It’s getting dangerous on the water, and Minnesota needs a boating education certification | Opinion

Wake surfing is gaining in popularity. Photo courtesy of Nautique Boats and the World Wake Association.

Minnesotans love boats!

And they own more per capita than any state except Florida. But boating in Minnesota is changing. The number of boats in Minnesota increased 36% in the past 20 years. Boats between 16 feet and 26 feet increased 118%, while the number of boats less than 16 feet declined 27%. From 1987 to 2001, average horsepower went from 46.1 to 74.5. The trend towards larger and more powerful boats has accelerated in the recovery from the 2008 recession. The increased speed and power of watercraft today necessitates a greater degree of skill and knowledge for safety and to protect lake ecology.

The newest entrant: enhanced wake watercraft, EWW. And with it, the sport of “wake surfing,” which creates new threats to water, shoreline, habitat, and other boaters.

EWW is a rapidly growing and exciting new sector of the boating industry. But if used improperly, EWW can cause shoreline erosion, destruction of aquatic plants and the disturbance of lake bottoms. EWW are also at very high risk of transporting aquatic invasive species (AIS) due to the ballast tanks they carry, according to research by the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center

Besides their massive ballast tanks, wakeboard boats have a redesigned powertrain and huge engine to create large wakes for surfing. The surfer can remain so close to the boat at a maximum speed of about 10 knots that the surfer can talk with the passengers. These watercraft are quickly becoming the most popular form of lake-based fun, and they represent one of the fastest growing sectors of the boating industry.

There is also risk. The massive wakes these boats generate can damage sensitive shorelines, docks and other boats, from pontoons to kayaks. Their thrust can go down further in the water column than other watercraft, destroying aquatic plants and churning up sediments that cause algae blooms and silt in spawning beds, affecting fish habitat. 

To our way of thinking at the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates (MLR), where we work statewide in local communities and at the state Legislature on behalf of lakeshore associations, it’s time to create a boater’s education and certification program that stresses etiquette, safety and best practices to protect aquatic habitats.

2020 Legislative attempts fell short

Before COVID-19 interrupted the legislative process, the Senate Environment Committee introduced a bill to prohibit wake surfing 200 feet from shore, docks, swimmers and other boats. Sponsored by Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, the measure was backed by industry research and boat dealers, and kept lakes open to surfers. The bill died though.  

We believe that a boat operator’s permit would improve safety, enjoyment by all user groups and help protect the ecosystems, while promoting increased use of the resource by the public. The problems starting to emerge with increasingly powerful watercraft, including EWW, would be best addressed with education and focus on best practices derived from good science into wake and prop thrust impacts. A boater’s education and certification program should address the following problems that are inherent not just with EWW but boat operators in general:

  • Conflicts due to poor boating etiquette and lack of knowledge about “rules of the road,” are increasing, according to some early indicators. This is concerning since the US Coast Guard estimates that 81% of boating deaths occurred when the operator did not have safety instruction. Just 14% percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate.
  • The threat of invasive species puts additional responsibility on boaters to prevent the spread. Education is the first line of defense, particularly for more complex watercraft.
  • With more boats on our waters and a wider diversity of recreational boating, conflicts among users are becoming more common. Using the educational platform that a boat operator’s permit would provide, we can build a lake ethic based on the rights and enjoyment of all users, and reduce conflict. 

Base it on gun and auto safety models

The promotion of hunting ethics through gun safety training has been a resounding success, and the same model can be used in boating. This training should include information on invasive species prevention; boater ethics; safe boating guidelines and right of way; and specific information on potential damage a boat can cause if operated too close to shore or in shallow water. 

How realistic is it to implement such a program? 

That’s a question the state’s Department of Natural Resources will have to address. And at some point the agency needs to take a stand and work with lawmakers and user groups to find a consensus. This past November, the DNR punted on a water surface plan put forth by the City of Rockford that specifically addressed “surfing” issues. 

A DNR enforcement officer told the city that the agency was awaiting more guidance from the Legislature: “Approving an ordinance that may be conflicting with potential legislative action would be irresponsible of the DNR at this time.” 

Which means it’s time to get to work at the State Capitol. 

Even though our lakes are now frozen, it’s not too early to call your state legislators and move this issue to a practical and beneficial outcome.