slips are pretty full.
High fuel prices eventually may affect the state’ s boat-building industry, but Susan Swanton, executive director at the Maine Marine Trades Association, said she hasn’ t heard “cries of despair” from boat builders yet. Swanton said she is more concerned with the service yards and marinas at this point. They could feel the pinch sooner as Mainers change their boating habits.
“People who have boats are generally passionate about their boats. They’ re going to use their boats, but I think they’ re going to spend their time a little differently until the oil situation levels out,” she said. “I think what you’ re going to see is that people will take shorter trips or fewer trips and spend more time closer to home at the mooring or the marina.”
The cost of boat fuel — now about $4.65 a gallon — has had an impact on traffic at some harbors around the state.
The price of fuel is “definitely affecting a lot of boaters,” said Micah Peabody, manager at Dysart’ s Great Harbor Marina in Southwest Harbor. About 15 of the marina’ s 100 slips are empty now.
“Normally, we’ d be turning people away this time of year,” Peabody said.
While the price of fuel doesn’ t seem to affect owners of the big “megayachts,” Peabody said, owners of smaller, family cruisers are hurting.
“We’ d usually get families in the 40-footers who would come and spend three or four days here and cruise the area,” he said. “We’ re seeing almost none of that this year.”
Dave Hall of Kennebunkport was at the Belfast Public Landing on Monday reading the morning paper and enjoying the sun from the deck of his 25-foot-long cabin cruiser Rip Tide. Hall, who has been motoring along the coast for “too many years to count,” said the price of fuel this year has changed his boating habits dramatically. Rather than fire up his 150-horsepower motor for the trip north, he hitched up his trailer instead.
“I trailered from Kennebunkport to Rockland, took the boat to Belfast and will go back to Rockland for the Lobster Festival, then trailer back to Kennebunkport,” Hall said. “I’ ve always traveled by water. I’ ve not trailered at all. This is the first time I’ ve trailered.”
A few hundred feet down the shore Sam Mehorter of Belfast was at his 29-foot-long Sea Ray Hometown Reel-T at the private Consumers Fuel Marina. Mehorter said the cost of running his 454-cubic-inch V-8 inboard-outboard was keeping him and others at the marina in port more often this summer.
“It used to be 100 bucks to take it out for the day. You’ d go around Islesboro, up to Buck Harbor, the Bagaduce and maybe stop in Castine. That’ s all changed because it’ s now $300,” Mehorter said. “Now, everybody’ s jaunt is a little less because of the price of gas. A lot of guys have been hanging out at the dock a lot more than they used to.”
Boat traffic has been slower than normal in Bar Harbor, according to Harbor Master Charles Phippen, and mooring and docking space are available.
Transient boating traffic also seems to be down slightly, Phippen said.
“We’ re usually a little slow after the Fourth of July through to the middle of the month,” he said. “But here it is the end of the month and we’ re still pretty slow on yachts.”
Business at Hamlin’ s Marina on the Penobscot River in Hampden is growing, but fuel prices have an effect, according to owner and general manager Dan Higgins, who took over the site three years ago. Hamlin’ s is basically a startup business, Higgins said, and business has increased steadily as people become more familiar with the operation.
The slips and moorings are full for the first time, and he already has a permit to expand over the next three years. But purchasing patterns seem to be changing, Higgins said. Boat owners seem to be buying gas more often, but in smaller quantities, he said.
There also has been a definite drop in the overall volume of boat purchases at the marina this year, but not in the actual revenue numbers, Higgins said. While entry-level and midlevel sales have been flat, Higgins said, sales at the top end have replaced them. Buyers also are taking their time before buying a boat.
“People are not making spontaneous buying decisions,” he said. “They’ re doing a lot of research and they’ re taking weeks and months to make a decision. But the buying is still happening.”
A signal of changing boating attitudes may be reflected in the waters off Buck’ s Harbor Marina in Brooksville. While the day-to-day traffic of small-boat owners stopping in to buy gas seems to be down, owner Lois Kirschenbaum said charter business is up.
“This is the best charter season we’ ve ever had,” she said. “It seems that some people are not bringing their boats up and some are deciding not to launch this year.”
There has been no decline in the number of people who pay a seasonal fee that gives them parking space and dinghy space at the marina as well as access to their private moorings, Kirschenbaum said. But about 90 percent of those are sailboats and would not be as affected by gas prices as the power cruisers.
Sailing may be the new preference among boaters who are nervous about the price of fuel, according to Scott Russell of Russell’ s Marine, a family-owned business in Stockton Springs that sells new and used sailboats. The sign outside the Route 1 business entices potential sailboat buyers with the slogan: “The wind is free.”
Russell said there has been an increased interest in sailboats, especially among current powerboaters who are looking for a change. And they are looking more at used boats than at new, which may be another way of offsetting costs.
“There are more people looking at sailing now, people who still want to be able to get out on the water without the expense of gasoline,” Russell said.
BDN writer Walter Griffin in Belfast contributed to this report.