It won’t be known for certain until after the season, but statistics and observation indicate fewer recreational boats in East Hampton Town waters in 2023 than in the four previous years, a trend that may track that of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The East Hampton Town Trustees operate pumpout boats in Lake Montauk and Three Mile Harbor that provide statistical evidence of vessels using their free service. The numbers, and personal observation, demonstrated a surge in traffic in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. The number of vessels in town waters exploded that year, the trustees agreed, a boat providing a relatively safe environment when social distancing was essential to keeping a public health emergency in check.
“People are using their own showers on boats instead of public facilities,” Bill Taylor, a deputy clerk of the trustees, said in the late summer of 2020. “The volume was triple, quadruple, overnight.”
In 2019, the trustees serviced vessels a total of 2,298 times in the two water bodies. In 2020, the total grew to 2,632 operations, an increase of 334. In 2021, when vaccines became widely available but a variant of the virus continued to kill Americans in large numbers, the trustees performed 2,748 pumpout operations, 350 more than in 2019. That year, 143,996 gallons of effluent were pumped out of vessels, 35,864 gallons more than in the previous year.
Last year, boats performed 3,314 pumpouts, 1,016 more than in 2019.
The pumpout vessels will operate into October, but, with Labor Day weekend approaching and the busiest time of the year nearly concluded, year-to-date statistics track with observations of reduced recreational boat traffic in 2023.
Where an annual uptick in vessel traffic in Montauk Harbor would typically be expected around the beginning of May, “there were fewer boats,” said John Gosman, who is on the dock at Gosman’s Dock daily. “People who usually come out and start putting their boats in the water and using them with some regularity weren’t doing it,” he said, a change “that’s pretty much continued the entire season.”
“June was very slow” in both water bodies, according to Doug Banfield, the trustees’ senior boat captain, with a total of approximately 10 boats serviced on weekdays in Lake Montauk and Three Mile Harbor and approximately 19 per day on weekends. There were virtually no transient boats serviced in Lake Montauk in June, he said.
Traffic picked up significantly in July, with around 15 boats serviced per weekday in Lake Montauk through July 23 and around 25 per day on weekends, Mr. Banfield said. Far fewer boats were serviced in Three Mile Harbor during that span — around seven per day on weekdays and an average of 10 per day on weekend days.
The uptick continued over the following month, with around 18 boats serviced per weekday and 32 per day on weekend days in Lake Montauk. Around 10 boats per weekday and around 17 per weekend day were serviced in Three Mile Harbor, according to Mr. Banfield.
But the statistics show an overall reduction in recreational boating activity in 2023.
“What I think is going on is that people aren’t hiding out on their boats anymore,” Mr. Taylor said last week. “When Covid came in, we wound up purchasing two brand-new pumpout boats, and there was a lot of demand. People were living on their boats. People were taking showers on their boats, people were using their boats as homes. I think with the Covid scare going away, that hasn’t happened, and it just seems that the overall boating traffic is down.”
Mr. Gosman, whose observations track the pumpout boat statistics, agreed, but added another thought. “There is some link, I think, to Covid and people feeling safe on a boat rather than traveling to other places,” he said. “That’s about the only thing that I can think of, other than the general malaise that I hear around town, that it’s slower this year than it has been in the last couple of years” in Montauk. “Succinctly, it’s the price tag the Hamptons have put themselves at.”
Those new to boating may not have been prepared for the inherent costs, including mooring or slip fees, fuel, and maintenance, Mr. Taylor said.
“They call a boat a hole in the water that you pour money into,” he said. “It’s hundreds of dollars a trip just in fuel — boats burn a lot of fuel. The insurance, the upkeep every year. . . . If you have a 19-foot boat on a trailer, you can probably go fishing for $20, but after you’re done paying $20,000 for the boat.”
The trustees will compile and prepare a report on pumpout boat activity in the late fall.