JEFFERSON CITY — Bud Simmons recalls his first boating trip on Lake of the Ozarks fondly.
“We were Eagle Scouts, and we took a 60-mile canoe trip to Ha Ha Tonka from Grand Glaize Bridge,” he said.
That was 65 years ago when the largest boats he saw on the lake only reached 14 feet long. Today, he said, it’s common to see 72-foot yachts plowing through the waters and creating waves as high as 5 feet in their wake that damage docks and injure swimmers.
That’s why Simmons, who owns Mariners Pier 31 on Lake of the Ozarks, supports a bill that would give more property owners a say in how fast large boats can go in certain areas of the lake.
The bill — sponsored by Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles — would expand which coves on Lake of the Ozarks could qualify for “no wake status,” which essentially prohibits boats from driving at speeds that create large wakes when passing nearby. The Missouri House of Representatives Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee will vote on the legislation Tuesday morning.
Currently, only coves that are 400 feet in width or smaller qualify for the status when at least 75 percent of the property owners on a cove petition for it. Under Wood’s bill, however, coves up to 800-feet wide could also qualify with 50 percent of property owner support, which proponents say would make the lake safer and save hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.
“I’ve had calls for the last five years, going on six, with issues with docks and the wakes causing damage from the bigger boats,” Wood said. “We’ve tried different things, from education to adding water patrol onto the lake, and it has helped. But it’s still not enough.”
Damaged docks, electrocutions
For Simmons, updating Missouri’s wake-related statutes are far overdue and could help business owners like him save hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and other investments meant to stave off property damage.
Simmons said he spent more than $800,000 on breakwaters six years ago because the wakes from large boats were causing too much damage to his boats and docks. Breakwaters are anchored down, artificial barriers that help protect shores from waves.
“The bottom line is the docks are not built for the boats that are being put on the lake today,” he said. “The waves just tear the heck out of these docks.”
Jeremy Anderson, the general manager of the boat dealership Big Thunder Marine at the lake, said the bill will do more harm than good. Further regulation on boats, he said, will likely hurt the lake’s fast-growing boating economy.
“Any bill that slows or harms the boat business, we don’t see as positive for the economy in the lake area,” he told lawmakers at a public hearing last week.
Anderson said lawmakers should focus on looking for ways to better enforce current regulations and continue educating the public on safe and courteous boating etiquette.
But Wood said it’s not just about property damage, but public safety as well. While most of the complaints he’s received from constituents have been about damaged docks, there have also been reports of people being injured from large waves and even electrocutions — something that he says can happen when docks are damaged, exposing wires to the water.
But officials with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which patrols Lake of the Ozarks, said that while there have been several electrocutions over the years, linking those to boat wakes is speculative.
“It’s hard to tell exactly what caused any of those electrocutions,” said Capt. Matthew Walz, director of the department’s water division. “I don’t know if anyone could specifically tie it to boat wakes.”
Rising citations, warnings
While it’s hard to track exactly how many complaints the state’s highway patrol receives due to wakes, there is evidence that wake-related violations are rising, said Sgt. Scott White, a public information officer with the highway patrol.
For instance, White said, Missouri has some laws that deal specifically with wake-related violations. One of those is a statute that prohibits boats from moving faster than idle speed when they’re within 100 feet of a dock, pier, no-wake buoy or anchored boat.
Since 2015, White said, citations and warnings for that statute have steadily increased annually. In 2015, the highway patrol issued eight citations and 148 warnings for that statute. That rose to nine citations and 191 warnings in 2016, and 15 citations and 270 warnings in 2017.
“So, they have been creeping up year after year,” White said.
Wood said that’s why his bill also would change how wake-related violations are treated on the state’s waterways. Currently, he said, wake-related violations come with a hefty $200 fine that he believes discourages officers from writing out citations as often as they should.
His bill would lower that violation to a smaller infraction with a $25 fee, which he believes will encourage officers to issue more citations and in turn, incentivize better boating etiquette.
“We just need to expand what our rules are,” Wood said, “and give property owners a little bit of rights, and make it easier for the water patrol to enforce the laws that are there.”