PEORIA, Ill. – Dick Winkler says most boaters won't drop anchor this summer despite fuel costs that could top a wallet-squeezing $3.50 a gallon at Illinois marinas.
"You know what boat stands for, don't you? `Break Out Another Thousand (dollars),'" Winkler joked as he spruced up his houseboat at a Peoria marina. "You gotta fill those puppies up. ... We'll cut back someplace else."
Like drivers on wheels, Illinois boaters grumble about rising gasoline prices that already are higher on water than on land in part because of stiff environmental regulations, high overhead costs and a shortage of competition.
Boaters and marina operators estimate fuel prices that spiked last week could add $25 or more to a day on the water, but most say that's not enough to ground skis, inner tubes and fishing poles.
"At some point the cost of gas is going to have an effect, but I don't think we've reached that point yet. Most people who have boats have the disposable income to run them," said Mike Anderson, a director of the 30,000-member American Boating Association.
California marina operator Alan Sharp agreed, saying boaters have been unfazed by pump prices that rose to $4.39 a gallon last week at his resort east of Los Angeles.
"They've already made the commitment. They figure it's another 25 or 30 bucks, so they're not going to put the boat in the garage and wait for the prices to drop," said Sharp, general manager of Big Bear Marina, which charges about $1 a gallon more than land-based stations.
Rich Henderson of East Peoria bought his first boat this year and says taking his 8- and 3-year-olds out on the Illinois River is worth the budget-bending cost of filling the 26-foot cabin cruiser's 100-gallon tank.
"You can't take nothing with you when you go, so you might as well enjoy it while you're here," Henderson said.
Marina operators predict most boaters will try to trim costs, but not outings. They say people who haul their boats will likely gas up at roadside filling stations to save money. Other boaters might cut back on long trips or cool their engines a little more often instead of running all day.
Ron Alexander predicts business will take a deeper dive at his suburban Chicago marina, which sells only higher-octane mid-grade fuel, not lower-priced unleaded.
Alexander, operations manager at Riverside Marina, estimates sales fell 40 percent last fall when prices climbed to nearly $3.80 a gallon and expects another dip after posting a new price of $4.39 a gallon Friday.
The National Marine Manufacturing Association is plans to study whether gasoline price spikes affect boating, said Carl Blackwell, a vice president with the Chicago-based organization, representing 1,600 manufacturers.
But based on industry sales, boating is staying afloat, Blackwell said. Annual sales of new power boats held steady at more than 300,000 from 2001 to 2004, the latest figures available. Authorities say that signals a rise in boating because new boats often replace old ones that are then resold and remain in use.
Though willing to pay, many boaters say there's something fishy about soaring pump prices, which have been blamed on refining capacity, rising global demand and concerns that a suspected nuclear weapons program in Iran could disrupt Middle East oil supplies.
"There's so much double talk and clatter, what is the truth?" said Dean Schaeffer of Peoria, who owns three boats. "I think we're getting fed a line of hooey so somebody can make money."
U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood wonders, too. The Peoria Republican said Congress should consider a windfall profits tax to counter oil industry earnings he calls "out of control," but acknowledged that the proposal's odds of passing are slim.
"I think just the introduction of it and having a hearing on it would send a message to the oil companies that everyone is frustrated with these high gasoline prices," LaHood said.