SEA ISLE CITY – The increased price of fuel is being felt on the water, as well as the roads. As the busy boating season is arriving and the fuel prices continue rising, the problem looks like it’s only going to get worse.
Not only will the higher prices make using personal boats more expensive, but it will also take a toll on the many boating-related businesses in the county.
“I’ll survive. I don’t know how well I’ll survive,” said Capt. Bob Rush Jr., who operates the Starfish, a 70-foot fishing and cruising boat out of Sea Isle City. “The price of diesel fuel definitely affects the bottom line, no ifs ands or buts about it.”
In Cape May County, the average price of regular unleaded gas was at $4.82 per gallon May 21, up from $3.06 the same week last year, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA). Diesel, which is used by larger boats with inboard motors, is up even higher.
Last year in the county, diesel was at $3.26 per gallon, but as of May 19, it is up at $6.37 per gallon, according to AAA’s numbers.
Rush said he added a $15 increase to fares directly as a result of diesel prices, which now brings a full-day trip with him to just over $100 per passenger. There are shorter, half-day trips available for less.
“I am very worried $15 might not be enough; however, I don’t know how much I can pass onto the customer,” Rush said. “Some of the people who go fishing with us are low-income people who go with us to get the fish to eat.”
He said he is also attempting to make sure the boats have as many people on board as possible and is canceling trips where there aren’t enough passengers to break even, when in prior years, he may have taken a trip like that on the chin.
Rush also operates other boating businesses that he said are being affected. He has the Cruisin Tiki boats, which are a floating bar with a small motor, but said that won’t get hurt as badly because they take regular gas and don’t use much of it.
He has a commercial fishing boat with a partner that goes offshore for tuna and swordfish. The trip to the canyon where those fish are found is about 75 miles and takes hours.
“They haven’t made a trip yet. A, because of the price of fuel. B, because of the price they’re selling the fish for, some of the places have cut back on buying stuff,” said Rush.
Recreational boaters are also feeling the pinch, and some have said they will need to use their boats less frequently this year.
Ethan Szyszko, a Pennsylvania school teacher who spends summers in Avalon, working jobs at a local bar/restaurant and Moran’s Bait and Tackle shop, said his boat is his outlet to decompress.
“I work a lot in the summer and that's literally what I do to decompress. On a 95-degree day in Moran’s, after working for 12 hours in the heat, my favorite thing to do from there is to hop right on my boat,” Szyszko said. “While it'll be a nice feeling, at the same time, I'm going to be like, ugh, this boat ride is costing me $50. It’s impacting one of my favorite parts of summer.”
He said he noticed that some boat owners are waiting longer than usual to put their boats in the water this year, even with flounder season opening a few weeks ago.
Rush agreed that there are boats that still haven’t made it into the water in this early part of the season.
“I understand, from who I’m talking to, there’s a lot of smaller boats that aren’t getting put in on account of gas,” he said.
Szyszko does not think the gas prices will impact sales at the bait and tackle shop, and he described an increase in surf fishing, or fishing from land, around the time of the pandemic.
“Over Covid, the surf fishing community grew drastically. Kids came down and had no sports going on – nothing else to do,” Szyszko said. “I think it’s just going to keep growing because people aren’t going to go out on their boats as much… I think people are still going to fish. That’s not going to stop.”
Rick Traber, one of the owners of Pier 47 Marina, on Wildwood’s causeway, said that he has not noticed a drop off in boats going in the water, something he acknowledged happened the last time gas prices were high.
“Right now, we’re putting boats in like normal. Everybody plans on using their boats. I just have a feeling once they start filling their tanks up, they’re going to realize it’s going to cost them more, and they’re probably going to use them a little less,” said Traber. “We haven’t had cancelations for slips or anything.”
Traber’s marina also has a fuel dock, which does not sell diesel, and he explained why gas is more expensive on the water than it is roadside.
“Gas cost more because marinas can’t buy in the bulk drops that gas stations do. We pay more for our gas, and it costs us more to handle it because of all the environmental rules,” Traber said. “Most marinas are probably about 50 cents higher than what it costs on the street.”
There are also preservatives in marine fuel that help keep it from spoiling since, with a boat, gas will often sit in a large tank and can sit for weeks between uses, where a car is typically used regularly, Traber added.
While things may be business as usual for him at the marina now, he wonders how long that will last.
“I think it’s too early to tell. People are just starting to use their boats,” said Traber. “I think once people start using their boat, they’ll get sticker shock when they fill their tank up for the first or second time.”
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