Business at local marinas is picking up as the summer boating season gets under way, harbormasters said.
Most marinas are reporting the same or slightly higher slip occupancy rates compared to previous years.
The Hammond Marina, with 916 slips available for rent, expects half of those to be occupied this season, which is on target to raise the $1.2 million in income the marina budgeted for this year.
In Porter County, the Portage Public Marina is already at full capacity.
Yet, harbormasters still are seeing signs boaters are compensating for high gas prices and tight pocketbooks.
Some slip holders use their boats more as summer cottages and less as vehicles to travel around the lake and to destinations in Michigan or Chicago. Personal watercraft that require less fuel and are more affordable investments have risen in popularity.
"They will buy a boat and tie it in a slip here, and some of them never go anywhere," Michigan City Port Authority Harbormaster Tim Frame said.
"They come down for the weekend, hang out on the boat and then leave Sunday afternoon. It's like a little floating condo."
A handful of boats stayed in storage at Miller's Westerman's Marina in Portage instead of going in the water as the economy weakened.
But this year most boats are going in slips, and the marina's owner, Kurt Miller, said more boaters are paying for detailing and other services the marina offers.
"We have been real busy getting (the boats) back in," Miller said.
Hammond Port Authority Director Milan Kruszynski said the goal is for 450 of the marina's slips to be full. As an incentive, the marina offered a 3 percent discount to returning slip holders that paid on time.
Kruszynski said the projected occupancy for this season is positive for the overall boating and recreational experience.
"Even when I came here eight years ago, we never ever wanted to be 100 percent full," Kruszynski said. "You always want to have at least 10 percent — in our case somewhere around 80 to 90 slips — for transients."
Transient boaters pay daily or weekly rates instead of the more expensive commitment to rent a slip for an entire season.
Kruszynski said he has seen an increase in boaters paying for a daily launch fee and taking jet skis and jet boats out for the day.
"It's something people can tow behind an SUV and something they can put in water on a Saturday morning and pull out on a Saturday evening," Kruszynski said.
Down the lakeshore, the East Chicago Marina, at third of the size of the Hammond Marina, is at 70 percent occupancy.
The 200-slip Portage Public Marina has 194 of its 200 slips occupied with the rest left for transient boaters, Harbormaster Allen Ekdahl said.
Ekdahl said he expects the marina is popular because of its proximity to the beaches and the quality of its launch facility.
"We've been very fortunate that we were able to maintain," Ekdahl said.
At nearby Marina Shores at Dune Harbor, Harbormaster Scott Praxl estimated about three-quarters of the marina's 255 slips are rented. Praxl said business at the marina appears to be up from last year.
Praxl also has noticed smaller boats are coming in for slips, a sign that boating recreation along Lake Michigan is recovering from the economic downturn.
"That means they have a little bit more money and are able to utilize it," Praxl said.
The Washington Park Marina in Michigan City is at 90 percent occupancy, Michigan City's Frame said. When the economy slowed, the marina went from having 12 to 15 slips open in any given year, to having 50 to 60 open.
"We'll recover some of that especially once it's turning warm and nice," Frame said.
Frame is noticing more boaters sitting at the dock instead of going out on the lake.
"We don't see as many people moving around, like taking a trip by boat up Lake Michigan. ... A couple of years ago when gas prices at the marina were pushing $5 a gallon, the transient (boaters) just fell off a cliff, and now that has recovered some," Frame said.
The port authority also operates Trail Creek Marina, which Frame estimates is 75 percent full. Trail Creek accommodates smaller boats and is less expensive than the larger marina at Washington Park.
Frame said the sticker shock of gas prices at $4 or more a gallon has worn off on most boaters. But gas prices can affect the trips boaters take, especially if they're on a budget.
"I would say more of them, they choose to have a boat at the expense of something else," Frame said. "As boating gets more expensive with fuel, there is less moving around with it and more sitting on it."