This article is from today's Wall Street Journal:
Some Boat Owners
With Gunky Motors
Sing Ethanol Blues
Mariners Complain of Stalls,
Costly Repair Problems;
Mr. Koch Cuts His Losses
By ROBERT TOMSHO
September 2, 2006; Page A1
EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. -- Proponents of ethanol see it as a fuel
additive that can relieve the nation's energy woes. Pleasure boaters like Walter Kaprielian say they need it like a hole in the hull
Mr. Kaprielian's 1969 boat was made in Miami
by Bertram Yacht, whose sturdy older vessels have a devoted following. But the 20-footer, a beamy craft with a small cabin
, has had all sorts of things go wrong with it since marinas
here began selling nothing but ethanol-blended gasoline two years ago.
The boat has spent the summer sitting in a repair yard while its owner thinks about expensive fixes such as a new $25,000 motor
. "I get depressed just looking at it," says the 72-year-old, who sometimes seeks solace online, where a lot of boat owners are singing the ethanol blues. Boaters blame the blend for unpredictable stall-outs and a ruinous goo that brings some motors to a grinding halt.
"Take heed, folks, this stuff is nasty in outboards," one Virginia angler warned recently in a bass-fishing forum. On a site for Bertram owners, a New Yorker lamented leaving an article about ethanol problems out where his wife found it. Now "she wants to sell the boat," he wrote.
This past spring, Eric Koch, of Old Saybrook, Conn., did seek a buyer for the 34-foot boat he had spent nearly $40,000 to buy and restore. After ethanol problems set in, the kitchen designer
ended up letting it go for $9,000. "It was time to cut some losses," he says.
Mechanics and manufacturers say that while a 10% ethanol blend causes few problems in a car's closed fuel
system, it can be a big problem in boats, whose gas tanks
are ventilated. Ethanol absorbs water
from the air, which can cause a motor
to lose power or stall. A solvent, ethanol also picks up contaminants from storage
containers. And when mixed with non-ethanol gasoline already in a tank, the blend can form a gelatinous glob that clogs fuel filters.
After Houston-area marinas
switched to the ethanol blend this year, local restaurateur Rob Cromie moved his 31-footer to distant Port Aransas, Texas
, where ethanol-free gasoline is still sold. "I'd rather drive for four hours than drive for 45 minutes and risk having my motor blow," he says.
While some vehicles are designed to run on fuel containing 85% ethanol, it is available at only about 800 of the nation's 169,000 service
stations. The blended gasoline currently in wide use typically contains 10% ethanol. Such low-level blends now account for about 40% of all gasoline produced in this country, up from 33% in 2005, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
The spread of ethanol, often made from corn, has been spurred by state and federal government
moves to promote alternative fuels. Ethanol helps gasoline burn more cleanly, boosting oil-industry efforts to meet air-pollution mandates. Refiners once favored adding methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, to gasoline to promote cleaner air. But last year, Congress refused to grant them immunity from lawsuits over water
pollution linked to MTBE, which many states have banned.
A boat motor valve fouled by ethanol. Charlie Drevna, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, says that using ethanol is now the only viable way for refiners to meet federal laws requiring them to sell cleaner-burning gasoline in areas with heavy air pollution. Refiners would like to offer boaters a different product, he added, "but legally we can't."
Complaints "are coming from all over the country," says Martin Peters, a spokesman for boat maker Yamaha Marine
Group, in Kennesaw, Ga. Sales of a Yamaha fuel filter
designed to head
off ethanol problems have more than tripled this year, over the same period in 2005.
Ethanol's most excruciating headaches are reserved for the owners of vintage boats, made by Bertram and a few other manufacturers, that came with fiberglass
, once a high-end feature thought to last a lifetime. Most boats now are manufactured with gas tanks made of aluminum
or polyethylene. The latest fiberglass
tanks are made of ethanol-resistant materials.
The 10% ethanol blend can leach the resin right out of fiberglass tanks manufactured before 1985 or so -- as many as 15,000 of which are still said to be in use on boats. The resulting chemical brew can coat a motor's innards with a crippling black gunk that hardens after a motor cools.
"Basically, you get a fuel tank
that is solid and hard, and it turns to jelly," says boat mechanic
Frank Damm, of Montauk, N.Y., who has removed several.
Prices for new tanks start at around $2,000, but many mechanics won't even guess at installation
costs until they gauge how hard it will be to remove the old tank. That often means sawing a big hole in a boat's deck
Ethanol angst began to settle over eastern Long Island
, a center of affluent boaters, in 2004. That's when New York
banned MTBE and ethanol arrived to replace it.
The ensuing motor breakdowns were particularly perplexing to owners of older Bertrams. A proud lot, they consider their thick-hulled boats to be all but indestructible, and some disparage more modern craft as "bubble boats" and "Clorox bottles."
"The people who own these boats are fanatics, and the rest of the world just doesn't get it," declares Randall Rosenthal, a 58-year-old sculptor from Springs, N.Y.
But last summer, one of the motors on his 1970 Bertram suddenly turned balky and, when he opened it up, the insides looked as if they had been painted with tar.
Mr. Rosenthal siphoned the 65 gallons of ethanol blend left in his tanks into old antifreeze
jugs and paint
buckets, which he stored in his backyard while looking for a legal
disposal site. This summer, he has been using his kayak
more than the Bertram, which has a "for sale" sign in the window.
Mr. Kaprielian, his friend a few miles away, can't imagine parting with his Bertram, which he named Bluebeard Too. A lifelong angler who pads around his house with fishing
pliers strapped to his belt, the retired ad man used to take it on solo fishing
trips of up to 30 miles offshore
The Bluebeard Too, owned by Walter Kaprielian. But that was before a series of offshore
power losses that sometimes turned two-hour return trips into six-hour ordeals. Mr. Kaprielian couldn't figure out the problem until one day at the dock
last fall, when he turned on his motor and heard what sounded like a clothes drier full of hammers. His mechanics blamed ethanol, and he has been wrestling with what to do ever since.
Marina owners on eastern Long Island
say they sell ethanol-blended gasoline because it is all they can get. Jeff Briggs, owner of East Hampton Marina, where Mr. Kaprielian docks his boat and buys his fuel, says he wishes he could buy ethanol-free gasoline to use in his own boat.
Some friends have switched to motors that burn diesel
, which is still ethanol-free, but Mr. Kaprielian can't bring himself to spend the $25,000 or more that's likely to cost. Meanwhile, no one will give him a solid estimate on replacing his gas tank, and Mr. Kaprielian doesn't relish the prospect of surgery on his deck
"It's a little bit like cutting up your child," he says.
Some of his local Bertram brethren talk about stuffing their tanks with rubber bladders or spraying their insides with various protective coatings. Others debate the practicality of hauling ethanol-free aviation fuel in from the nearest airports.
Then there's Fred Phinney, an ex-publisher from nearby Southold, N.Y. After shelling out nearly $3,000 for motor repairs
, he recently disconnected his fiberglass tanks and hooked his fuel lines up to a cheap
pair of portable plastic models.
They are now strapped to the top of his meticulously scrubbed deck. Unfortunately, it's white and the new ethanol-proof tanks are fire-engine red.
"That's kind of degrading to me as a Bertram owner," says Mr. Phinney, who plans to hide the telltale replacements
with a pair of newly made white canvas
Robert Tomsho at email@example.com