Pensacola Bay sees boating lifestyle suffer in face of oil spill


As Pensacola Bay loses its sailors one by one, Rick Zern reluctantly helps them go.

“We’ve probably decommissioned 15 or 20 boats so far,” said Zern, a lifelong sailor and part-time rigger. He has been busy lowering masts for people determined to move their boats away from the massive oil plume spreading across the Gulf Coast.

“Two weeks ago, we shipped two boats to California,” Zern said. “We’ve got another boat going to a lake in Tennessee.”

While shrimpers and charter captains watch their livelihoods wither away during the oil crisis, Gulf residents who spend leisure time on the water also face a lifestyle under siege. Booms block popular harbors and inlets, marine dealers warn submerged oil can ruin motors and more weekend sailors and anglers are deciding the navigational headaches aren’t worth pursuing even their favorite pastimes.

“Our local business has stopped,” said Hunter Riddle, owner of a Pensacola sail loft called Schurr Sails. “People are canceling orders.”


This weekend’s Blue Angels air show will test just how much the boating life has changed around Pensacola. The annual performance by the Navy’s stunt-pilot team usually jams marinas, harbors and piers with boats, helping make it the most lucrative weekend of the year for the tourism industry.

But a dreadful Fourth of July weekend — with shops and restaurants reporting sales down as much as 50 percent — has dampened expectations for the Blue Angels turnout, too. Navigational hazards complicate the forecast.

Oil booms block boat traffic at 17 inland waterways around Pensacola, Escambia County spokeswoman Sonya Daniel said. Designed to trap incoming oil before it enters hard-to-clean bayous, rivers and creeks, the booms also act as floating roadblocks for any vessel trying to pass through.

Escambia pays crews to open the booms as needed, though boats would be turned away if oil was spotted in the water.

Signs on bridges and buoys have numbers boaters can call to summon a county boom crew, who are instructed to respond within 60 minutes, Daniel said.

“We’re trying to get to them just as quickly as we can,” she said. The booms “are the only way we have to protect those small bodies of water.”

Inland waterways remain relatively unscathed by the oil plume.

There have been scattered reports of oil sightings in Pensacola Bay, but not the sludge and tar balls washing up along the Gulf Coast.

That has allowed local boaters to continue enjoying the water, though a growing number choose to stay ashore.

The Gulf Coast championship for Opti sailing dinghies went on as scheduled last weekend in Pensacola Bay, with about 60 skippers ages 15 and under competing. Organizers at the Pensacola Yacht Club had hoped for 100 Optis, but oil worries kept some children and parents away, race chairman Bruce Partington said.

After a week of monitoring the bay for the club’s summer sailing camp and checking the course throughout the weekend, the club decided to go ahead with an event that leaves most skippers wet — if not soaked — by the end of the day.

“We’re not going to put anyone on the water if there’s oil,” Partington said.


But while dinghy sailors can bring their boats by car to races, large sailboats on Pensacola Bay have a harder time finding competition along the Gulf. July saw some signature regattas canceled as competitors from beyond Pensacola opted not to risk a trip through Gulf waters to make the race.

“You never know how bad it’s going to get,” said Corey Keich, commodore of the Pensacola Beach Yacht Club.

Next weekend’s “Fast Women” race — the first in a trio of regattas for female skippers — was moved to the fall, but for now, local clubs are sticking with the other two races scheduled for late July and August. Keich said with members taking their large sailboats out of the water, the Pensacola Beach club hopes to promote adult dinghy racing in boomed-off harbors as an alternative.

“We’re trying to come up with some smaller events,” she said. “Something for our sailors to still be able to get on the water.”


But with an oil plume threatening inland waters and a real threat in the Gulf, the marine industry is warning boaters that a pleasure cruise can be costly.

Boat US, which represents boat owners and sells marine insurance, is offering to split members’ haul-out costs for boats kept along the Gulf.

The group’s website has advisories from Volvo, Yamaha and other marine manufacturers about how underwater oil can ruin a motor if sucked in through an intake valve. And while oil can be scrubbed off a hull, prolonged exposure can mean a costly repainting.

“It’s like staining clothing. If you get oil on the [boat paint], and you get it off fairly quickly, it’s probably going to be OK,” said Bob Adriance, director of damage avoidance for Boat US. “If it spends a few days lapping against the hull, it’s going to be harder to get out.”

With his own rigging company, Zern could haul out his 33-foot Soverel sailboat without too much hassle or cost. But he keeps the boat, Coyote, in a slip behind his condo on Little Sabine Bay.

“Frankly,” he said, “we still have a lot of racing going on.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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