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New boat leaves no fumes, no pollution

With U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner at the wheel, Tampa BayWatch ceremoniously launched the world's first natural gas-powered boat on Friday.

The environmental group's new boat will be used for water monitoring and restoration projects, while serving as a model of cleanliness to a recreational boating industry long accustomed to the fumes of the two-stroke engine.

By burning compressed natural gas, the BayWatch boat leaves no oil on the water, no blue vapor trail in the air and no stench in the nostrils. Mile for mile, it is expected to operate at one-fourth the cost of a comparable boat using a conventional mix of oil and gasoline. Its fuel is made in the U.S.

But don't expect to see boats chugging on natural gas into local marinas anytime soon.

Converting to compressed natural gas is not cheap. To put its revolutionary boat on the water, Tampa BayWatch, which monitors the bay for polluting activities and sponsors restoration projects, enlisted corporate sponsors. The sponsors supplied a costly pair of high-pressure tanks, modified its engine and redesigned a catamaran hull to accommodate the 6-foot tanks.

Altogether, BayWatch director Peter Clark figures the converted boat cost $50,000. The same boat, with conventional engines and fuel tanks, "you could probably buy for about $35,000," he said.

Cost barriers notwithstanding, an optimistic crowd of environmentalists, corporate sponsors and government officials gathered at a Tampa boat launch to see the BayWatch catamaran take its inaugural plunge.

"I think it's the trend of the future," Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said.

A compressed natural gas engine? "That may sound unusual. It may sound farfetched," but it's not, Browner said. "The car I use in my workday in Washington is powered by compressed natural gas."

The converted 75-horsepower engines for the BayWatch boat were supplied by Honda, which expects to introduce a natural gas automobile in 1997 but has no immediate plans to market its prototype boat engine.

Peter Clark expects commercial use of compressed natural gas in the boating industry to begin with fleets that have large fuel bills and ready access to a natural gas refilling station.

With that in mind, he has been talking to the Florida Marine Patrol about converting some of its boats _ which burn oil and gas in two-cycle engines _ to a cleaner fuel.

"I'd love to see us patrolling in something with a low environmental impact," said Maj. Jenna Sprecher Venero, a Marine Patrol official on hand for the launch.

She added that several important questions would have to be answered first: What would it cost? Where would Marine Patrol boats scattered through a 13-county area refuel? And how far could they travel on a tank of compressed natural gas?

The BayWatch boat tanks carry the energy equivalent of 28 gallons of gasoline. Marine boats are equipped with less efficient engines, but they typically carry much more fuel _ 50 to 70 gallons of gasoline.

After an extended round of speechmaking in the Florida sun, Clark clambered aboard the BayWatch craft with Browner, Turanchik and several of the corporate sponsors.

He soon turned the wheel over to Browner, who sped across the water at 30 mph to an EPA ship that happened to be measuring water and air pollution in Tampa Bay.

After a brief boat-to-boat chat, she returned to the dock to announce that BayWatch's boat left no slick and no fumes. "It was great," she said.

As if on cue, a boater nearby switched on his engine, sending an oily cloud over the dock.