Boating has the ability to reanimate primal sensations. Floating on a calm body of water can be like being immersed again inside the womb. All sense of time and place are washed away by the comforting rise and fall of swells. For many, boating isn’t a journey, race or thrill. It is simply a moment.
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This year, for many it may be a moment that is all too fleeting.
Drought, now classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor as “exceptional” in parts of 15 California counties and as “extreme” in most of El Dorado County, is having as deleterious effect on recreational boating as it is on the state’s economy and workforce.
Folsom Lake in western El Dorado County has been the poster child for California’s drought, with pictures of beached docks at Brown’s Ravine illustrating news reports, worldwide. Many of us have been forwarded such pictures from East Coast friends along with their astonished question, “Isn’t this near you?”
For a smaller than normal window before waters are drawn down, boaters will be able to float their boats on reservoirs and flood control basins like Folsom. At deadline, Folsom Lake’s level was 420 feet. When the lake level drops eight feet, boats must be pulled from their slips at Folsom Lake Marina. At 400 feet, the lake becomes too low to launch anything other than kayaks and paddle boards. Three months ago, it had dropped as low as 357 feet
The lake level now is higher than it was expected to be, right now. That resulted from two weeks of warm temperatures that sped the snow melt. A faster snowmelt has, however, also increased concern about water conservation and the outlook for how long the boating season will last on lakes and reservoirs. Evidence of that was seen at the Sacramento Boat Show, earlier this month, where attendance was remarkably light.
Folsom Lake Marina isn’t even charging extra for boat slips this year. They’re just charging slip renters the dry storage price, as the marina operator expects lake levels to continue to decline, requiring boats to again be pulled from their slips as early as June.
Folsom Lake’s sailors weren’t wasting a moment worrying about a short boating season, this past weekend. They were out on the lake competing in the 48th Camellia Cup, the Sacramento area’s largest regatta. Because, they reasoned, if they didn’t float their boats then, prospects to do so in the near future would likely drain away.
Despite what’s often believed, boating need not be expensive. A well-made, used boat, particularly during drought years, can be purchased affordably. And, the initial investment on a well-made boat can last a lifetime, when stored properly and given regular care.
Used family cruising sailboats that comfortably transport four, such as a Catalina 22, can often be purchased for under $3,000, two-person Capris and Lidos can be found for $2,000 and older single-handed dinghies like Banshees, Lasers and Sunfish cost about $1,000. New stand-up paddle boards are priced from $600 to $900, while starter kayaks can be bought for as little as $200.
Any one of them will provide years of inexpensive fun. So, despite the predicted shortness of this boating season, the long view suggests taking advantage of high supply and low demand and buying a boat during a drought.
Having advised that, smart boat buyers must decide first how they plan to use the boat and consider where they will use it, because each boat is designed for a certain purpose and works best in certain conditions. Some sailboats are better for family cruising, others only for racing. Runabouts are not all alike. If you’re not into wakeboarding or water skiing, you might want to keep searching rather than buy the first ski boat you see, just because it’s sexy.
Power and sailboats on Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Bay benefit from having higher freeboard (sides) to keep you dry inside when it’s blowing. Sailboats on Sierra foothill lakes (Folsom, Camanche, Sly) should be nimble, light and move easily in lighter breezes.
It’s often said, the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. That needn’t be your situation with a bucket of precaution and inspection. Before committing to buy a boat, observe what types of boats are popular where you plan to go boating, and ask other boaters what they recommend. Most of all, don’t fall in love with a boat until after you’ve seen it in the water, operated it and had it checked out by a mechanic or highly experienced boater.
Boat ownership isn’t required to go boating. Many marinas rent boats by the hour or day. The cost of renting is much less than buying, maintaining, insuring and storing one, and renting helps settle whether you would use a boat, once bought. Sailing for free is also possible at yacht clubs where you can hitch a ride as a crew member in regattas or, when you get known, on overnight cruises. Doing so regularly, often leads to invitations to participate as crew on races and cruises to ports of call within California and beyond. Crewing also builds experience that qualifies the crewman to rent a boat or skipper his or her own boat.
Though boats are expected to be pulled from their slips on Folsom Lake in June, boating will continue at Lake Tahoe, San Francisco Bay, in the Delta, and on many Northern California lakes and rivers. So, float your boat and reanimate those primal sensations, before the moment passes.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.