Changing Boating Behaviour: Wakes and Regulations on our Waterways

A summary of the 2022 Safe Quiet Lakes Stakeholder Meeting

At the 2022 Safe Quiet Lakes Stakeholder Meeting held on Nov.10, a stellar lineup of speakers addressed some of our most important issues -- wakes and regulatory changes on our waterways.

Wakes continuously surface as one of the top issues of concern in Safe Quiet Lakes’ surveys, a reflection of the growing number of people using personal-powered vessels and feeling more vulnerable on the water. In our most recent survey, conducted in 2021 with close to 6,000 respondents, 71% of respondents said they supported no wake zones to protect people and wildlife in sensitive areas.

And for the first time, people expressed a desire to add legislative and enforcement solutions to change boating behaviour.

Dr. Chris Houser, Dean of Science, and Interim Vice President of Research & Innovation at the University of Windsor, presented ground-breaking research on wakes in Canada. Participants learned about worldwide trends in wake regulations from Diana Piquette, Chair of Safe Quiet Lakes, and Jasmine Northcott, CEO of Waterski & Wakeboard Canada, talked about their efforts to promote respectful boating.

Participants also learned about upcoming boating regulatory changes in Canada from Dawn Colquhoun, Manager, Office of Boating Safety for Transport Canada, and Rob Bosomworth, Co-Chair of the Decibel Committee. And for any lake association or community considering applying for boating regulatory change, Councillor Peter Frost, from Archipelago Township in Ontario, presented their experience as a case study in perseverance.

Following are some of the highlights of the 2022 Stakeholder Meeting. You can also watch the video of the full session here.

Wakes Research

As a scientist at the forefront of wakes research, Dr. Houser has a unique perspective on the lakes of Canada and northern Ontario, having grown up in the Huntsville-Parry Sound region, where he still has a cottage on Whitestone Lake.

Following studies of wave energy on the Savannah River in Georgia, and Lake Conway in Florida, Dr. Houser moved his research closer to home during the pandemic – back to Canada and Whitestone Lake.

Noting that even small boats driven at different speeds in different sections of his lake produced different wave energy, his further research turned up interesting insights: Speed of the boat, shape and the size matter when it comes to wake impacts, but there are several other important factors, such as water depth and shoreline characteristics. This matters because most wake regulations refer only to speed within distance of a shoreline.

Depth of water is an important consideration, Dr. Houser notes. The shallower you get, the stronger the wake becomes, creating “a curtain of waves.” When a wake penetrates the bottom, it can “resuspend” sediment. His research team has been running a study at Lake Rosalind, near Hanover, Ont., which is experiencing increased algae blooms. Boat wakes represent nearly 100% of the wave energy on the small lake. “The one theory that we have right now is that as these waves are moving through, it's a very shallow lake, lots of wave energy, the waves are hitting down to the bottom. You are resuspending a lot of sediment, you are changing the temperature profile within the lake,” he told participants. His team is continuing its research there on the co-relation between boat wakes, water temperatures, sediment and algae blooms.

Shoreline characteristics also have a role in wave energy. When Dr. Houser put a series of pressure sensors around Whitestone Lake in the Huntsville area of northern Ontario, he found that boat wakes kept going, reflecting off the rocky shoreline. Measuring all wave activity – from boats and wind -- from May to September, 2020, he found that recreational boat wakes accounted for 60% of the wave energy. But when you factor in reflected waves, those bouncing off the adjacent shoreline, boat waves actually accounted for 80% of all wave energy on the lake.

What that means is, boat wakes are a primary source of wave energy in northern Ontario’s cottage lakes, which typically have rocky shores. His research on wakes is continuing in Muskoka Lakes, looking at wave energy at different times of the year, and in different sensitive zones. With the support of Safe Quiet Lakes, his research team placed 10 different pressure sensors around the lakes in 2022 and will be analyzing the data over the coming months.

Dr. Houser’s studies will go a long way towards building a better understanding of the thresholds of wakes on waterways.

Sharing the Lake Space

Waterski & Wakeboard Canada is the national governing body for towed watersports in Canada – waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakesurfing. There are 78 member clubs across the country, trained under their national coaching certification program. CEO Jasmine Northcott says a key mission of the organization is to provide training on how to operate boats in a safe and respectful manner, and to have the least impact on shared space in the water

Seeing a growing interest in safe driving among new boat operators, Northcott told stakeholders that Waterski & Wakeboard Canada is looking at expanding its training and certification programs to the general public, including on-water training courses. Geared to towed watersports, training courses would be offered through its clubs and schools, as well as partner marinas, lake associations and “anyone interested in providing training around how to engage in towed watersports in a safe and respectful way,” Northcott says.

The courses are still being developed, with an expected roll-out next spring. They would include such elements as lake etiquette, knowing rights of way and distance from shore rules, operating in the centre of lake or deepest areas, and safe operation of a vessel during towed watersports.


