What kind of gas bill does the owner of the Cherry Blossom face every time he fills the tank? The Potomac Riverboat Company’s sternwheel riverboat is over three stories tall and can accommodate up to 350 people.
The answer, says company president Willem Polak, is that unlike large cars, the Cherry Blossom is quite fuel-efficient. The boat usually cruises at a stately five knots and, because of its size, it does not go out every day. Polak estimates that on average he has to fill the tank only once every 25 days. The Cherry Blossom’s tank holds 2,800 gallons.
The four smaller boats that he operates run more often and need to be fueled every week. Polak estimated he needs to buy almost 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel a week to top them all off.
Polak uses so much fuel he buys directly from a truck. This holds prices down to about three dollars a gallon. Polak says that is twice what he was paying two years ago. “It’s a big expense,” he added, “in a week’s time, it’s a nut.”
There is little Polak can do to defray this increasing business expense. He sets cruise-prices for the year in August and September. And the boats go out on schedule regardless of how many people have paid. “We run with one passenger or a boatload,” Polak said. “You just try to run it smoothly and do the best you can.”
He said that the company has built in a clause that allows them to raise their rates if fuel prices rise above three dollars, but so far they have not had to take this step.
PRICES ON THE WATER have risen even higher than those on land. Owners of boats that are too large to keep on trailers must buy their gas from marinas. The low-volume nature of these operations, and the sulfur-added diesel fuel that most of the boats use, mean that fuel typically costs significantly more than on land. Chip Johnson, who runs Belle Haven Marina, says that he is a sailor but he has noticed a change in the habits of many motorboat operators.
“I know people who aren’t running around like they normally would,” Johnston said.
Donez Miller, a boater and an assistant manager at West Marine, said that many boaters don’t necessarily need to run their motors all that much. “For people who just putt up and down the river, a lot of them drop anchor,” she said. “[They’re] not necessarily cruising.”
In fact, you don’t necessarily need to run your motor at all. Many are content to “keep your boat tied up and party with your dockmates," she said.
A. J. Reeves, another employee of West Marine and an owner of two Jet Skis that run on premium fuel said that it costs him $90 every time he fills up their 15-gallon tanks, which will last him four to five hours, “depending on how fast you go.” He says that these prices have not altered his boating routine at all. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to get out,” he explained.
Currently, Columbia Island Marina is selling fuel at $3.24 and 9/10 per gallon.
A RECENT STUDY by the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association backs up these local sentiments with national statistics. It found that although 57 percent of boaters said their vacation plans would be affected by the rising prices of marine fuel, they are more likely to trim their budget by cutting down on dining out or entertainment in order to pay the extra expenses to keep their boats running.
Rising fuel prices were also taken into account for the most famous ship currently plying the waters of the Potomac. Spokesman Debbie Padgett said she did not think rising fuel costs had much impact on the budget of the $2.7 million recreation of the Godspeed on its voyage up the Eastern Seaboard — partially because the Godspeed is a sailboat.
“It sails when it can,” she said.