Charter boat captains are feeling the crunch at the fuel pump and adjusting accordingly

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Not only has the price of fuel increased for those who drive on land, but also for those who make their living on the water: Destin's charter boats. 

Destin harbor is home to one of the world’s largest fishing fleets working out of one port. 

Just last week, the price of fuel at Destin Fisherman’s Co-Op took a big increase. 

A returning charter boat passes by the Destin Fisherman's Co-Op on Destin harbor. The spike in fuel costs has charter captains rethinking how they do business.

“It jumped a dollar in a week and a half,” said Katie Wright, assistant manager at the Co-Op. But since then the price “kind of maintained … and hasn’t gotten worse.”  

The cost at the pump at the Co-Op was $4.85 a gallon for the public at the first of the week and $4.15 for members. Membership is for those who make the majority of their living on their boats, Wright said.  

Recent fishing trips:Down on the fishing docks in Destin

More fishing news:Big Mac Classic fishing tournament joins forces with Destin Fishing Rodeo

But due to the rise in cost, captains are having to rethink how they do things and adjust accordingly. 

“We took an immediate increase in cost,” said Capt. Jim Westbrook, owner of the New Florida Girl’s American Spirit, a 92-foot party fishing boat that can carry more than 100 passengers. 

Charter boat captains talk at the docks on Destin harbor. Many captains have raised the price for fishing trips in light of the spike in fuel costs.

“We went up $5 per trip immediately,” Westbrook said.

The cost of a six-hour trip, which is the most popular aboard the American Spirit, is now $90. For those fishing adventures 10-hours or more, the cost went up $10 a trip. 

“And we may have to take another increase the first of June,” Westbrook said. 

New club in town:Emerald Coast Big Game Fishing Club is up and reeling in members

A few days ago, he put 800 gallons in the boat at $4.50 a gallon. “Oh, it’s real. ... It’s real. We feel in in the pocketbook,” he said. 

The American Spirit has two 750-gallon tanks, and if it is “bone dry” as Westbrook said, it would cost $6,700 to fill it up. 

“I’m seriously concerned,” he said, noting the fuel prices are the highest in history. 

This fuel pump on Destin harbor shows a purchase of over $1,000. Higher costs are affecting how the charter captains do business.

Back in the 1990s Westbrook ran the old wooden-hull New Florida Girl for Capt. Dave Marler, when the cost of fuel was 50 cents a gallon. A year-and-a-half ago he was paying $1.65 a gallon. 

But even with the $5 increase to the customers, Westbrook said it doesn’t offset his increase. 

However, he said he will adjust how fast he goes and pull back on the RPMs.  

Inshore fishing:Scott Whitehurst wins annual Sheepshead Shootout at The Ships Chandler

“Weather is always a battle. Now we’ve got to watch our Ps and Qs to make a profit,” he said. 

Capt. Jason Rogers of the charter The Great Escape, a 36-foot six passenger boat, is also feeling the pinch at the pump. 

“It’s definitely affecting us. ... We’re just adjusting the pricing,” said Rogers, who added that he’s going up $30 an hour, which will put his charter at $230 an hour. 

“Two hundred gallons for $837 hurts,” which is what he put in his boat Monday, Rogers said. “That was only a half tank, but it was all I could afford.” 

Last year the cost of fuel was $2.70 a gallon, close to half the cost of today's prices. 

Fuel pumps line a dock on Destin harbor.

Not only is Rogers adjusting his pricing, but the way he runs trips. 

“We’ll try to conserve fuel … running slower and not as far,” he said.  

Another way he’s looking to conserve is not “topping off the tank.” The lighter the weight, the less fuel you burn, Rogers said. 

The Great Escape is a state boat and is only allowed to fish in state waters, which extend to 9 nautical miles off shore. 

More:Freeport boatyard abuzz as Destin charter fleet gets ready for upcoming season

“Everybody is going to be in my neighborhood,” Rogers said of other boats cutting back on how far they venture out.

Capt. Chris McConnell of the Au Sum, a 45-foot six-passenger boat, also is looking for ways to cut back. 

Charter boat crew members take in the view on Destin harbor. Soaring fuel prices have forced many charter boat captains to make adjustments.

“We absolutely want be able to go as far,” McConnell said Wednesday afternoon at the docks. 

“We used to go 20 to 25 miles out on a six-hour, but we’ll cut back about 30 percent … about 12 to 15 miles,” he said. 

McConnell said he used to not think twice about running up and down to try to get away from dolphins, but he’ll have to take that into consideration now. 

His boat holds 600 gallons of fuel. McConnell said a year ago it took about $1,000 to fill it up, now he’s looking at about $3,000. 

He also has raised his price. The rate for the Au Sum is $250 an hour. 

“We’re just going to have to change up our style of fishing where we can,” McConnell said.