As Gulf Oil Spreads, Companies Take Stock

Presented with starkly contrasting circumstances, charter companies throughout Florida respond to the nation's worst environmental disaster-and at the same time, help each other out. Charter Briefing from our June 10, 2010, CW Reckonings

oil spill CB 368

Charter boats on the hard to weather the oil.Courtesy Of Emerald Coast Yacht Charters

After April 20, the phones just died.

That's how Southwest Florida Yacht Charters founder Barb Hansen puts it. But Hansen, a longtime veteran of the ups and downs of the vacation sailing business, knows well how to take the hits and keep on keeping on.

Not long after BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, she issued this message far and wide in a special "Oil Spill" edition of the company email newsletter, the E-Yardarm: "Our cruising area and beaches are just as beautiful as ever. Come and join us soon and see for yourself!"

"We are open for business," she says. "And we'll remain open for business all summer. We're hoping we're never affected by it." Southwest Florida Yachts offers a range of discounts, Hansen says, for charters and courses aboard its six sailboats and 12 powerboats, at the company's two bases, in Punta Gorda and North Fort Myers.

But to the northwest, in Florida's panhandle, another company, Emerald Coast Yachts Sailing School & Charters at Sabine Marina, Little Sabine Bay, was dealt a different set of cards.

"The marina we're at is boomed off, so if we left the boats in place and a storm came, we'd have to wait in line after others move their boats," says Peggy Van Sleen, who with her husband, Rick, has run the charter company and sailing school situated at the fragile Gulf Islands National Seashore since 2003.

"The places we teach people to sail are also being boomed off," she says. The location of anchorages and bays the Van Sleens send clients who charter one of their six sailboats are primarily south of the national seashore, and a part of the Intracoastal Waterway.

So over the weekend of June 5, 2010, while recreational water traffic still plied Pensacola Bay and beyond, and booms were about to be installed at the marina, the Van Sleens crunched the numbers, assessed the risk, and decided that the responsible thing to do was to pull the fleet of six sailboats they manage for owners.

They went into haulout mode, and by 7 a.m. Monday morning, June 7, 2010, Sabine Marina reported the presence of oil mats to BP at Little Sabine Bay, Peggy says.

"Usually when we have to do this, it's a hurricane or a storm," she says. "After we got our boats settled, we asked ourselves, 'Now what?' In a storm, we're usually back in business in a week."

The Van Sleens hope to be back up and running by August. "When the winds comes from the south, usually from late morning to 7 or 8 at night, you can smell the petroleum in the air," she says, adding, "I submitted my expenses to BP this morning."

In the meantime, when sailors contact the Van Sleens, Peggy refers them to Southwest Florida Yachts. "We're happy to help and we'll pay a referral fee," Hansen says. "Everybody's got to help each other. The long-range impact of this is huge. It will affect everybody."

Two hours north of Emerald Coast Yachts, Pensacola Yacht Charters , on the city's waterfront, will keep its chartering and sailing instruction business open for the time being. "We are watching the situation and staying in operation throughout the bays, on the inland waterways, not out in the Gulf," says owner John Struchen.
"There are a lot of nice anchorages off Pensacola, east and north, to Escambia Bay."

For details of the spill and its impact on Florida tourism areas, log on to the website of Visit Florida . To see daily reports and updated tracks of the spill, log on to the Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA

.