When Phil Akers got the bill for his annual boat fees at the Washington Sailing Marina last month, he said it showed a 35 percent increase from last year. For the Alexandria engineer, this was the latest incident in a year of rough sailing in his dealings with the National Park Service marina.
Like hundreds of other sailors at Daingerfield Island Park on the Potomac River just south of National Airport, Akers complained that recent changes at the marina -- particularly last year's opening of a chic restaurant -- have transformed their "poor man's yacht club" into a tony attraction for tourists and diners.
"It's a constant clash between the recreationalists and the dress-up-and-go-out-to-dinner types," said Akers, whose slip fee increased from about $700 to $930 this year.
The final straw, as far as the sailors are concerned, is the slip fee increase -- $300 more this year for some of the marina's 534 slips. A committee of boat owners has protested the increase and has told Park Service officials that they deserved a fee decrease because of what one sailor labeled "that grotesque restaurant."
Jim H. Pflaging of Guest Services Inc., the concessionaire that operates the marina, denied that the increase is as high as 35 percent, but could not say what the new charges were. He said this year's increase reflects the fact that the McLean firm "voluntarily withdrew" a proposed rise last year.
The Park Service, which receives a percentage of the profits from the GSI operation, approved the fee increase, Pflaging said. Boat-slip fees are based partly on the length of the boat.
"I don't like a 35 percent increase, but I don't have a choice," said John F. Byrne, who oversees the marina for the Park Service. He said the Park Service contract with GSI entitles it to charge rates comparable to other area facilities.
The increase in boat-slip fees has exacerbated a year-long feud between the concessionaire and the sailors. "It's kind of a war of attrition," said Marcia Green, fleet captain of Daingerfield Island Cruising Fleet.
"At the root of all this is the restaurant," said marina user Judy Monday. "It doesn't belong there."
The dispute, which some sailors are now threatening to take to court, is representative of the conflict between old and new. The marina borders an Alexandria waterfront area that has undergone a decade of urban renewal.
For decades, sailors who kept their boats at the marina lounged in a World War I vintage building that doubled as their clubhouse. Hamburgers and beer were sold at a counter run by the park's concessionaire.
In December 1984, GSI replaced that building with a 150-seat restaurant called Potowmack Landing with a spectacular view of the Washington skyline. The new facility has drawn crowds of diners, and sometimes busloads of tourists. Its banquet room has been the scene of wedding receptions and private parties.
The sailors were dismayed. In addition to losing their informal clubhouse, they found that parking became a bigger problem than ever, they said. Most of all, the ambiance they had come to treasure had disappeared.
"It used to be a marina with a clubhouse attached," said sailor Joseph Spagnola. "Now, it's a restaurant with a marina attached."
"The old facility was of a different style and was sort of like a neighborhood club," said Pflaging. "Some people just don't want to see things changed or modernized. I think the new facility is much nicer for the sailors and the public. I guess that's progress. We're not mad at them."
Last year, sailing clubs representing about 1,100 sailors formed the Committee for the Preservation of Daingerfield Island and won some changes. The dress code in the restaurant was dropped, sailors were permitted free use of the banquet room for club meetings, and parking spaces were added with some reserved for sailors. A bulletin board was provided for club postings.
But all this was hard won, the sailors said.
"The bottom line is we had to go to the mat for things that an ordinary marina concessionaire should provide to its clients," said John Roberts. "They like our boats because they're pretty, but they don't like us. We're mouthy, we don't dress well and we like to drink a lot of beer."
The committee has retained lawyer James M. Day, who said he was drafting a legal complaint alleging that the restaurant violates National Park Service guidelines for federal park facilites.
Byrne defends the restaurant as a service to park visitors, who numbered 979,000 last year.
"People who use the George Washington Memorial parkway for sight-seeing purposes come to the restaurant to see the view," said Byrne. "They are bona fide visitors to the national park and they should be served.
"I think the sailors have had some legitimate complaints . . . . They feel they are being pushed out," said Bryne. "But there are more users on that park. They're now having to share it with others."