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How to choose the right dock for your shoreline

What type of dock is right for your shoreline?

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It’s a scene that’s ubiquitous with cottage country; enjoying a cool drink under the hot summer sun, sitting on your dock surrounded by family and friends. There’s no doubt that docks are as integral to cottage life as campfires and boats rides—which is why it’s important to carefully consider the best one for your property. 

“No two shorelines are created equal and the ability to adapt to the various conditions is what makes the difference between a good-looking dock and something you most likely won’t be happy with,” explains Rick Hickson, the founder of R & J Machine. In addition, no two lakes are the same, nor are the needs of cottage owners.

Rick Hickson, founder of R & J Machine spoke with CottageLife.com about how to choose the right dock for your needs, regardless of whether you plan to use it as mooring point for your boat, a launching pad for your kids’ diving competitions, or simply as an entertaining spot for late-night stargazing sessions.

What types of docks are available to cottagers and what are the specific applications? 

The main types of docks available are permanent docks, pipe dock, floating docks and lift up docks:

  • The permanent dock is a good choice for someone who doesn’t want to have to do anything with their dock. They’re very stable and constructed using steels pilings, which are drilled or vibrated into the lake bottom. A steel framework on top is then covered in one of the many decking options. Available in a wide variety of sizes, permanent docks are ideal for lakes where the water level remains reasonably stable. However, they’re not suited to areas where there can be a lot of ice, as the force of the ice flow can damage them. Due to the nature of their construction, they are the most costly of all the docks available.
  • The pipe dock stands on legs and is generally good for people who don’t mind taking their dock out in the fall in order to prevent ice damage. Most pipe docks on the market are built using an aluminum frame with removable decking. Available in various straight lengths (12’, 16’, 20’ and 24’), they can also be made into practically any shape you want, such as L’s, T’s and U’s. Pipe docks work well in up to 8’ of water, preferably where the water level stays fairly constant throughout the season (unless you plan on lowering it). They are the most economical type of dock going, but require the lake bottom to be relatively firm.
  • The lift up dock is a good option for people on a lake where the ice piles up a little bit on the shore. They are also relatively easy to raise and store for the winter. Lift up docks stand on legs and are lifted out by simply hooking up a winch, cranking it and raising up the dock for the wintertime. (It is also advisable to remove the decking in order to reduce the addition of ice and snow load.) If someone is in an area where there is ice movement, a step lift dock can be used, which places the hinge point behind the shoreline. A suitable shoreline is also required; otherwise an anchor base for the hinge point will also be needed. Lift docks are available in various straight lengths up to 48’ and can also be made into L and T formations. They work well in up to 15’ of water, where the lake bottom is reasonably firm. Again, if the shoreline is not quite suitable, an anchor point for the winch and hinge point will also be required.  
  • Floating docks are ideally suited to lakes where there is a mud bottom, fluctuating water levels or very water deep—but not where there is extreme wave action. They can be left in the water during winter, provided that they are detached from the shore and towed to a protected area, such as a bay or the leeward side of an island. Made using foam-filled plastic billets or commercial steel tube floats, this type of dock is available in a variety of widths and shapes but its stability (which is determined by its length and width) must be taken into account. For example, in an area with lots of waves or boat wake, a wider dock would be required. The weight of a commercial steel tube float would also be beneficial to use in these conditions as their weight and rigidity help to keep them from bouncing around. In addition, it’s best to avoid the Styrofoam-filled billets (unless they are fully encased) as the muskrats and mink love to nest in them. (Also avoid using any floatation that is not foam-filled as even a small hole could cause your dock to sink.) Floating docks, when properly constructed, are normally more costly than pipe docks.

What are the different shoreline considerations that might affect a dock-purchasing decision?

With a bit of work most types of docks can be adapted to suit a wide variety of shorelines. Personally, I find a shoreline with a nice armor stonewall to be the easiest to work with. The stone can be drilled and a steel base plate easily attached, to which the dock can then be fastened.

A nice gently sloping sand beach would mean that your ramp (which connects the shoreline to the dock) can simply rest on the beach. If a lift dock is your choice then a crib, concrete anchor or piling mount would also be required to attach the dock hinge onto. Where the shoreline is bare rock a mount plate (similar to that used on an armor stone wall) could also be used.

The most difficult shoreline to work with is one that has a series of boulders, small stones or over-burden. In this case either a custom baseplate could be fabricated on site or a ramp to go over the rubble could be used.

If your shoreline is very shallow, the wheel-in option—which is basically a pipe dock with wheels—is a good alternative to a standard dock. As long as your lake bottom is relatively firm, this option allows you to wheel the dock out into deeper water and then bring it back to shore again as necessary.

Are docks available in different shapes? What type of dock suits what type of shape best?

Pipe and floating docks can be configured in a variety of shapes to provide boat slips and large seating areas, if desired. But keep in mind that if they have to be removed for the winter, so linking sections that are of manageable size which attach together are the best option.

Lift docks can go straight out, make a U formation or have a T or an L at the end. If your lakefront property has a large cliff behind it, a larger-sized deck area at either the shore end or the water end can provide your family with a nice place to congregate and enjoy the view.

Water depletion in many cottage regions is a major concern. What special dock considerations apply on lakes that rise and fall a great deal? 

If you’re in an area where the water rises and falls, you pretty much have to go with either a pipe dock (with a wheel kit) or a floating dock. If your beach area is also shallow, it is possible to combine a pipe dock followed by a ramp, then a floating dock. The only thing to consider with this configuration is that the ramp must be long enough to accommodate the drop in the water level so that the angle of the ramp is not too steep to walk on.

Are there any environmental considerations cottagers should be aware of when choosing a dock?

There aren’t too many environmental considerations. Although the old-style crib docks weren’t looked upon favourably, these days most docks are much more environmentally friendly.

The only thing that cottagers really need to be concerned about is the type of materials they build their dock out of. Pressure-treated decking is not recommended for water contact situations. Cedar, aluminum or PCV decking is considered to be the best.

Finally, if you’re building a floating dock, avoid using barrels for flotation unless you are able to verify that their original contents were not hazardous to a waterfront environment.

What about government regulations? Are there any laws or bylaws cottagers should be aware of before they install or replace a dock? 

The location of your cottage dictates what regulations and permits are obligatory. In some areas, the Municipal regulations require you to get a building permit for a dock, as well as a Ministry of Natural Resources permit.

A lot of docks fall under the MNR’s “free use” policy, which dictates how close you can build to your property line and what quantity of lake bottom contact you can have. But if you are on an MNR-controlled property, there will be extra criteria. For example, your dock can occupy no more than 25 per cent of your lot width. Typically the MRN prefers pipe docks, cantilever docks and floating docks.

If you are in an area covered by the Trent Seven Waterway or Rideau Canal you should have a permit from Parks Canada before you start any sort of construction, whether it be a dock, railway or a boatlift. In some cases, you will have to allow between three to four months for these to be approved.