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Navigating rough waters

Sun., May 11, 2008, midnight

With water and snow line elevations still but a few hundred feet apart, the launch of this year’s boating season has been slow.

But by every measure except thermometer, early indications are most Inland Northwest boaters will hold a steady course this year. Weather, the economy and much more expensive fuel will not keep them off the region’s waters.

At the Third Avenue boat launch in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday, a few of the hardier helmsmen were putting their boats in the water or taking them out after shakedown runs. There were only five empty boat trailers in the parking lot of one of North Idaho’s most popular launches.

A single sailboat heeled to the wind off Tubbs Hill.

Dan Kadal was pulling out his newly purchased aluminum boat. Don Karl was launching a small cabin cruiser he has owned for more than a decade.

Brandon Beach was taking his wife and daughter out for a short spin. Tyson and Kara Arrotta were stowing gear on their ski boat.

All else was wind, seagulls and a shiny spring sky.

“It’s pretty pleasant out there,” said Kara Arrotta. “Chilly, but it wasn’t bad for a little drive.”

The Post Falls couple pushes the season at both ends. Both have dry suits, which will allow them to stay on or in the water into October. Tyson said he plans to compete on a regional wake-boarding circuit this summer, so the Arrottas will be on one lake or another several times a week this summer.

Karl winters in Arizona, summers in a Coeur d’Alene condo. He was loading fishing rods and other gear before guiding it gingerly to a berth in the marina behind the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

He was relying on his small “kicker” motor in order to save on gas.

At Trudeau’s Sea Ray, Doug Trudeau said the protracted winter has slowed the pace of boat deliveries. His storage warehouses are full, and getting every owner’s boat back in the water will be a challenge.

“I have to figure out how to get all those boats out to them at one time,” he said.

Trudeau said that, besides weather, early season boaters have been discouraged by debris that by now has normally been swept away by runoff. And some launches in the area are still unusable.

But many of his customers have lake places, Trudeau said, and boats are part of the experience.

“I think we’ll be fine in Spokane,” he said, discounting the costs of a boat compared to other popular area pursuits like skiing.

He said boaters will be more likely to scrimp on dinner after an afternoon on the lake than they will on their boats. As to gas costs, they will just not cruise quite so far, he said.

“The boating industry in the Inland Northwest is alive and well,” said Scott Thompson, who manages the Spokane Boat Show.

The heavy snow in late January hurt first-week show attendance, but cabin fever brought many people in for the second week, he said.

Thompson said boating is no more immune from the ill effects of a weakened economy than any other business. But when summer comes, he said, area residents are going to head for one of 160 lakes in the region, and they are going to take their boats with them.

“It’s a family thing to do,” he said.

A $10,000, 16-foot boat will set a buyer back about $200 a month, Thompson said, depending on loan terms.

At the Two Rivers Marina on Lake Roosevelt, Manager Dan Kieffer said his 268 slips cannot accommodate everyone who wants to tie up a boat.

About three-quarters of the slips are occupied, and owners have been out getting them ready for the season, he said.

The lake has long been popular with houseboat owners. Kieffer said many refer to their craft as “river-view property,” reflecting a long-term proprietary interest in boat and lake alike.

The marina was selling fuel at $3.42 last week, but Kieffer said the price reflected his cost last year. When the remaining stock is tapped out — there was only 2,000 gallons left Tuesday — fresh supplies and a new fuel system will increase the price, he said. How much, he could not say.

Kieffer noted the lake, drawn down to capture this year’s above-average runoff, is rising rapidly.

“We sure need a lot of water,” he said.

New boat registrations in Idaho, and sales tax figures from the Washington Department of Revenue, do not point to a slowdown, at least not as of the end of 2007.

In Idaho, “new boat” means boats not registered previously, not necessarily boats off the showroom floor. But registrations increased from 7,761 in 2005 to 8,147 in 2006 to 8,215 in 2007. Total registrations in the state grew 6 percent from 2002 to 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available.

“It’s been pretty static the last few years,” said Jennifer Wernex, spokeswoman for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The increase for the state’s five northernmost counties — Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone — was almost 7.5 percent, led by a 9.6 percent gain in Kootenai County.

Personal watercraft represent about 5 percent of registrations.

Taxable boat sales in Spokane County, including Airway Heights, Spokane, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, increased from $14 million in 2003 to $17.3 million in 2007, or almost 24 percent.

Lenders said they have noticed somewhat less demand for financing, although they add that the use of home equity loans to finance boat purchases makes it difficult to draw any conclusions. Some also lump boat and recreational vehicle loans together on their books.

At Spokane Teachers Credit Union, Vice President for Lending Scott Atkins said boat/RV loan volume has fallen about 25 percent so far this year compared with 2007. That includes loans direct to customers and loans made through dealers, he said.

When household expenses are eating up paychecks, Atkins said, “People don’t spend as much on toys.”

Demand in April was off 45 percent, he said, primarily for RV loans.

“We would like to do more boat lending,” said Atkins, adding that boat/RV loans are a small portion of the credit union’s total portfolio.

He said credit quality on the loans, which run from $5,000 to $200,000, has remained good.

Gene Fitzpatrick, vice president for lending at Numerica Credit Union, said boat loan applications are off slightly so far this year, a fact he attributed to the weather.

Boat loan volume has increased steadily over the years, he said, and represents about 10 percent of Numerica’s total portfolio. Probably fewer than 10 boats have come back to the credit union in recent years, usually because borrowers are enduring a divorce or job loss.

“They’re not one paycheck away from catastrophe,” he said. “This stuff has been good-quality paper.”

“Most people buying a boat, it’s part of their family recreation plan,” he said.

Such is the case for the Beaches on Tuesday, when they shoved off for their first outing.

Yes, Beach said, gas prices are high, but if you can afford a boat, you can afford to fuel it up.

“You just don’t get around as much,” he said.

But, Beach added, get around his family will.

“There’s only so much summer,” he said.

Tags: boating

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