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.

3. Keep it clean

In Canada, unless a household cleaning product contains an ingredient that can cause immediate harm to a human, the manufacturer or distributor is not required to list on the label potentially harmful environmental side effects of the contents. And that can make it a challenge—particularly with cleaners—to figure out exactly what’s in a product. As well, tags such as “green,” “organic,” “eco,” and “enviro” are not regulated and can mean whatever a manufacturer or distributor chooses. “We don’t have a legal framework to address ‘green’ products,” says Kathleen Cooper, senior researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Your easiest recourse is to look for products with an EcoLogo label, which means a product meets criteria developed by Environment Canada, and that the manufacturer has chosen and paid to be tested and participate in the associated marketing program.

But there is no EcoLogo criteria yet for marine hull cleaners, and so no products are approved as such. This situation leaves boat owners wading through the vague world of “green” marine products, or turning to household cleaners that do comply with EcoLogo. But even products considered environmentally friendly for household use (or at least less harmful than common alternatives) are a problem when introduced directly into a waterway. They can be highly toxic to fish (degreasers especially) and amphibians, and anything containing phosphorus or nitrogen can lead to nutrification of the water. Just as you don’t lather up in the lake, don’t soap up your boat in the lake, either.

  • Once a boat is in the water, the best hull cleaner is good old elbow grease, backed up by a pressure washer (just don’t fill the detergent container) for exterior grime. Long-handled or telescoping scrub brushes are also good for cleaning hulls; failing that, you can don a mask and snorkel and give your boat’s hull a periodic once-over. To be truly green, when giving the boat a serious scrubbing, take it as far away from the water as possible before applying cleaners, and make sure the runoff doesn’t wash into the lake.

4. Be a conscious driver

Anyone can learn the basics of driving a powerboat in a few minutes, but many people don’t know how to drive one well, even after years of experience. Lack of technique leads to inefficiency, which leads to more pollution. Higher engine revs than necessary mean increased fuel consumption and more emissions going into the water and air.

  • Consider, for example, the angle of the hull as it moves through the water, also known as the “trim.” For many powerboaters, trim of outboards and sterndrives and application of trim tabs is something of a dark art. But adjusting for proper trim can be as simple as properly setting a small outboard’s fixed angle to the transom. If you have a larger outboard or a sterndrive, get to know how and when to apply the power trim, which changes the prop’s angle of thrust and is critical to keeping a boat up on a plane at lower RPM. Adjusting the angle of trim tabs on the hull, should your boat have them, can also be crucial to low-rpm planing. “A properly trimmed engine will give you better performance at lower RPM,” says John Gullick, deputy executive director of the Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons (CPSS). Lower RPM, of course, mean less fuel consumption, and lower emissions overall.
  • Even technically good drivers may be operating in harmful ways. Wake and prop wash (the blast from the rotating blades) are two sources of damage. In addition to shoreline and lake-bottom erosion, some nesting waterbirds are particularly vulnerable to boat wake. Because they’re so ungainly on land, loons and grebes build their nests only a few inches out of the water. “Wake will drown out their nests and wash away the eggs,” says Kathy Jones, aquatic surveys volunteer and data coordinator with Bird Studies Canada. But wake is a danger to all waterbirds, not just those nesting. “Wake can separate parents from their young, meaning there’s less time spent feeding and protecting them. With multiple wake, which you can get in a high-traffic area, the adults and young can be separated long enough that they can’t find each other.”
  • When operating in shallows, go easy on the throttle, and avoid short bursts of acceleration, which can cause damaging disturbances along the bottom. Operators of jet drives need to be particularly careful since those boats can reach shallower water than ones with conventional props. And even if you’re not gunning the engine, churning through shallows can stir up bottom sediment and increase turbidity, reducing the amount of sunlight in the water, to the detriment of plants and animals.
  • In Ontario, powerboats are limited to a speed of 10 km/h within 30 metres of shore, with some exemptions: pulling up a waterskier or wakeboarder while running at a right angle to shore, operating in a buoyed channel or canal, or cruising a river less than 100 metres wide (unless a specific speed restriction applies to that stretch of water), for example. But the amount of wake produced at any given speed really depends on the size and shape of the hull, and a 33-foot cruising yacht running at 10 km/h is likely to make a much larger wake than a small open runabout technically breaking the law while up on a plane. You need to know your boat’s characteristics, and how much to slow down when operating close to shore. And keep in mind that the destructive energy in a wake depends not only on wave height, but on the speed at which the wake is moving. But because the speed of your wake moves at exactly the same speed as your boat, the only way to slow down that wake is to slow yourself down.

5. Wrap it up properly

One of the most contentious areas of boating waste has been the use of plastic shrink wrap for off-season storage. A product designed to protect new boats during shipping from the factory to the dealership has turned into a winterizing juggernaut. There is an environmental impact as a result of the emissions from the propane-powered heat guns used to make the film shrink when it’s applied, and at the end of each winter when much of that plastic film ends up in the landfill.

Because of concerns about this disposable convenience, marinas, shrink-wrap suppliers, independent installers, and the marine industry have responded with coordinated recycling programs. “The majority of our members are now recycling their shrink wrap,” says Al Donaldson, executive director of the OMOA. “In 2006, we put about 120,000 pounds of it through our program.” That’s a big improvement from 2000, when virtually no shrink wrap was being recycled at all.

  • While recycling is the best possible outcome for shrink wrap once it’s on a boat, reducing its use is even better. One alternative is to store your boat indoors or, if you have a small powerboat, in a stacked rack system. Depending on how exposed to weather and dirt the boat will be, you may not need a cover at all. If the building is heated (meaning it’s kept just above freezing), you can minimize other winterizing costs for the engine and water systems.
  • If the boat is to be stored outdoors, consider having a canvas maker sew you a fitted cover. Cover manufacturers have patterns on hand for popular production models. For an 18-foot bowrider, you can expect to pay as little as $200 for one made of an acrylic-coated polyester, or $1,000 and up for high-end fabrics that offer UV protection. With shrink wrap averaging $12 per foot of boat for a small powerboat every season, a good cover could pay for itself in a few years and also adds to the boat’s resale value. One advantage of a made-to-order cover over a store-bought one is its snug fit around the deck edge, which will discourage mice, raccoons, and other pests from getting in and setting up house for the winter—destroying a boat’s interior in the process.
  • If you choose a less-expensive store-bought rectangular tarp, go for quality. Buy one laminated with polyethylene (typically silver on one side, black on the other) with UV inhibitors, which will slow deterioration. A 20' by 25' laminated tarp will set you back approximately $100, about twice as much as a woven polyethylene tarp.
  • Whichever cover you choose, ensure it is properly supported, to keep water, ice, and snow from turning it into a swimming pool liner in the cockpit area. And always clear it off after a heavy snow. If your boat is stored at a marina, the facility may include this service as part of the storage fee, or add it for a small charge. The cover should also be well secured, so that it doesn’t rip or fray in the first winter gale, thus shortening its useful life.

Recreational boating will never be entirely free of environmental impact. But we have a responsibility to reduce that impact as much as possible. We go to the cottage to enjoy the splendour of nature, and we need to change our behaviour when the long-term survival of that splendour is in jeopardy. Simple changes can reap considerable benefits, for your lake, your own health and well-being, and the environment overall.

This article was originally published on April 15, 2008

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