OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Just 10 days before this town's big night - that annual floating spectacle known as Night in Venice - a meager 20 boats were signed up for the parade. In good years, close to 100 enter.
If last night's 54th annual display, which usually draws about 125,000 spectators to Ocean City, was successful, credit organizers who scrambled to attract 70 or more crafts decorated with zany themes and over-the-top ornaments.
High fuel prices and a decline in boaters at the Shore this summer threatened to keep the numbers low.
Marina operators all along New Jersey's 127-mile coast say the daily number of fishermen and pleasure-craft operators has dropped more than 30 percent as the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel has climbed above $4.50 a gallon.
Casual observers note how quiet the ocean, bays, inlets and rivers are this summer. The Coast Guard and other agencies could not yet provide statistics.
"Boats have become floating weekend retreats for a lot of people," said Matthew Hooper, manager of the fuel dock at the Seaview Harbor Marina in neighboring Longport. "I see fewer boats going out, and the ones that do aren't running as far."
The Ocean City tourism commission issued an unusual incentive to keep the oldest boat parade at the Jersey Shore afloat: $100 American Express gas cards for participants.
And instead of a single $500 prize for the best-decorated boat, six $1,000 prizes will be awarded.
"It's been so quiet on the water, we knew we had to do something," said Mark Soifer, a spokesman for the city. "If the crowds come in to see a boat parade and there aren't very many boats, then they are going to be disappointed and then they won't come back again next year."
The promotion worked: By Thursday afternoon, 82 boaters had signed up, surpassing 80 entries last year. Soifer said he expected last-minute entries to boost the number closer to 100.
That was good news for the motels that usually are booked for the event, the restaurants that have lines out the door, and the delis that say they do more business on this one day than in the 36 weeks of the off-season.
Boater Frank Rhodes of Sewell said he hadn't taken his 34-foot Pacemaker out of its slip at Seaview all summer. He was inspired to shine up the Sunshine and enter it in the parade.
"The $100 gas card helps out. Generally it just costs too much to take the boat out," said Rhodes, who spends about $540 to fill up his 120-gallon fuel tank.
"We pretty much just sit here and party," the 63-year-old retired banker said. "Instead of a boat marina, it's become like a little neighborhood."
Twenty miles up the coast, George McGeoch, owner of Allen's Dock in New Gretna, said he had seen an increase in "hanging-out activity" this summer.
"As fuel costs have gone up, people like to come down to the Shore from the cities and just sit on their boats," McGeoch said. "Instead of heading out to the ocean to fish, they are staying in the bay or the river."
On Long Beach Island, where the Miss Barnegat Light offers chartered fishing trips, owner John Larson said he now spent more than $30,000 every two weeks to operate the 90-foot high-speed catamaran.
Still, business has been good this year because many boat owners are taking his charter instead of their own crafts, he said.
"We still get out on the water as much as we can. We just have to find cheaper ways of doing it," said Jack Morgan, 53, of Quakertown. He kept his 19-foot Sea Ray in dry dock this summer and has taken Larson's charter several times.
Morgan can spend about $50 to take Larson's boat for a night bluefish trip instead of about $250 to fill up his boat, he said.
At Hinch Marina in Cape May, Patty Lucarino of Lower Township and her husband often "double and triple up" with couples when they go out on their 33-foot Grady-White. As they cut costs, they are perhaps even starting a "boat-pooling" trend.
"Instead of two or three couples taking out two boats, we all go out on one, and then we all pitch in for the gas money," Lucarino said. "It's really turned out to be a lot of fun. I've seen other people starting to do it, too."
Phil Robeson, president of Integrity Marine, a boat brokerage in Margate, said that while he hadn't seen more people putting their boats up for sale, he had noticed fewer buyers.
And fewer boats on the water.