“I still remember the first time I took my boat out into the ocean off Fort Myers, Florida,” recalls Robert Coleman. “I’m two miles offshore; it’s a beautiful day. I’m going about 30 mph. The water was crystal clear. I eased out into the Gulf of Mexico and thought, ‘I’ll just run it to Sanibel Island.’ It’s hard for me to even put it into words. I hadn’t felt like that since my first kiss.”
Then, there are the memories he’d rather forget, like the time Coleman thought his boat’s 115- horsepower motor would slice through a tangle of invasive water weeds near the boat launch. Instead, the weeds tangled in the prop and killed the motor. He had to throw his neighbor a 50-foot line to tow him out. “She hooked it to her truck and was laughing at me the whole time.”
"Having a boat humbles me all the time."— Robert Coleman
Coleman served in the Navy in his 20s but he didn’t truly learn what it takes to own and operate a boat until he bought one in his 40s. Since then, he’s developed what he calls a love-hate relationship with boats — echoing boat owners everywhere. “Having a boat humbles me all the time,” he says.
Andrew Ottens arrived at the same conclusion about boat ownership, but by a different path. He has boating in his blood — he grew up on a river and retired on a lake, and he loves the fun social life and sense of freedom that goes hand in hand with being on the water. But even he, like Coleman, has sweated the steep learning curve of boat ownership — from buying the wrong boat to being stranded far from shore.
Their experiences and advice offer a roadmap to anyone with ideas of pulling on a captain’s hat and navigating the world of boat ownership.
Count to 100 (hours)
For 68-year-old Ottens, a lifelong Midwesterner and former vice president of a software company, the formula for happiness as a boat owner is simple: Buy the highest-quality boat you can — then take great care of it.
Boating was always a part of his life, he says. “I’m from Sabula, Iowa, which is basically a small island in the Mississippi River. If we wanted to go to a movie, we’d get in my dad’s little runabout and head across the river. Everyone had a boat of some sort.”
Now he’s retired and lives on a lake in Wisconsin. He has two boats — a speedboat he bought 21 years ago and a pontoon he bought in 2015. He’ll tell anyone getting into boating: “If you don’t take care of a boat, by the time it gets old you’re going to have problems. I get the boats serviced every year, I keep the speedboat waxed up. The people who store the speedboat are amazed at what great shape it’s in at 21 years old.”
The general rule of thumb for critical boat maintenance: inspect and address key components (propeller, oil, fuel and electrical systems) every 100 hours of boating, or as recommended by the manufacturer’s manintenance guidelines.
If I had it to do over again…
Ottens and Coleman both caution: Before you buy a boat, think carefully about how it’ll be used.
“As soon as I got the speedboat, my kids wanted to wakeboard,” says Ottens. “I had one of the best ski boats you could buy — brand-new — and I had to spend even more money to modify it for wakeboarding.”
He adds, “If I had to do it over again, I would have gotten a different pontoon boat, too.” His two-pontoon boat runs just fine, but a third pontoon would make the boat more stable. “I’d love to have a more stable boat that could have more people on it. It is the party barge, after all.”
Coleman bought his first boat in 1986, when he was 43. Although he’d served in the Navy, he worked in communications and antisub warfare, so he didn’t know much about navigation and seamanship.
"As soon as I got the speedboat, my kids wanted a wakeboard."— Andrew Ottens
His first boat was stout — a 20-foot center-console saltwater sportfishing boat suitable for going miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, he says. “But most of the time, I wanted to fish in estuaries where the water was only a couple of feet deep, which my boat wasn’t made for. Now I have a flatboat with a shallow draft."
His advice: Go to several boat shows and window-shop first. “They have all sorts of boats and the prices are pretty accurate, so you can get a feel for what you can afford. Then, visit a few dealers in your area.”
Expect to pay this much (or more) in expenses
Ottens has heard all of the jokes about the amount of money boat owners sink into their vessels. His favorite: that “boat” stands for “bust out another thousand.” But he admits he’s never taken a major financial hit on a repair in part because he heads off serious problems with vigilant maintenance.
