Wake from Lake Leelanau wake boats

Lake Leelanau Wake Boats: Making Waves Responsibly by LLLA Member, Jim Fisher

Wake boats—although not as common as traditional motorboats—continue to gain popularity to generate spray-splashing thrills on the water. Yet, a new study in Minnesota shows that large waves from these crafts can accelerate erosion in the natural shoreline ecosystem. The study serves as a reminder that Lake Leelanau wake boats and operators of any motorized watercraft should use sound judgment regarding where and how intensely they make waves with their boats. We invite you to read the following, written by LLLA Member Jim Fisher, to learn how to make waves on Lake Leelanau responsibly.

“Boaters should be aware that strong wakes, especially close to shore in unprotected areas, can damage the shoreline ecosystem. Our goal is not to limit the enjoyment of boaters, but to educate them to ensure the lake can be enjoyed for generations to come.” —Bonnie Gotshall, LLLA Water Safety Committee Chair

Wake Boats 101

Wakeboarding and wakesurfing are two different sports that involve riding waves and boat wakes—each with unique techniques. In wakeboarding, the user holds a boat-towed rope throughout the ride while wakesurfers release the rope to ride out a strong wake.

Both sports require a boat capable of producing powerful wakes by displacing water. These activities usually involve lightweight boats with deep V-shaped hulls, engines of more than 350 horsepower, ballast systems, and hydrofoil technology. 

Erosion and sediment deposition are naturally occurring—but generally slow—processes that strong wakes can accelerate. Such wakes can be caused, for example, by wake boats operating too close to shore, according to a study by researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.

Wake Study Findings

The study found that to reduce the potential environmental impact of wake boats with larger waves, popular wakesurf boats require a greater distance from the shoreline and other boats than more typical recreational boats.. 

During the study, researchers measured the maximum height, total energy, and maximum power of wake waves produced by four recreational vehicles—two wakesurf boats and two more typical recreational boats. Using sensors and other equipment, the researchers also measured how wake waves changed as they moved from the boats toward shore.

Why Farther From Shore is Better 

The study findings show that wake waves produced during wakesurfing are higher at both slow and fast speeds and require a greater distance to decrease to the same height as waves from more typical recreational boats. Specific findings of the study include:

  • During typical modes of operation, wakesurf boats require distances greater than 500 feet from the shoreline/docks and other boats to bring their wake wave characteristics in line with non-wakesurf boats. 
  • In both modes of operation, the suggested distance from shoreline/docks for wakesurf boats is more than five times the distance recommended by Michigan guidelines for common recreational boats. The current recommendation is at least 100 feet.
  • Large and more energetic waves need to travel a greater distance before wave height, energy, and power start to dissipate and pose less risk to the shoreline.
Boat creates wake on Lake Leelanau, Michigan.

Applying the Findings Close to Home 

In the study, researchers emphasize that boat wave impacts are not just a concern in Minnesota—known as “the land of a thousand lakes”—but in any state with many recreational lakes.

Gotshall said the study reinforces that Lake Leelanau boaters should be aware of wake size near shoreline areas especially vulnerable to erosion damage. 

“Powerful wakes can cause erosion, particularly in areas where there is not a good natural shoreline that holds itself,” she said. “Natural shorelines with good plants and trees are not quite as susceptible to damage as an open beach.”

Lake Leelanau Wake Boats: How to Make Waves Responsibly

Lake Leelanau wake boaters, here are some other wake-related factors to consider:

  • Besides potential erosion, safety is a primary reason to avoid generating large wakes close to shore or in channels and other areas congested with other boats, paddleboards, kayaks, and swimmers.
  • Strong wakes do not necessarily correlate with high speed. In addition to speed, please be aware of your wake size and strength. When certain boats—even water ski boats—move slowly, the bow can tip up while the stern dips. When this occurs, the boat produces larger wakes than when it is level and moving faster.   
  • Assuming proper safety measures are in place, the middle of the lake is generally the best place to enjoy activities involving high speeds or generating powerful wakes. 

Being responsible about wakes is not limited to wake boat operators. All boaters should abide by the following  wake-related best practices

  • Respect the “SLOW – NO WAKE” signs; 
  • Reduce speed within 500 feet of shoreline; 
  • Do not operate boats too close to sandy areas, natural shorelines, wetlands, and lakefront residences, and; 
  • Avoid operating in shallow water.
A buoy with "Slow No Wake" sign to remind boaters to practice Lake Leelanau boating safety

Wake-Related Resources

To read the University of Minnesota 2020 research study, “A Field Study of Maximum Wave Height, Total Wave Energy, and Maximum Wave Power Produced by Four Recreational Boats on a Freshwater Lake,” visit the University Digital Conservancy website. Should you have any questions regarding the study or safety guidelines for Lake Leelanau wake boats, please contact [email protected] or submit a form via our website.

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