Wake Legislation Worldwide

Wake legislation to address safety and the protection of sensitive areas is a growing trend worldwide, but in Canada, wake rules don’t really exist beyond speed and distance from shore rules -- 10 kms/hour within 30 metres from shore on most waterways. There are notable exceptions, such as in Muskoka, where 9 kms/hour, 30 metres from shore rules exist in some areas. Diana Piquette, Chair of Safe Quiet Lakes, gave an overview of wake regulations worldwide.

In the United States, rules vary state by state, even within individual states. Minnesota prohibits the use of PWCs within 200 feet of shore and swim areas and has a no wake speed rule within 60 metres (200 feet) of shore. Lakeville, Minn., obtained a stronger safety-based regulation -- no wake zones within 60 metres of shore, swimmers, fishing boats and non-motorized watercraft.

New Hampshire has a safe passage rule prohibiting boat traffic within 45 metres (150 feet) of shore. Tennessee and South Carolina have slow no wake zones within 60 metres (200 feet) of shore.

And Florida has restricted no wake zones in sensitive areas for the protection of wildlife, swimmers or in narrow channels.

Australia has zoning rules similar to Florida, in that they base speed and distance from shore rules on restricted zones and sensitive areas. New Zealand’s strict wake rules require that boat operators must make sure their wake does not endanger people, vessels or structures. Boat speeds cannot be more than five knots within 200 metres of shore and structures, or within 50 metres from other vessels or persons in the water.

Germany also has very strict wake rules: No motorboats of any kind are permitted on inland lakes.

New Regulations coming to Canada

Dawn Colquhoun, Manager, Office of Boating Safety for Transport Canada, updated stakeholders on a number of proposed changes to regulations governing recreational boating:

Wakesurfing -- “Based on the concerns from different municipalities and local authorities, we have come to realize that wakesurfing on its own is an issue in many bodies of water,” she told stakeholders. Proposed changes coming for wakesurfing would not ban wake boats, she stressed, but essentially provide a mechanism for municipalities to apply to restrict their use. “We're not prohibiting wake boats… we are only prohibiting the activity so it will be allowed during permitted periods. So it's not going to be a ban on the lake.”

PCOC Licencing -- Currently, a Pleasure Craft Operator Competency licence is good for life and cannot be revoked, even for medical reasons. Proposed changes will give the ministry powers to cancel a PCOC licence, if necessary. As well, for PWC rentals, Transport Canada’s current regime of permitting the completion of a rental boat safety checklist will only be allowed for boaters 21 years of age and older. If younger than 21, renters will need to have a PCOC licence or ride with someone who's at least 25 years old. The PCOC proposed changes will be introduced next spring. A comment period from 30-60 days follows, with a timeline of about 10 months before they become law.

Pleasure Craft Rentals -- “If you are looking at renting out your pleasure craft, please engage with Transport Canada to find out your legal obligations and protect yourself,” Colquhoun advises, citing a recent case of a fatality with a rented vessel. The owner was fined under the Canada Shipping Act for use of the registered pleasure craft in a commercial manner.

VORRs -- Colquhoun also discussed the process around VORRs (Vehicle Operation Restriction Regulation), whereby any level of government such as a municipality or local authority can apply to the federal government to restrict the use of pleasure craft or commercial vessels on bodies of water. A last-resort option, the VORR application process is exhaustive: Applicants need to provide evidence of causes of the problem, testing, public consultation and a cost-benefit analysis. There are only three eligible reasons to apply: to improve navigation safety; to protect the environment; or in the public interest.

A case study on changing boating rules

Peter Frost, from the Township of Archipelago on Georgian Bay, discussed his community’s five-year-plus mission to obtain speed VORRs in high-traffic areas. The vast majority of the community’s seasonal population only has water access, so channels and the lake serve as Archipelago’s streets and highways. Congestion and speed are main issues.

“The key to this starts with the local cottage or ratepayer associations coming to the township and asking for a VORR,” Frost says. “It requires the support of everybody that has a stake in the use of the water. You do need to have public meetings to make sure that everybody is on side.”

It has taken five years to get consensus from all stakeholders on reducing speeds and wakes to 10 kms/hour in congested areas, such as entry to marinas. “We work on the principle bow down, slow down. If your bow is down and you've slowed down, you're probably not going to have much of a wake and you're probably going to find your speed is less than 10 kms an hour. So we think that's where we want to hit.”

Clearly no quick fix, once a municipality has done its homework and submitted a VORR application, it then takes around two years for the new law to be approved and come into effect.

Decibel regulations

Rob Bosomworth, co-chairman of the national Decibel Coalition, updated stakeholders on a major development on excessive boat noise from recent meetings in Ottawa at Canadian Marine Advisory Council Meeting.

The coalition has been advocating two key issues: performance standards for boat muffler noise, and effective tools for measuring boat decibels that can be used for enforcement. A public survey, MP letter-writing campaign, as well as news coverage got Transport Canada’s attention, Bosomworth says.

At the CMAC meeting, Transport Canada announced they are proposing decibel limits be imposed on both manufacturers and operators -- a key win for the Decibel Coalition.

Although there is still work to be done around noise measurement and enforcement procedures, Transport Canada has indicated decibel legislation could be introduced by the end of next year, with implementation by 2025.