“I’ve had to replace fuel pumps, batteries (I recommend getting a new one every four years, whether you ‘need’ it or not), fan belts, things like that. It costs me about $2,000 a year to operate these boats and the [personal water craft],” he says. “That includes insurance, winterizing, gas, and storage. Most of the cost is actually the expense of taking the pier and boat stands in and out of the lake every season.”
But he acknowledges that the economics of owning a boat have really changed. New boats have more electronics, features like air conditioning and heat, and high-tech stereo systems. “In the mid-’90s, a good ski boat like the one I bought cost $25,000. Now, a really good wakeboard boat is $130,000 — I can’t imagine spending that much.”
One way or another, you’ll find out where the stumps and sandbars lurk
Being on a lake is vastly different than being on an ocean, Ottens points out. “The boats are different, the water is different, and a lake is more family-friendly. But you still have to be careful. You have to really know the lake — not just the depth, but where there are weeds or tree stumps or sandbars. If you don’t trim the motor, you could ding your prop — which can be a $300 fix — or suck sand up into the intakes.
When you’re hundreds of yards from shore and the motor quits
A major pitfall, warns Coleman, is water in the gas tank: “It can be incredibly frustrating. And it happens all the time.” Sometimes you buy gasoline that already has water in it. He warns: Be very careful about where you buy marine fuel.
But condensation can also form in the gas tank if you don’t use your boat often. “So the boat starts and you get a couple hundred yards from shore and then the motor quits — and you’re stranded,” he says. It’s happened to him more times than he cares to admit, but he learned a valuable lesson: if he hasn’t run the boat in a month, he checks for condensation by running the motor at home or in the marina for about 10 minutes.
“If it quits, you’re not going boating that day, but at least you’re still at the house or pier, not stranded.”
Learning as you go, or how I came to love magnets and vinegar
One time, Ottens dropped a bolt while working on one of his boats and couldn’t find it anywhere in the murky water. A neighbor, who was about 90 years old and had lived on the lake forever, saw him searching and came to the rescue.
“This guy brings over a big round magnet taped to a wooden handle from a rake. Really simple, but it worked immediately — it’s handy for finding anything metal you drop in the water.”
Another tip he learned along the way solved the problem of the water spots that inevitably build up on the windshields and hull. “I take a 50-50 mixture of white vinegar and water and wipe the boat down, and they all disappear.”
"I head out on a nearly cloudless day, then I see thunderstorms five miles away. I think, ‘I can avoid that.’ Except, I can’t."— Andrew Ottens
Ocean-bound? It’s $250 to $500 per hour for a tow
Coleman says that if you’re boating in the ocean, consider the following:
The general rule of thumb: spend 60 percent of the budget on the boat purchase. Reserve 40 percent for insurance, registration, slip fees, maintenance, and gear.
That scary moment when lightning sizzles overhead
“The worst experiences I’ve had on a boat are in lightning storms,” says Coleman. In Florida, where he lives, the storms move in quick.
“I head out on a nearly cloudless day, then I see thunderstorms five miles away. I think, ‘I can avoid that.’ Except, I can’t.”
“I’ve had storms chase me for 20 miles until it’s like ‘Victory at Sea’ — water coming into the boat, driving rain pelting me, I can’t see where I’m going. That’s when you have to trust your instruments. The worst part is hearing the lightning sizzle overhead. That’s scary.”
There’s no better place to be
For all their warnings, there are few places Ottens and Coleman would rather be than in a boat on the water.
Their love of boating infuses their recommendations for fellow boaters, as when Ottens is reeling off lists of things boat owners need to learn (rules about speed, life jackets, and fire extinguishers) and things they need to bring with them (sunscreen, hats, cash, a first aid kit):
“And you’ll want ropes and bumpers to tie up to piers — and other boats. You’ll go out and you’ll see someone you know and tie up your boats and just sit there and visit. It’s pretty much a given that if you’re boating, you’re going to have fun.”
And for Coleman, it all comes back to that feeling from his first boat cruise off Fort Myers: “I can still remember — my heart just lifted.”
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