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Warm weather cheers area boaters, despite high fuel prices

May 09, 2012 at 05:51 AM

Peoria Journal-Star

PEORIA — Much like the water upon which it relies, recreational boating in the Peoria area appears to be ebbing in some areas and flowing in others.

Perhaps that’s because, instead of freezing, the Illinois River did exactly the same thing this past winter.

“It’s like we moved to the tropics,” said Jim Wirt, owner of Boat Shop Inc. in Peoria.

“Normally we have heavy ice and snows, and all that stuff from Chicago works its way down the river - everything against a marina opening up,” he said. “This year, the river hasn’t varied six inches.”

The early warm weather has resulted in more trade for Wirt’s operation, which specializes in heavy-engine work, wiring and refurbishing. By the time Wirt returned in early March from a mid-winter trip to Florida, he said boats were lined up in front of his business, waiting to be prepared to hit the water.

“We’re so far behind now, we’re trying to hire people,” Wirt said. “It’s just insane, but it’s a good insane.”

Hal Watkins can relate. The proprietor of Watkins Marine in Pekin was too busy last week to spend much time talking about how busy he’s been.

“We’re getting people from all over the state,” Watkins said just before he rushed out to assist a customer who had an engine issue.

People from all over Illinois also appear to be stopping by National Marine in Peoria Heights, according to Pat Ward, the firm’s president and sales manager. He said he’s seeing customers from as far as the Chicago area.

But Ward’s boon hasn’t been quite the same as those of Watkins and Wirt.

Ward said his service and repair business is down significantly. But National Marine has sold 22 boats this year. By this point in 2011, it had sold four or five, Ward said.

Again, the warm winter apparently has been a factor.

“In January, I had people out here kicking the tires,” Ward said. “We had a week of 55-degree temperatures and people were climbing on boats, and we sold them.

“I think the economy is about the same, but there was such a pent-up demand.”

New boats are priced from $25,000 to 10 times that amount, Ward said. Used ones range from about $4,000 to $175,000.

Ward also said his marinas are close to 90 percent full, about a 30 percent increase from the previous year.

The various upticks in sales and service have Ward and Wirt believing this boating season will be good. If there’s any red sky at morning - for which sailors take warning, according to the old saw - it might come at the fuel pump.

The price of gasoline for boats is ranging from $4 to $4.50 a gallon. Wirt believes those prices will result in boaters spending less time cruising on the river and more time partying on their vessels in harbors, or doing the same while anchored off Downtown Peoria.

Joe Sodowski, of Sodowski Boat Basin in Peoria Heights, believes the fuel-cost impact might be more drastic.

“The Fourth of July is a big day, but other than that, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a touch-and-go situation. I just can’t help but believe $4- or $5-a-gallon gas will knock the wind out of boating.”

Ward doesn’t seem to concur. He said first-time boaters tend to hesitate when fuel prices rise. But he also said the recent increases have yet to affect the rank-and-file river rats.

“If the price of a golf ball goes up, are you going to quit playing golf?” Ward said. “The real boaters, with the real passion - they’re going to boat.”

No ebb and flow there, apparently.

Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.

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