SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fuel prices have been plunging for months, helping drivers save money - including perhaps, BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. By summer, those low prices could give boat owners a lift, too. Nick Castele of member station WCPN in Cleveland checks in with Great Lakes boaters.
NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: I'm standing on Whiskey Island. It's where the Cuyahoga River meets Lake Erie in Cleveland. There are chunks of ice backed up along the shore and the boats have all been hauled onto land from their marinas. Many are covered in tarps right now to protect them from the snow. But when the snow and ice thaw, people will want to hit the water again, as the boating industry is predicting another year of growth - and low fuel prices could help.
THOM DAMMRICH: We didn't actually even factor the lower oil prices when we made these projections, but I think that certainly they will provide a significant tailwind.
CASTELE: Thom Dammrich is the president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. He says any extra money in the pockets of boaters is good for business. In fact, his organization is forecasting up to 5 percent higher sales for new powerboats this year. And there are ripples of that enthusiasm at the Mid-America Boat Show in Cleveland...
(SOUNDBITE OF SEA SHANTY SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I've sailed from (unintelligible) to the (unintelligible), a thousand miles, and that's enough.
CASTELE: ...Where sea shanties are playing from speakers in one corner of the convention hall. The overwhelming majority of watercraft here are powerboats - yachts, fishing boats, pontoon boats. And many people here are already boat owners. Bob and Nancy Chizmar have been boating up and down the Great Lakes for 38 years. Bob says they have changed their habits over time.
BOB CHIZMAR: We don't go out and just ride around like we used to. You know, our boat burns maybe 25 gallons an hour.
CASTELE: Gas in the Cleveland area is going for around $2 a gallon, down 40 percent from a year ago. And if those prices don't take off again, Nancy Chizmar says she might consider another adventure.
NANCY CHIZMAR: If it stayed this low, we'd probably do a last hurrah and take a nice, long trip. We've been to Niagara Falls by boat.
CASTELE: Eric Booker is serving lobster bisque to convention-goers and is hopeful a positive year for boating means more customers at his restaurant in Put-in-Bay, a popular island vacation spot in Lake Erie. He's also a boat owner himself.
ERIC BOOKER: People usually have X amount of money budgeted for their boating season. If they can make five trips on that budget, maybe this year they can make seven trips on that same budget.
CASTELE: And salespeople in other parts of the industry are gearing up to ride that wave, too. Jeff Klein sells boat lifts. He says sales have recovered in the past few years and he sees low gas prices opening up a chance for even more business.
JEFF KLEIN: Boaters, they'll go out more and be out on the water a lot more, and consequently they'll be using their boat lifts more and they'll be breaking or replacing them with new ones. So we look forward to it.
CASTELE: But it typically costs more to fill up at a marina than at a gas station. And boaters say they're waiting to see how much they'll have to pay for that marina fuel this season. Boater Jerrold Saxton says he's not convinced prices will stay low, but he accepts boating is an expensive hobby.
JERROLD SAXTON: Someone told me the definition of a boat is a hole in the water that you pour money into. And it's true it's going to be expensive, if you're a power boater.
CASTELE: But if low fuel prices hold out, boaters here are hoping that hole of money will be shallower by the time the Lake Erie ice melts. For NPR News I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland.
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