LOWER TOWNSHIP — Working as a mechanic is a study in crisis management.
That is especially true when the engines being serviced are aboard commercial fishing boats. When these break down, time lost on the water can cost their crews and owners thousands of dollars per day.
Bud Eckel, owner of Eckel’s Diesel Service in Lower Township, has become expert in making fast, efficient repairs to clamboats, scallop boats and sport-fishing boats.
“When a boat is broken down, you have to go,” he said. “You need to get them back on the water as fast as possible. That’s been our success.”
His business at the Cape May Airport services southern New Jersey’s commercial fishing fleet from Cape May and Wildwood to Atlantic City and Long Beach Island. Eckel’s primarily services Volvo Penta engines.
Eckel’s Diesel Service is a third-generation family business. Bud Eckel started the company in 1976 with his late father, Charles Eckel, who had worked for years as a diesel mechanic after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.
At one point all four Eckel brothers worked at the shop with their father.
Today, Bud runs the business with his brother, Robert, also of Lower Township. Eckel’s wife, Cherie, handles the bookkeeping. One of their sons, Buddy Eckel, 30, of Lower Township, represents the third generation as the shop’s office manager.
“There is no such thing as a holiday weekend around here. Inevitably, a parasail boat will go down or a scallop boat will break down,” Buddy Eckel said. “You’re on call here all the time. If things go down, they’re not making money.”
New Jersey’s commercial fishing industry relies on these support services for its very survival, said Gregory DiDomenico, director of the Garden State Seafood Association. The Port of Cape May is the fifth-most-valuable in the nation and No. 2 on the East Coast.
“It’s very simple. It’s the old adage, ‘time is money,’” he said. “I think if you look at our coastal economy, it’s all linked inextricably. If you talk to the guys at Lund’s Fisheries or Atlantic Cape Fisheries, they’ll tell you how important this relationship is and how important it is to the coastal economy.”
Eckel’s technicians all are factory-trained by Volvo.
Marine work can be dangerous. Workers often have to cut a hole in the boat to disassemble and remove transmissions or engines weighing as much as 10,000 pounds. Then everything has to be put back in place.
Eckel’s crews also handle engine maintenance on tankers traveling to destinations such as Galveston, Texas, or Tampa, Fla. Eckel said there is more pressure on him with these jobs because he has to make sure he has every tool and part he will need before the ship embarks for its next destination.
“If you forget something, you can’t get next-day UPS on the water,” he said.
Commercial fishing has been one of the bright spots in the economy since the recession. The business has remained steady despite cutbacks in other boating sectors, particularly recreational boating.
“We focused on clamming. Clamming has always been consistent down here,” he said.
On a recent weekday, Eckel worked on repairing the hulking transmission from a 100-foot clamboat called Jersey Girl out of Atlantic City. The transmission weighed as much as a Chevy Cavalier.
They use chain lifts to move equipment around their shop or to dunk parts into a hot tank that scours away grit, sand or other contaminants that can foul gears. Workers also use welding torches, sand-blasters and specialty equipment designed for each engine make.
The company sits in a light-industrial park that Cape May County officials have been trying to develop for decades at the airport, which is owned and operated by the Delaware River and Bay Authority.
Until the 1990s, the company was based at the Cape May Harbor, where boat crews sometimes asked to borrow tools or solicit free repair advice.
“Here they have no choice. When they come here we almost always get their business,” he said.
Contact Michael Miller: