About 78 million Americans went boating last summer. Just on Lake Ontario in 1996, anglers alone made more than 180,000 boating trips, so boating is a popular sport and an important contributor to the area economy. Boaters in the Finger Lakes pursue their passion (calling it a hobby is like calling Bill Gates just another millionaire) with vigor and enthusiasm equal to that of any coastal population. They do so aboard everything from tug yachts to kayaks. Antique boat shows each summer around the region celebrate the gleaming beauty of varnished mahogany runabouts and graceful old cruisers. Local craftsmen created many of the antiques at these shows like the Penn Yans, Fay Bowens or Skaneateles Boat Works skiffs. Each summer sloops and schooners spread their white wings upon the larger Finger Lakes just as they have for over a century. And personal watercraft (aka jetskies) skitter around like brightly colored whirligig beetles on protected waters.
We have some of the most varied and best boating waters in the entire country in our area. Rivers, marshes, creeks for paddling, hundreds of miles of protected canals for cruising, and lakes large and small offer almost every type of craft suitable sailing. You can even go abroad using Lake Ontario to reach Canada, or via the canal to salt water and ocean sailing.
But regardless of the type of boat or the waters it sails upon, when the spring sunlight strengthens, the mud deepens and when cardinals begin to call, boat owners shift into high gear. It’s time to get ready for the season! Time to replace that rotten plank, time to sew up that rip in the canvas cover, time to fix that leaky fore hatch, time to find the dock lines and fenders. It’s almost launch day, the happiest day of the year for the true-believer boater.
In preparing this article, I made a brief unscientific survey of how some local boaters I knew were preparing for another summer on the water. “We drive around and look for new places to explore,” a canoeist told me. “My husband spends a lot of time daydreaming. He sits in front of the computer and thinks about boating all the time,” said a spouse. And, “making lists” was a nearly universal activity reported by the boaters I spoke to. Almost every boat owner had some sort of maintenance or upgrade project on his or her list.
Maintenance can be anything from waxing the hull to replacing the motor (rebuilding the toilet was fairly high on our list this year). Obviously those sensible mariners who go simple and small have fewer maintenance obligations than does the master of a 40 footer endowed with radar, refrigeration, hot and cold running water, and, in the case of a trimaran I saw last summer, a hot tub on deck. But even the smallest, simplest boat still must be looked after to be certain that its owner fulfills that fundamental requirement of good seamanship —keeping the water out.
Karen Bader of Kayakquests who, along with Jody Mutschler, provides sea kayak rentals and guided trips on the canal and Finger Lakes, offers the following suggestions to boaters, “look all your gear over and double check your boat for leaks.” She advises that boaters make any needed repairs now, not in the middle of the all-too-short season when you’ll miss the best weekend of the year. For those who paddle their own canoe, exercise is also wise. “The best offense is a good defense. Now is the time to pick up the weights, turn on the treadmill and keep yourself in shape. Swimming is the best all-around exercise,” said Karen.
She also offers a bit of advice that makes sense to the owner of any type of boat — keep upgrading that knowledge base. “READ! Spring is the perfect time to bone up on any techniques you may be wondering about. Rent videos, read books and magazines.”
Karen also suggests talking to other boaters as another good way to get ready for the season. A lot of talking goes on in boat yards on sunny April days when the skippers of larger vessels gather to take off the winter tarp, clean the bottom for new paint, or sit in the cockpit to daydream and make lists. Sometimes it is almost as much fun to talk about boating as it is to actually do it, and it is frequently far cheaper.
