Do we need laws to control excessive boat wakes?

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It’s easy to see why some waterfront property owners shake their fists at wakeboats: they’re upset at the boats that rumble by blaring tunes and making towering wakes that crash onto the shore, causing erosion and stirring up sediment, damaging docks, and sometimes even making the water unsafe for swimmers and other boaters. But it’s also easy to see why so many cottagers love them: they allow a variety of watersports that aren’t possible with traditional cottage boats. That includes wakesurfing, a sport that’s eclipsed waterskiing and wakeboarding in popularity in many areas, where enthusiasts ride waves on a compact board directly behind the boat, without a tow rope.

In recent years, the tension between those who operate wakeboats and those who are raising alarm about their excessive use has increased. The reasons are obvious. New towboat sales in Canada grew by 13 per cent from 2019 to 2020, according to Sara Anghel, the president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) Canada. That makes these luxury boats one of the fastest-growing segments in cottage boating.

At the same time, shoreline preservation is top of mind as environmental groups and lake associations remind cottagers about the importance of preventing algae blooms, protecting habitat, and much more. So, how can the cottage community overcome these differences? Can a truce be struck?

What’s the difference between wakeboats and traditional cottage craft? It’s all in the technology. Whereas typical runabouts skim over the water’s surface, generating a modest wake, wakeboats dig trenches and produce powerful combers. Using a combination of heavy displacement, powerful inboard engines, and adjustable tabs and plates on the hull, wakeboats produce waves steep enough to mimic the experience of surfing an ocean wave. Wakeboats are designed to be able to quickly add or subtract about 1,800 kg of water ballast, and typically cruise at 16 km/h to cast an optimum wake. The distribution of ballast is offset to create a larger wave on one side of the boat or the other, depending on the rider’s preference.

So how big is too big? It depends on who you ask. A Florida-based study commissioned by the NMMA and the Water Sports Industry Association in 2014 recommended that wakeboarders stay in deep water and maintain a distance of at least 60 metres from shore, to let large waves dissipate before hitting shallow water and shore, where they cause damage. The study also indicated that wave height decreased to less than 40 centimetres over this span.

But according to Steve Frawley, the president of Safe Wakes, a Minnesota based advocacy group that aims to help protect and conserve the state’s lakes, the Florida study was simplistic and biased, ignoring the impacts that propeller wash makes on lake bottoms. Still, the state of Minnesota used it to inform a bill to ban wakesurfing within 60 metres (200 ft) of shore, docks, and other boats and swimmers, with the support of boat dealers and the NMMA. (The proposal stalled in the state legislature last year, and has been moved to the next legislative session.)

Here in Canada, there have yet to be any similar legal challenges. But some lakes, such as Tunkwa Lake in B.C. and Canoe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, have horsepower restrictions, while a few cottage lake associations, such as Tackaberry Lake in Muskoka, have outright bans on powerboats. 

But not everyone thinks this is necessary. “We believe there’s a misconception,” contends David Dickerson, the Washington, D.C.-based vice president of state government relations of the NMMA. “Boats operated correctly do not present a hazard to the shore, structures, and other boats. Education is far more effective than a law.”

While cottage boaters may simply be looking to have fun on the water, the reality is wakes pose problems for shorelines. Natural waves perform essential ecological functions—such as removing waste, supplying oxygen and nutrients, and shaping the shoreline through natural processes of erosion and deposition. But shorelines and aquatic habitat are fragile. Adding artificial waves in sheltered areas can disturb wildlife habitat, such as loon nests; and siltation from excessive erosion can smother fish spawning areas. It makes for a perfect storm on lakes where natural shoreline vegetation has been removed, making the water’s edge more susceptible to erosion, siltation, and loss of vegetation and wildlife.

So in the absence of regulations, it’s clear that the onus is on wakesurfers to do the right thing. Myles Mueller, a wakesport instructor and manager of Pride Wake, a division of the Pride Marine Group with several marinas in Muskoka and Lake Simcoe, recognizes the risk of watersports. Each time Pride Marine sells a wakeboat, it refers the client to Mueller for instruction. Besides teaching the technical aspects of surfing, Mueller, a university student who has been a watersports enthusiast his entire life, emphasizes responsible boating. “You’re creating rollers that destroy the shoreline and docks,” he admits. “So you want to stay away from channels, out in the open water. You want to be on a lake that’s big enough that you can stay offshore.”

Trade organizations such as the NMMA insist the best approach to protecting shorelines and reducing conflicts is to educate wakeboat operators. Besides staying a minimum of 60 metres offshore, they advise keeping music at a reasonable volume, and avoiding repetitive passes in the same part of a lake.

Wake shape may also play a role in dissipating the destructive force of wakes, says Dickerson. The Florida study identified steep, breaking wakes, favoured by some wakesurfers, as dissipating energy more quickly than longer waves, therefore imposing less shoreline damage. But Stephen Morris, a physicist at the University of Toronto disagrees: “There will always be a residual wave, and it’s probably bigger than it needs to be,” he says.

For his part, Mueller encourages drivers to position wakesurfers on the offshore side of the boat, in order to help direct the larger wake into open water. “You don’t want to be ‘that boater,’ ” says Mueller, who logged 500 hours teaching wakesports last summer. “You want to be respectful.”

Safe Quiet Lakes, a Muskoka-based advocacy group working with cottage associations, marinas, and watersport businesses, is set to launch a video campaign in partnership with lake associations this spring to promote responsible wakeboat use. Board chair Diana Piquette says the organization is tolerant of wakeboats, provided that operators “understand that boating is a shared experience and that wakeboarding is a popular sport and will continue on our lakes.” She adds, “Our programs are aimed at educating people that towing sports should be enjoyed where the wakes do not endanger or impact others.”

With cottagers both onshore and behind the wheel, Piquette hopes a common understanding can be found so that lake usage isn’t decided in a courtroom. Watersport influencers like Mueller are doing their part in promoting best practices, but will it be enough to protect shorelines from erosion and mitigate conflicts as wakeboat sales continue to soar? “We hope that boaters will approach this understanding that the lake is a shared resource,” says Piquette. “Whatever you enjoy doing on the water, it shouldn’t infringe on anyone else’s ability to enjoy the lake as well.”

This article originally appeared  as “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters” in the May 2021 issue of Cottage Life. 

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