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Finding fresh water

A reddish egret looks for a meal on the edge of the Mississippi Sound as nearby workers remove oil tar balls from the beach in Waveland last week.

A reddish egret looks for a meal on the edge of the Mississippi Sound as nearby workers remove oil tar balls from the beach in Waveland last week.

Oil spill forces many boaters inland

Dave Burrage has a piece of advice for recreational boaters on the Gulf as the oil spill widens — stay out. And for those boaters opting for oil-free, inland waters, he warns that carries risks, as well — to boats and their passengers.

“For people and the environment, the safest place right now for a boat is on the trailer,” said Burrage, an Extension professor at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. He recommends a good dose of common sense, even on waters far from the oil. “The inland waters will be more crowded as people avoid the Gulf. The sheer numbers will increase the risks, and safety should always be the priority on the water,” he added.

Judging by traffic figures on inland waterways and the lack of oil-cleaning business being reported by boat detailers, boat owners are largely taking Burrage’s advice to stay out of the Gulf.

For example, the annual “Thunder on Water Safe Boating Festival,” a three-day event on Grenada Lake, drew 125,000 people last month. According to Wayne McCool, executive director of the Grenada Tourism Commission, that was 22,000 more visitors than attended the festival in 2009.

According to figures from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Grenada Lake saw more than 1.265 visitors from Oct. 2009 through May 2010. The lake drew roughly 1.258 million last year over the same period.

Gary Matthews, executive director of the Tishomingo County Development Foundation, said he was amazed at the traffic on Pickwick Lake during the Fourth of July weekend. It was the heaviest traffic he had ever observed on the lake in his six years in the Northeast Mississippi county, and he noted car tags from across Mississippi and as far away as Jackson, Tenn.

Numerous boat-detailing companies statewide, including two on the Coast, reported no calls from private boat owners for oil cleaning or repairs.

Action Marine is based in Jackson, but offers on-site service at homes, docks and marinas. Action Marine’s Crystal Rall said she has not noticed a shift in boating from the Coast to inland waters, and her company has not serviced any oil-contaminated vessels. But, she pointed out that the oil is unprocessed, making it difficult to clean. And, the oil can affect more than a boat’s looks.

“We have a boat docked on the Coast,” she said. “If we hear oil is approaching, we’re going to yank it out, because the oil could ruin the air conditioning system. We are not going to take that chance.”

Those who have ventured into the oil-contaminated Gulf have discovered just how hard it is to remove. Burrage related a story of an associate who ran through oil delivering supplies to a spill-fighting vessel. The boat owner cleaned the boat repeatedly over a three-day period, but the oil continued to leach through the paint.

“The paint is petroleum based, and it and the oil have an affinity for each other,” quipped Burrage, who has put his own boat on the trailer due to the oil and the threat of tropical systems.

LaDon Swann has been forced to take his boat out in the Gulf, and has found out first hand just what the oil can do to a vessel. Swann is director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium in Ocean Springs, and a recent trip out to show members of the media the conditions of the Gulf waters proved messy.

“We were looking for oil, and we found it,” Swann said. “It has the consistency of chocolate syrup, and it really adheres to a fiberglass boat.”

Swann said he first had to use a putty knife to scrape off the oil, and it took several washings to get the boat completely clean.

While boating numbers are up inland, concern remains high that the oil spill will impact tourism.

“We’re 350 miles from the Coast, but today when you say ‘Mississippi,’ what does everyone think of? Oil spill,” Matthews said. “There’s no oil in Tishomingo County or Pickwick Lake, but we’re still going to be impacted long term, I’m afraid.”

Burrage said if owners will not stay out of the Gulf to protect their boats, he hopes they will at least do their part to help shield the Coast’s environment.

“The harbor booms that are in place to keep oil away from our beaches are not as effective as the high-seas booms that are used farther out,” Burrage said. “It does not take much of a wave or wake from a boat for oil to pass over or under them.”

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