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Continued: Surge in fuel prices scuttles boating fun

There was nothing Kim and Rick Klocek enjoyed more than taking out their 34-foot-long, twin-engine boat, sweetly named Kimsport, for the 11-mile cruise around the bays of Lake Minnetonka.

So it was with a tear in Kim's eye that they recently sold her namesake, downsizing to a more fuel-friendly 23-footer christened after her husband.

"It was the most choked up I ever got selling a boat," Kim said. "It used to cost $20 for gas; now it's just crazy."

To which Rick shrugged: "I just couldn't justify taking it out anymore for two hours and being out $70 on gas."

In the land of 10,000 lakes and 850,000 registered boats, Minnesotans are trying to overcome the mood-kill of catapulting gas prices after a cool, wet spring already narrowed the window on summer fun. From Detroit Lakes to Lake City, boaters are revving their outboards less, anchoring and tying up for longer stretches and charting courses with one eye on the dock-side pumps where the prices are starting to eclipse $5 a gallon.

As might be expected in the state that boasts the most boats per capita -- more than 15 for every 100 residents -- some are defiant.

"Certain things are special about living in Minnesota, and this is a quality-of-life deal," Duane Lund, a commercial real estate broker from Orono, said the other day after pumping $400 worth of gas into his 33-footer.

That put his fuel tanks a smidgen over half full.

"I'll cut down on going out to eat and entertainment, but I'm not going to cut back on my boating hours," he said.

Lund figures there are a dozen potential boating weekends a year, and typically half feature lousy weather. Throw in weddings, graduations and soccer tournaments and, he said: "You get three or four weekends a year, so you've got to play hard."

Boatpooling on Pepin

High water and flooding discouraged boating along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers this spring, but marina operators said escalating fuel prices may have had the single biggest impact on the sluggish start to the 2008 season.

A year ago, gas sold at about $3.70 a gallon at riverfront pumps in Lake City, a hot spot for boaters on Lake Pepin. Now, it's 80 cents to a dollar more. Mark Lutjen, administrator for the 637-boat, city-owned marina, said the prices have forced many boaters to reconsider where they go and how often.

Lutjen said it was common a few years ago to see three or four couples hop into separate boats and make the 7-mile trip across Lake Pepin to Wisconsin for dinner.

"You don't see that as much anymore," he said. "What you see is four couples on one boat going to Pepin. I've had people who just flat-out told me, 'It was nice to run to Pepin for a hamburger after work, but we're not doing that anymore.' You now think twice before you make that trip."

Cindy Bisek, who with her husband, Jim, owns and operates a marina a few blocks from downtown Red Wing, said many boaters who rent overnight slips are choosing to stay in the marina two or three nights.

"When we first bought the marina, the smaller boats would stay one night and then go to the next marina," she said. "Now we're seeing Red Wing as more a destination point. Once people spend money and gas to get here, they'll stay two or three nights rather than hopping down to the next marina. And they might bring a friend to help split the gas cost."

'It's weird'

Still others are simply not boating.

Gordy Jarvis, who leases 12 overnight slips in Afton and another dozen in Hudson, Wis., said business is down dramatically on the St. Croix.

"I believe gas prices have dramatically affected the watercraft industry. That's the bottom line," he said.

Back on Lake Minnetonka, Rick Klocek estimates that boat traffic has dropped 75 percent on North Arm Bay near his Orono home.

"There's hardly anyone out there," he said. "Used to be a on nice weeknight, 10-15 boats would be out pulling tubers and water skiers. Now you see maybe two or three. It's weird."

Klocek repairs and sells boats at his West Side Marine. He's been on Lake Minnetonka for 32 years.

"It's really, really hard to sell a boat right now unless you have a small one," Klocek said.

He recently sold a four-cylinder, 18-footer after only five hours on Craigslist. A 20-footer with a gas-guzzling engine is still on the blocks.

"People don't want anything to do with V-8s anymore because of the gas," he said.

Maynard's, a lakefront Excelsior bar and restaurant, is still hopping. But as boaters dock up, their stories reflect the new economic reality.

Tom DePrekel, a bartender from Minneapolis, got his 22-footer washed and ready this spring.

"But it's still in the garage," he said. He rented a big pontoon boat with his buddies for $350 for nine hours -- gas included.

"My aunt and uncle have a 48-footer and they told me they're thinking of taking up sailing," DePrekel said.

Trevor Millberg of Minneapolis sold his 25-foot, 1972 vintage Chris Craft after figuring he had eight friends with boats "and I could be that guy" who just comes along for the ride.

Up on Detroit Lake, Ken Tinjum of J & K Marina said steep gas prices are also keeping new boaters off the water.

"It's stopping the entry-level buyer just because his day-to-day life is costing so much more, he can't sneak in a $200 monthly boat payment in there and feel good about it," Tinjum said. "But the guys who already have 'em are still using them."

As Jean Moench of Plymouth said, during a snack stop with her family at Maynard's: "If you can't afford the gas, you can't afford the boat. But it's shocking every time we fill up."

curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767 richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425

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