Buffett Family and University Convert Teaching Boat to Use Vegetable Oil

It’s only a good idea to fry the engine if it’s to fuel your boat.

The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi (GCRL) recently converted the engine of a 33-foot fiberglass research vessel to run on waste vegetable oil.

In 2011, musician and restaurateur Jimmy Buffett and his sisters, Lucy Buffett and Laurie Buffett-McGuane, donated the 40-year-old former U.S. Navy liberty launch. They renamed it The Miss Peetsy B after their mother, Mary Loraine “Peets” Buffett, and they attribute their love of the water to being raised on the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama. Peets died in 2003.

Lucy Buffett, who owns Lulu’s at Home Port in Gulf Shores, said the family wanted a way to help educate children and adults about both the benefits of the Gulf and the ways they can help preserve it. It now functions as a floating classroom.

“The Gulf has some of the most exclusive wildlife, and I feel some responsibility to make sure it’s taken care of for many generations,” she said. “And I know Jimmy and my sister do, too.”

The waste vegetable oil comes from the GCRL dining hall, as well as the kitchen at Lulu’s. According to Lucy, the restaurant creates 120 gallons of waste vegetable oil each week, totaling around 2,000 for a season. Vegetable oil is not only less expensive but also cleaner than traditional fuel. (According to the university, the engine uses fewer emissions and no heavy metals or carcinogens, making it more environmentally friendly.)

When the boat’s running, Lucy says it even smells like French fries.

“I just feel like we’re really blessed, and I love that we’re able to do a lot of different things to give back to our communities in so many different ways,” she said. “It’s fun, and it’s got to be fun for other people too, because that’s just who we are.”

The Miss Peetsy B, converted by Randy Holts of Green World Innovations in South Carolina, has two separate fuel tanks: one for waste vegetable oil and another for diesel. For the first five minutes, the boat warms up the engine on diesel, it then switches to the other tank for the rest of the journey until the final five minutes.

“It actually makes for a great platform to teach from,” said Marine Education Center Director Chris Snyder. “We’ve designed it so you can lift up a panel and see both fuel lines and learn from both systems.”

The mission of the GCRL Marine Education Center is to connect people with coastal sciences and research, Snyder said. The most effective way to teach kids and adults about marine life is to put them on the water, so to offer a green sustainability lesson on top of that is “a win-win for all.”

“All the research we do is something to do with coastal sciences, all aspects of it – genetics in the coastal zone, ecology, plants and animals, microbiology – and the better people understand that, the better job they can do with making good decisions that affect the health and quality of the Gulf.”