Boating in COVID-19 Times

Navigate the Waters With Social Distancing in Mind

The Pacific Northwest offers a seemingly endless abundance of waterways and adventures for boaters seeking to escape life’s doldrums and pressures. 

Because of COVID-19, however, this is not the typical spring opening for the boating season in Washington and Idaho, although governors in both states have cleared the way for boaters to take to the water at state parks and other state-managed reserves.

Boaters should follow some common-sense guidelines to cope with the ongoing coronavirus threat — along with adhereing to the normal rules and regulations for safe boating. Chief among these guidelines is to check with the agency managing access points to the body of water you want to visit before heading out on a boating excursion.

In addition, boaters also are advised to have a backup plan in the event those access points — landings, docks and marinas — are closed because of weather, park conditions, crowding, local rules or other factors that can affect access to rivers, lakes and waterways. 

San Juan County, for example, is asking boaters not to visit populated areas in the islands, which includes not buying provisions in those areas, according to Andrea Pierantozzi, a spokesperson for the Recreational Boating Association of Washington.

Still, George Harris, president and chief executive officer of the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA), which represents more than 700 companies in the recreational boating industry, says uninhabited marine state parks in Washington are open, including in the San Juan Islands.

“You can go out there for day-use [overnight camping on the island is still prohibited], and there’s buoys and docks, and that sort of thing,” Harris says. “There’s really nice hiking around the [uninhabited] islands. You know, one of my favorite islands, and also a family favorite, is Jones Island Marine State Park in the San Juans.” 

Social Distancing

For most boaters, Harris says, “it’s more about the journey than the destination” and, for a lot of them, it’s also about socializing.

The socializing urge needs to be suppressed for now, he says, given the need for social distancing. Instead, the focus should be on enjoying the independence and solitude boating offers, or the joys of boating with family. “Now is not the time to be rafting up with other boats,” he adds.

In addition, boaters should respect social-distancing rules at water-access points, such as landings and docks. “Another rule of thumb is to limit the distance you travel from home to your favorite lake and back to one tank of gas,” Harris says.

Great cruising areas in Washington include the waters around Blake Island State Marine Park, Budd Inlet or Foss Waterway in the south central Puget Sound; Port Hadlock, Mystery Bay Marine State Park and Gig Harbor on the west side of Puget Sound; and Oak Harbor, Cypress Island and Point Roberts on the east side of the sound.

Safety Considerations

Washington State Parks spokesperson Toni Weyman Droscher advises boaters to be aware that waters this time of year are quite cold, even if temperatures outside are warm. She says boaters need to come prepared and always wear a life jacket.

“Many of Washington’s waters remain below 60 degrees all year, including lakes and rivers,” Droscher says. “The biggest risk is not hypothermia, but rather cold-water shock, which occurs in the first stage of immersion.” 

Yvonne Pentz, communications director for the National Safe Boating Council, recommends that boaters always have onboard at least two communications devices that work when wet, such as a satellite phone, VHF radio or a personal locator beacon, cautioning that cellphones often are not reliable in emergency situations. 

Other best practices during the COVID-19 crisis, according to Pentz, include limiting people on the boat to immediate household members; avoiding boating if someone in the household is sick; staying at least six feet away from people who don’t live in your household at fuel docks or when loading up at marinas; using sanitizers after touching a marina gate or fuel pump; and packing plenty of food, water and other supplies because “restaurants, marina stores and public restrooms may not be open.” 

Idaho Focus

Idaho offers an abundance of boating opportunities. Craig Quintana, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, reminds, however, that “the governor’s order [in Idaho] requires those entering Idaho to recreate to self-quarantine for 14 days, a requirement that is not expected to be lifted until May 30.” 

Quintana also advises boaters to bring extra gear, because the weather can suddenly turn, and to also be as “self-contained as possible, bringing all the food and drink needed, to minimize interactions with people in the community where you are recreating.” 

Some great state parks to visit in Idaho for boaters, he adds, include Farragut, Hells Gate and Heyburn as well as Dworshak, Priest Lake, Bear Lake and Round Lake, among many others. 

Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, says although many river-access points may not be open to boaters as of now, he stresses that the rivers themselves are not closed. He points to a website hosted by the River Management Society as a good resource for checking the status of major rivers during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“In fact, there are hundreds of miles of the Salmon River that are currently open to boating, including near the tri-state border [Washington, Oregon and Idaho],” Liberman says. He advises that boaters “check before they go, just to make sure that when you get there, you’ll be able to do the thing you want to do” and to also follow social-distancing and safe-boating rules. 

“One big thing I’d really emphasize for boaters is to make sure that we look good at the end of this,” Lieberman says. “We want to make sure people will think of the rafters and other boaters who came through their communities as having been respectful and considerate.” 

Additional Resources

Find coronavirus-smart boating guidelines by the National Safe Boating Council. In addition, the Waggoner Cruising Guide, a publication serving mariners with larger vessels who enjoy day or overnight cruising odysseys, offers up-to-date information on the status of marinas, fuel docks and marine parks in the Puget Sound region. The publication also has made available a free webinar recording, co-sponsored by NMTA, that explores cruising options in the greater Puget Sound region.

–Written by Bill Conroy

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