them to. When you only have a few inches
below your keel, a windshift can be enough
to leave you high and dry, and a log or rock
you never found before can take out your
An informal survey of TowBoatU.S. operators last summer revealed that dispatches
due to groundings and striking submerged
objects were up from 50 to 100 percent
on most inland lakes. Insurance claims for
groundings and related damage were up
more than 50 percent on the Great Lakes.
It’s difficult to say where lake levels will
go in the second half of this boating season.
A colder winter brought ice cover to many
northern lakes, and enough snow pack to
raise lake levels a foot or more in the Great
Lakes this spring. But one normal season
cannot make up for years of drought, and the
Army Corps of Engineers is predicting low
water levels by historical standards on most
lakes through the end of the year.
AVOIDING THE HIGH AND DRY
Knowing the water level on your lake is
lower than normal, and really understanding
what that means are two different things. A
BoatU.S. insured and experienced boater who
keeps her boat on Lake Champlain said that
her marina was hauling boats because they
were aground in their slips. A few sentences
later, she said that a nearby buoy must have
moved because she touched bottom even
though she had passed it on the same side
and at the same distance as normal. So what
can you do when low water levels render both
local knowledge and charts irrelevant?
1. KNOW WHERE YOUR LAKE STANDS
VERSUS CHART DATUM. It helps to know
whether your charts — or chartplotter — are
accurate or if you need to subtract a couple of
feet from the charted depths just to be sure.
You can get information on lake levels for
most inland lakes online.
2. DON’T CUT CORNERS. If you know your
lake level is low, make sure to give hazards
— whether buoys, docks, points, shoals, or
navigational marks — a generous amount of
3. IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE LAKE, ASK.
Whether you’re trailering a boat to a lake you
don’t know well, renting a boat on an unfa-
miliar lake, or borrowing a boat while visiting
a friend, make sure to ask where lake levels
are compared to normal and what dangers
you need to be aware of.
4. SLOW DOWN. If you do hit something,
your boat and crew will be far better off if
you’re going slowly. When lake levels are low,
it pays to keep the throttle well back unless
you’re absolutely sure you’re in deep water
with no dangers.
5. TAKE SPECIAL CARE WHEN TOWING.
Whether you’re towing skiers, wakeboarders, or
tubers, stay in the deepest parts of the lake, well
away from buoys, shoals, and the shoreline. A
skier on a tow line can get a long way off your
course, so be sure to give them plenty of room
on either side of the boat.
6. DON’T DIVE OFF THE BOAT. If you anchor
out, don’t dive off the boat until you’ve gotten in
the water to see how deep it really is. In shoaling
water near shore, the depth at one end of the
boat may be quite different than at the other,
so your depth sounder cannot be relied upon.
7. ADD SOME EYES DOWN BELOW. If your
lake has a lot of stumps or rocks, consider adding a fishfinder or depth sounder. Comparing
the depth readings to a chart will help you
determine exactly how low the lake is. A fishfinder can give you a look ahead, helping you
spot dangers before you reach them. Some
models can be installed in fiberglass boats without putting a hole through the hull.
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