5 ways to be a greener boater

Who says boating can't be eco-friendly? Here are some simple ways to take it easy on the lake

By Douglas HunterDouglas Hunter


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Unless you’re relying exclusively on oars, paddles, and sails get around on the water, your boating habits can be a significant factor in the life and death of cottage-country ecosystems. From its impact on water and air quality to demands on landfills, recreational boating has contributed in a major way to ecological stresses. But boating is getting cleaner, and boaters smarter. Here’s what you need to know to bring “green” on board.

1. Check your engine, oil, and fuel

A cottage runabout’s greatest environmental impact is made by its engine, which historically has been a source of toxic pollutants that typically enter the water through the exhaust and also find their way into the air as the wake churns. The nasties include hydrocarbons (unburned fuel and lubricating oil), carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter. Hydrocarbons (which are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) and nitrous oxides create smog, and carbon dioxide is the leading greenhouse gas. By now, you know that the greatest offenders are two-stroke outboards—with the exception of the new direct-injection models—and older two-stroke personal-watercraft (PWC) jet engines. Twenty-five to thirty per cent of gasoline in these carbureted two-strokes passes right through to the exhaust unburned. When the California Air Resources Board (CARB announced in 1998 its plans to impose increasingly strict emissions regulations on marine engines, it noted that a two-stroke PWC engine, operating for seven hours, produced more smog-forming emissions than a new car driven more than 160,000 km.

The good news is that the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for 2006 models reduced permitted hydrocarbon emissions from outboards by 75 per cent over the old unregulated two-stroke models. With the toughest standards in North America, CARB goes even further than the EPA: Engines that get awarded three stars under CARB’s 2008 model-year rating are another 65 per cent greener.

  • If upgrading your old engine just isn’t in the budget, at least make sure it’s operating as efficiently as possible. “The biggest thing is to keep it well tuned and running the way it was originally designed,” says Bob Eaton, the environmental director of the Ontario Marine Operators Association (OMOA). That mainly means ensuring your engine is not wasting fuel. Improving fuel economy is well within the capability of an average owner, who can install new spark plugs (which become fouled by carbon), change the fuel filter, or add detergent to the fuel to flush carbon buildup. Beyond that, a yearly tune-up by a certified technician or mechanic will give you peace of mind that there are no other problems. If you can’t remember the last time your engine was professionally serviced, get it done now.
  • Make sure your engine isn’t mismatched to your boat. If your old 9.9 has to be run near or at open throttle most of the time, it’s too small for the boat and its load, and the fuel consumption (and emissions) will be stratospheric. That might be enough to convince you to upgrade to a low-emission power plant.
  • If you change your own oil, make sure you extract it without spillage and dispose of it properly at an oil-recycling facility. Check whether your local marina is part of the Clean Marine Program and will get rid of it for you at no cost. You can also see if the municipal land-transfer station, landfill site, or recycling facility in your cottage area or at home offers oil disposal. The District of Muskoka, for example, accepts engine oil at its year-round hazardous-waste disposal sites, free of charge. Failing that, commercial operations such as Canadian Tire’s auto centre will sometimes dispose of oil for a per-litre fee.
  • Also, take care handling fuel around boats, to avoid getting it in the water. “Whenever you’re working with petrochemicals, do it over land,” says Andrew Promaine, an ecologist at Georgian Bay Islands National Park. “With a jerry can or portable tank, I take it to the pump, rather than take the nozzle to the tank.” He also recommends opening the jerry can’s air valve and pouring slowly to avoid spilling.
  • Better yet, consider upgrading to a new carb-approved jerry container with integral venting in the spout, which greatly reduces the chance of mishaps. And keep your eye on the bilge water: If there’s any evidence of gas or oil in it, you’ve got a leak on your hands that probably needs professional attention. If you do have a leak, until you can get it fixed, a bilge sock (or bilge pillow), available at marine stores for less than $40, will soak up the gas and oil so you don’t pump it overboard.

2. Watch your hull

Antifouling, or bottom, paint is generally not necessary for cottage boats. And avoiding its use is a step in the right environmental direction. Virtually all bottom paints on the market use some form of copper as their biocide to discourage growth on the hull. To work, the paint must slough off, and that puts toxic metal in the lake.

The amount of growth that builds up on your hull depends on how long your boat sits unused, and your local water. The more prone your lake is to algae blooms and heavy weed growth, the more fouled your boat’s hull is likely to get.

  • To help stymie fouling, wax the hull at the beginning of the season. In fact, waxing all exterior fibreglass will help reduce your environmental footprint not only by making your boat easier to clean without commercial products, but also by reducing its frictional drag in the water, thus improving efficiency. Gelcoat is porous, more so when it ages and begins to oxidize, and when unwaxed it gets dirty more quickly and is harder to get clean as dirt infiltrates the surface.
  • With good slippery bottom wax, water rubs off the worst of the green stuff when the boat is under way.

    This article was originally published on April 15, 2008

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