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Oil and Water

2010 December 1

Can sailing in the Gulf of Mexico survive the worst oil spill in U.S. history?
By David W. Shaw

Members of the Gulf Yachting Association faced a quandary in late June. The association's Challenge Cup race was to be held in Pensacola Bay on the Florida Panhandle, but the pass leading from the Gulf into the bay was boomed off to keep out the oil gushing from BP's Deepwater Horizon well, which had exploded and sunk in late April. The booms also kept out the big boats that would normally participate in the race.

"You couldn't go through the pass unless you were a commercial vessel," said David Bolyard, commodore of the Gulf Yachting Association based in Mandeville, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. "Yacht clubs had to make other choices about which boats they could use in the event. They selected smaller boats that would fit on trailers, so they could launch and race in the bay. This is what we do. We try to overcome all the obstacles. It's the racing that really matters," he said.

Closed passes, oil sheens, tar balls, oiled birds and marshes, cleanup crews dressed in hazmat suits, oil skimmers, and oil booms as long as football fields were all too common on the Gulf Coast throughout late spring and for most of the summer. By mid-July, when BP finally capped the Deepwater Horizon well, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude had flooded into the Gulf of Mexico, making the spill the largest in U.S. history. It closed down commercial and recreational fishing, brought the tourism industry on and off the water to its knees, and it took a substantial whack at the sailing community, too.

Sailors didn't move their boats from the slips, fearing oil on the gelcoat or the distinct possibility that if they left the marina they might return to find it boomed off. They took their boats to rivers with sufficient outflow rates to keep the oil away. Others simply hauled their boats.

The only real bright spot for sailing was the continued activity at yacht clubs hosting regattas. Bolyard and other GYA members took a pragmatic stance and kept the association's sailing events going.

"Initially, everyone was shocked about the spill and what it might do to the racing schedule," Bolyard said. "We originally thought it was going to be pretty bad. However, as it turned out we only had to cancel about three or four regattas."

The oil didn't cover every nook and cranny of the Gulf Coast, as residents and business owners were quick to point out. West of Galveston, Texas, and east of the Florida Panhandle, little or no oil came ashore. In locations where the oil did reach shore, it hit hard in some places and was less pronounced in others, allowing sailing to continue on bodies of water like expansive Lake Pontchartrain, which saw very little oil.

Many sailors who would have otherwise cruised out of Lake Pontchartrain to destinations on the Gulf Coast canceled their vacation plans and stayed on the lake proper. This reduced some of the summer sailing activity on the coast. By mid-July, many of the passes were closed and many of the harbors behind the barrier islands were boomed off, basically shutting sailing down in much of the region, especially for cruisers.

Charter companies and sailing schools in South Florida saw a dramatic decline in bookings, even though there was no oil in the water. The owners attribute the decline to media hype, a sky-is-falling mentality that prevailed throughout most of the disaster and which caught them up in spite of the unlikelihood that oil would wash ashore in South Florida.

"Within about two weeks of the spill, we started noticing that the phones were really quiet, and we had no oil, so it didn't make sense until we started getting e-mails from customers worried about the spill. We had to convince them that it was OK to sail here," said Barb Hansen, owner of Southwest Florida Yachts in Fort Myers, Florida, which also runs the Florida. "We had the worst May in 10 years," she said.

Yet recreational sailing went on as usual in South Florida. "People were out enjoying this beautiful area and having a great time," Hansen said.

That stood in marked contrast to what was happening farther to the west in Pensacola Beach, Florida. Emerald Coast Yachts, a charter company and ASA sailing school, was literally closed down. Oil booms stretched across the entrance to Little Sabine Bay, preventing recreational sailboats from coming and going. "All we could do was haul our boats and watch the oil come in. We were in a sort of limbo, and that's not in our nature. We're doers. When we face a problem, we work hard to overcome it, but there was nothing we could do about the oil," said Peggy Van Sleen, co-owner of the company.

The concentration of oil in impacted areas diminished after the Deepwater Horizon well was capped in mid-July and as cleanup efforts continued. In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a press release saying a scientific report from the U.S. Government indicated that as much as 75 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf had disappeared.

"The government report at the time it was released presented an overly rosy picture," said Stanley Senner, director of conservation science for the Ocean Conservancy, a science-based advocacy group headquartered in Washington, D.C. "However, there is no question that there are a lot of natural forces at work breaking down the oil. The big uncertainty is how much oil is still out there and where it has gone."

Despite the lingering uncertainty, sailing started to come out of shutdown mode in August. Murray Yacht Sales in New Orleans reported an increase in buyer inquiries for new boats, Emerald Coast Yachts began to give sailing classes again, and Southwest Florida Yachts and Yachting Vacations said bookings for future charters and ASA instruction were on the rebound.

"The reality is that people over time are realizing that boats that are being used aren't being negatively impacted by the oil. The sailing public is realizing that the spill hasn't been as much of a disaster for sailors, and they're starting to come back to the sport here," Stanton Murray of Murray Yacht Sales said.