Residents want to rock boat on wakes

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    Jim Hughes, of West Fairlee, Vt., readies his phone for his Zoom reading time with Westshire Elementary School fifth-graders on Tuesday, March, 9, 2021, at his home. Hughes was on Chapter 22 of "The Secret Garden," doing different voices for the characters in the book. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Dusk falls over Lake Fairlee in Post Mills, Vt., Monday, Dec. 4, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2022 9:20:12 PM
Modified: 4/5/2022 11:15:27 AM

WEST FAIRLEE — James Hughes slipped from his dock on Lake Fairlee for an afternoon swim in summer 2020. Lake Fairlee can do little to surprise him — Hughes, 90, lived on the lake for 35 years. But this was the day when he discovered his first “wake boat.” It drove by, about 200 feet from shore, and sent the largest waves he had ever seen rolling towards shore. They washed up against the steep bank where waterfowl nest, tearing at the roots of the century-old pines he cherishes.

Wake boats are powerboats equipped with ballast tanks that weigh down the stern of the boat and maximize its wake. Families can “wakeboard” and “wakesurf” waves that rival the ocean. Wake boats, also known as ballast boats, are most popular in the South and West, but they are an increasingly common sight on New England’s lakes, according to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Two of Hughes’ next-door neighbors on Lake Fairlee own wake boats. While they remain on good terms, they know better than to talk about wake boats anymore.

“Wake boats have become practically a religious divide,” Hughes said.

Hughes isn’t the only one who’s upset. A grassroots citizens group that calls itself Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes submitted a 54-page petition to DEC that details environmental, safety and shared usage concerns about wake boats. They ask for a 1,000-foot shoreline protection zone as well as a 20-foot minimum depth protection zone. They also ask that wake sports only be allowed on lakes with at least 60 contiguous acres that meet those requirements.

A wake boat could still operate in lakes without wake sports zones so long as its wake-enhancing equipment is disabled. In the Upper Valley, that means wake sports would be allowed on parts of Lake Morey, but not on Lake Fairlee.

DEC published the petition for public review in March. The petition cites about 50 scientific studies and other sources, and about 30 organizations including the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the Connecticut River Conservancy added their support.

Tom Ward, a member of Responsible Wakes, is a full-time Thetford resident, but his wife’s family has owned a small cabin on Lake Fairlee for about 50 years.

“We need more management,” Ward said. “... These are new crafts with unique issues. We’re not trying to ban them, but keep them in appropriate places.”

High waves from wake boats banging on the shore — the biggest that Ward has ever seen on Lake Fairlee — may eat away at the shoreline and upset the nests of birds, including loons, he said.

The tanks that allow the boats to make such large wakes do not drain completely, which means they can also carry water from one lake to another and possibly spread invasive species.

“Although there is a really very successful lake greeter program (volunteers inspect boats for invasive species in Vermont), they cannot visually inspect closed ballast tanks,” he said. And the boats’ propellers may fragment milfoil, a common invasive species that chokes out other lake species, and facilitate its spread.

But the worst negative effect is the increased likelihood of cyanobacteria blooms, he said. In shallow water, the water that wake boats project towards the bottom of the lake can stir up the lake bottom, unsettling phosphate that adds to the nutrient load that feeds cyanobacteria.

Putting aside environmental concerns, wake sports can also crowd out traditional activities. Hughes and his wife are transitioning into assisted living and leaving Lake Fairlee, but Hughes’ has a “dream for Lake Fairlee: A lot of kayaks and canoes, a vibrant lake with lots of people enjoying it.”

Kendra Chencus, a homeowner on Lake Fairlee, describes in the petition how a wave from a wake boat hit the shore as she tried to launch her kayak. She slipped, injuring her foot and bruising her toes badly.

Her young daughter had to pause her swimming practice every time a wave from a wake boat came her way.

“It takes several minutes for the waves to stop after the boats are long gone, particularly in the narrow north end of the lake where we live,” she wrote.

Other petitioners describe a 4-year-old swept under a dock after a wake boat passed, and a couple, both in their 90s, drenched after a wave swept over the pontoon boat they were sitting on.

The petitioners also have economic concerns, citing lower home values on lakes with wake sports as well as the risk that the waves may damage boats moored on shore as it knocks against them.

But the water sports industry argues that strict regulations aren’t necessary, especially as the owners of wake boats learn how to drive responsibly.

“The whole industry is going to respond to that (petition),” said Brad Fralick, the Chief Government Affairs Officer at the Water Sports Industry Association, a lobbying group. “… It would make Vermont by far the most restrictive state on these boats — for the fastest growing segment in the industry.”

He said that his organization agrees that wake boats have particular issues because of the size of their waves, and indeed WSIA advocates for legislation that establishes a 200-foot shoreline protection zone as well as safety requirements. (Vermont already has a 200-foot ban on wakes.)

WSIA also has a robust education program with more than 40 events a year to encourage responsible usage, Fralick said.

“We want to be regulated, but we want reasonable science-based regulations,” he argued.

He said that a 1,000-foot shoreline protection zone is excessive because the waves do not need to dissipate completely to be relatively harmless, and cited studies from other regions to back his point.

If a wave dissipates to about 10 inches, just below the highest wave that hits a shore during a severe storm, he argued it was not a problem.

Asked about whether the studies took into account the compounded effects of waves of that magnitude hitting the shore, he pointed to another study that concluded that natural waves are more damaging because they have wind — a continuous force — behind them, whereas waves from wake boats dissipate as soon as they are made.

He also questioned whether rulemaking was the correct means to regulate the activity.

But Oliver Pierson, a manager of the lakes and ponds program at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said “there is statutory authority and a tradition of regulating through rulemaking rather than legislature.”

For example, the state implemented regulations on jet skis through rulemaking. A bill was introduced during the legislative session that would have required regulations on wake boats, but in a busy session it never made it out of committee.

Pierson said that DEC is working on a technical and legal review of the petition. But there won’t be any regulations in place before the summer.

In June, the department plans to hold public meetings on the petition; the petitioners will present, and the public will comment. He hopes that the agency will decide whether or not to move forward with regulations by August.

Not everyone in the industry agrees that wake boats belong on New England lakes, even if they are 200 feet from shore.

“No way,” said Robert Bartlett, who has owned the boat retailer Fairlee Marine for 35 years. “That’s crazy. 200 feet? I think 1,000 feet is very appropriate — that would eliminate virtually all lakes in this area, and it should.”

He also doubted that there is much of an Upper Valley market for wake boats, which he said cost in the range of $80,000 and $100,000. The most expensive boat he sells on his website costs $28,995.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727- 3242.

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