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Small Craft Warning: Wake Boats May Be Coming Soon to a Lake Near You

Image from Vecteezy.
by Steve Sease

Small craft warnings should be flying on many Vermont lakes as a result of a woefully inadequate rule from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) that authorizes wake boats on 30 Vermont lakes. The new rule took effect April 15, 2024.

In central Vermont, affected lakes include the Waterbury Reservoir, the Marshfield Reservoir, Joe’s Pond, and Caspian Lake. In Chittenden County, you are likely to find wake boats on Iroquois Lake. Some other lakes where wake boats can operate include Peacham, Harvey’s, Fairlee, and Morey.

Wake boats will not be allowed on smaller or narrower lakes. In central Vermont, Wrightsville Reservoir, for example, will be off limits.

The rule, in my opinion, will lead to unsafe conditions for small craft and swimmers on the lakes where wake boats are permitted. 

A wake boat is a craft designed or modified to produce four-, five-, and six-foot or even larger waves so that a surfer can surf behind the boat without a tow rope. Many boats being marketed are quite large and come equipped with many hundred horsepower engines. Many models also feature large outdoor speakers, so that surfers and occupants of the boat can enjoy loud music as they surf. Beach Boys at max volume, anyone?

The enormous waves present a significant safety hazard for kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, and small boats. I am an experienced paddler, and I could not survive a four- or five-foot wave in my kayak — let alone in my canoe — or the chain of waves following the wake boat. 

The ANR did nothing to address safety in its rule. The agency admitted in its statements that it does not even have staff expertise to address safety. Instead, it relied on existing standards, which require boats to produce no wake within 200 feet of a swimmer or another boat. By contrast, the ANR believes that a 500-foot no-wake distance is necessary to prevent shoreline erosion and habitat degradation. 

But what about swimmers and canoeists? Why 500 feet for shorelines but only 200 feet for swimmers and other boats outside the 500-foot zone? The agency offers no rationale. Many people who spoke at public hearings on the proposed rule described being swamped, overturned, or terrified by the waves produced by wake boats. The agency’s attitude can be best summarized as saying to paddlers and swimmers, “Good luck!”

The legislative committee on administrative rules, which recently reviewed the proposed rule, has sent a memo to the committees of energy and natural resources in both the Vermont Senate and House requesting those committees to review three important points:

Should wake boats be allowed at all on Vermont waters? 

Is the rule adequate in providing safety provisions for swimmers and boaters? 

Is the rule adequate for providing shoreline protection from the large waves?

These are excellent questions.

In the next few months, some lakes that will be subjected to wake boats may submit petitions to the Agency of Natural Resources, asking that wake boats not be allowed on their particular lakes. Several have already been filed and can be found at dec.vermont.gov/watershed/lakes-ponds/lakes-and-ponds-rulemaking. Paddlers and swimmers should follow the fate of these petitions as they go forward. Public hearings on each will be required. Please testify in support of the lakes that you use. 

Personally, I am not optimistic that the agency will ban wake boats on individual lakes after adopting its rule. Paddlers and swimmers, small boat sailors, and anglers should contact your representatives and senators to urge them to ban wake boats on all Vermont lakes. 

I don’t know about you, but the threat of capsizing in huge waves with The Beach Boys blaring in the background is not my idea of fun on my favorite lake.

Steve Sease has more than 50 years of paddling experience in canoes and kayaks in the U.S. and Canada. He paddled for several years for the victorious Onion River Sports team in the Mad River Triathlon.