"Financing? It's almost nonexistent. The banks look at people and if you're not a Rockefeller they won't even consider you . . ." Jack Jonas, Arlington Marine

Boat dealers in the Washington area are looking down a long, dark road and every light is stuck on red.

The marine dealers' woes began a year ago, when fuel supplies dried up in the height of the selling season.

This year, boat sellers are forming a sisaster-of-the-month club.

The latest round of troubles began in January, when new federal regulations went into effect ordering boat owners to get rid of the type of marine toilets in use since boats first floated.

New federal law mandated "marine sanitation devices" -- miniature sewage treatment plants, or holding tanks, on boats. A minor hassle, but enough to put some prospective boat-buyers on edge.

Then in February came the Department of Energy's proposal for emergency standby fuel regulations. One proposed rule singled out pleasure motorboaters, theatening to ban the use of their boats one or two days a weekend in the event of a severe fuel crunch.

The department now says that regulation was unfair and will be revised. But boat sales people say damage was done and the hubbub knocked more potential buyers off the fence.

The boat industry hung on. But now comes windy spring and the shadow of a president on television, telling the nations it spends too much money it doesn't have and telling the nation's banks and money lenders to tighten up on consumer credit.

Consumer credit is the backbone of the boat business.

Says Bob Balwinski, owner of Hillcrest Marina in Lorton, Va., "People finance boats to the max and they always have."

And according to Balwinski and others in the boat business, the financing just isn't there any more.

"Say you wanted to buy a $10,000 boat," said Balwinski. "Today you'd have to have at least $2,500 down. Most likely if you could get financing it would be for three years instead of five or 10. Those are hard terms, and I honestly don't know of a bank in the area that would take them."

March normally is the start of the peak buying season. But Balwinski says his business is down 70 percent over normal.

Says Jack Jonas of Arlington Marine, "We can't hold out any more than two or three months like this or we'll have marine dealers folding up all over the place.

"Gasoline is going up again next month. It's becoming a pleasure people can't afford, and even it they can, they can't get the financing."

The finance crunch has two sides -- both negative. While retail financing gets scarcer and scarcer, dealers say inventory costs are spiraling.

Dealers buy boats for the showroom COD from the factory, putting up a small percentage and paying carrying costs to banks and financial institutions that put up the remainder.

The carrying costs, which hovered around 10 and 11 per cent a few months ago, are up over 20 percent a year now, according to the dealers. Some pay as much as 26 percent.

That means if they keep a boat on the floor for a few months, they've eaten up their profit margins. But the same banks and institutions that are charging the high inventory interest, dealers say, won't pick up the "retail paper" -- the loan to the comsumer when he buys the boat.

"I've been doing business with the same bank for 10 years," Jonas said. "As of Feb. 29 they said, 'No more retail paper.' They won't finance what we sell. I'll tell you it isn't easy switching banks in hard times."

The squeeze is hitting more than sales people. Lamount Layton of Cedar Point Marina at Kent Island has slip vacancies for the first time ever.

"I used to cut off my waiting list at 30 names every spring and fall," he said. "This year, for the first time, I've got vacancies. I've got 20 slips empty.

"People are selling their boats and they're not moving up the way they used to -- they're getting out."

"The financing thing is hurting us bad. They want up to 40 percent down if you can get financing at all. This is what I think will really shut us down."

And down at the Washington Marina, the grand dame of the capital's boating establishments, Bob Stickell says it's worse than it's been in 29 years.

"We're hurting. Normally, March is a good month. But I don't think we're getting half the poeple in that we normally would. There's so many negative factors at once -- rising fuel costs, the DOE statement, rising interest costs, rising dealer interest rates, the shrinking financing . . ."

"Not all dealers interviewed in a random sampling were gloomy. Tom Morgenau at Tri-State Marine in Deale, Md., said all inventory-intensive businesses were "feeling the pinch," but his financing has held up. Ray MacAnanny at Safford Marine in Bladensburg said it's "nowhere near a disaster. What we've lost is the first-time buyer or marginal buyer, because of the credit crunch."

At Hoffmaster's Marina in Occoquan, Va., Martha Hoffmaster said, "We really haven't come up against financing problems yet. We haven't been out on the money market in a month. But the word is out now that we're going to have trouble."

Trouble is becoming a way of life for Bob Balwinski.

"Last year, we fought the gas all year. This is our second bad year in a row and noboby cares. It seems like the government could care less what happens to the small businessman.

"Nobody's out of business yet, but we're all skating on mighty thin ice."