A very good place for boat talk is the classroom. Several volunteer boating organizations offer low-cost instruction to help skippers acquire or refine skills. The U.S. Power Squadron has an extensive curriculum of courses that cover navigation, weather, boat handling, and sailing. Local chapters in the Finger Lakes Region offer spring classes. You can try Chris Tertinek of the Red Jacket Squadron at 716-742-2672 or Thomas Stantz of the Seneca Squadron at 607-562-3144 for class information, or call 1-888-FOR-USPS. Several individuals, businesses and yacht clubs in the Finger Lakes area also offer boating instruction (your author among them with Silver Waters Sailing classes and charters). The Coast Guard Auxiliary also offers basic boat handling and safety courses in Rochester, Canandaigua and Sodus Point
One very traditional way that boaters prepare for spring is by acquiring a new boat. Sometimes this really is a sparkling brand new boat right off the showroom floor, or the boat may simply be new to the person acquiring it. Whether the boater-to-be seeks a new or used vessel, increasingly he or she goes online to search for a dreamboat. The Internet has a virtual universe of boats for sale of every type imaginable. And after you zero in on something you’re interested in, chances are pretty good there’s an on- line source of information on that particular boat from others who own one. Chat groups, mail lists, and Web sites devoted to hundreds of different boat types and models exist. Surfing and sailing through cyber space is a great way to spend a rainy spring day.
Doug Hazlitt of Hazlitt 1852 Wineries on Seneca Lake is getting a new boat this spring. His 60-foot wooden schooner, the Malabar X, will swim for the first time after being launched at Cayuga Wooden Boat Works at Ithaca. New wooden boats of traditional rig like this one are as rare as blue whales in our waters. She’ll be a splendid sight when she raises sail on her first trip this summer. She’ll sail out of Watkins Glen and carry passengers on day trips.
Another local passenger-carrying operation very different from Seneca Day Sails is that of Mid-Lakes Navigation. They operate mainly on the canal system and on Skaneateles and Onondaga Lakes with a variety of large passenger carrying boats. One of these, the Judge Ben Wiles, is a wooden vessel. Mid-Lakes will also rent you a boat to explore the canal on your own. Their steel-hulled Lock Masters accommodate up to six people on overnight trips and are popular with folks wanting to sample the quiet life of canal travel. Even non-boaters can quickly master the basics of driving down the narrow waters of the canal.
It goes without saying that sensible boaters get ready for the season with an inventory of their safety gear to be sure it’s up to date, legal, and in good condition. One suggestion I would offer is check into the inflatable life vests that are now Coast Guard approved, with some limitations, and are called Type III PFDs. (Don’t you love the government and their abbreviations? PFD stands for “personal flotation device,” the things we used to call life jackets when I was a kid.) The inflatable is very comfortable to wear and some of them include a safety harness to attach yourself to the boat. I bought one last year for personal use on our sailboat and am totally sold on it. Even on the hottest day it is comfortable to wear, and as the experts like to point out, the life jacket that’s on you is the one that works best.
There are dozens of boating groups in the region. Almost every Finger Lake has a yacht club on it. Many yacht club members are sailors, but some of the larger clubs also have members who cruise with powerboats. Most have Web sites so you can use the Internet search engines to get information. Marinas and boat dealers are also a source of information for new boaters, while the best places to ask questions are probably the U.S. Power Squadron and the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which I’ve mentioned already. These people are “old salts” who really do know their stuff.
A few local groups and Web sites of interest to boaters and boaters-to-be:
• The Wine Country Classic Boats group posts upcoming boat shows and other information at http://communities.msn.com/WineCountryAntiqueClassicWoodBoaters.
• The Rochester Boating Web site for Bayliner and other powerboat owners with marina and other information is found at www.geocities.com/ronlord/.
• My own Silverwaters Sailing Web site publishes an online e-zine about Lake Ontario’s natural history and boating at www.silverwaters.com.
• Max Lent’s site has canoeing and outdoor events listed at www.rochester-info.com.
• Mid-Lakes Navigation has information on their charter boats and excursions posted at www.midlakesnav.com.
• Visit www.hazlitt1852.com for information on schooner trips on Seneca Lake.
by Susan P. Gateley
Susan P. Gateley offers sailing charters, lessons and books on Lake Ontario. Visit www.silverwaters.com