It was a typical summer day at Lake of the Ozarks and the water was churning with boat activity.
Giant cruisers sent large waves rippling across the water as they made their way down the main channel. Personal watercraft and go-fast boats zipped across the surface. Fishing boats ducked into the calm of coves. And pontoons and pleasure boats bobbed in the waves.
Boats, boats, boats.
If you’re looking for an unofficial boat show, head for the Lake of the Ozarks on a summer weekend. It is a unique setting, one that has created a lifestyle in central Missouri from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Take a look:
• How many boaters and vacationers does the big lake attract? The Water Patrol, a division of the Missouri Highway Patrol, said the lake area is the equivalent of the third-largest city in the state on holiday weekends.
• How many boats are on the water on a summer weekend? That’s hard to say, lake officials will tell you. But Sgt. Paul Reinsch of the Water Patrol says, “It’s in the thousands.”
• There are more than 25,000 boat docks on the 54,000-acre lake, more than on any other Missouri reservoir.
• It is known as party headquarters during the summer. Its infamous Party Cove, known for its rowdy on-the-water gatherings, attracts more than 1,000 boats on prime summer weekends.
• Lake of the Ozarks was named America’s Boating Capital by Boating Magazine in an article this year. “Ask most boat builders where their top five markets are, and Lake of the Ozarks will be on that list. Ask any boater who has seen the central-Missouri giant, and he’ll describe it as the most remarkable boating experience of his life,” wrote the author, Randy Vance.
But the Lake of the Ozarks also has one dubious distinction when it comes to boating. It has one of the highest boating accident rates in the region, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
From 1995 to 2004, it had the third-highest incident rate in the country, according to an investigation by The Star. Officials say accident rates have dropped since then, possibly because of a crackdown on Boating While Intoxicated violations, more no-wake zones and a tighter nighttime speed limit of 30 mph.
There have been 36 accidents this year through July 25, including one fatality and 25 that resulted in injuries. That is a drop from last year’s totals at this time, when there were 49 accidents, 25 injuries and no fatalities.
“When you have that many boats on the water, there is a potential for danger,” Reinsch said. “We think that Lake of the Ozarks is still a safe place to boat. But people have to be aware of their surroundings, just like they would in heavy traffic on the highways.”A popular destination
So why is Lake of the Ozarks so popular with boaters?
It starts with its size. Covering 54,000 acres and 92 miles from end to end, it offers plenty of options for boaters. If you want to boat into the middle of the action, you can stay in the first 40 miles of the lake. But if you want a more peaceful experience, you can find less traffic from mid-lake to the Warsaw area.
Another factor is the lake’s operation. It is owned by Ameren Missouri, an energy company that allows close-to-the-lake development. That’s why you’ll find rows and rows of homes and boat docks on the water. That’s not the case at federal flood-control reservoirs such as Table Rock, Stockton, Pomme de Terre and many others, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t allow development in the flood pool.
Add plenty of access in the form of public and resort boat ramps, boat-accessible restaurants and bars, and more than 12 boat dealerships in the lake area, and you have the makings of a boating destination.
“Boating is a lifestyle here at Lake of the Ozarks,” said Paul Schifferdecker, a sales consultant at MarineMax, a boat dealership in Lake Ozark, Mo. “We’ll have people who will live on their boats for several months.
“They use their boat as a condo. They have all the comforts of home and they’ll form a camaraderie with their neighbors.
“It’s boating that binds them together.”All the comforts
All condos should look this nice.
Walk into the Sea Ray 510 Sundancer sport yacht, and you get an idea of what luxury boating is all about. At 51 feet in length, it is one of the largest boats on the Lake of the Ozarks. And it is filled with class.
Plush furnishings, flat-screen televisions, a kitchen, comfortable bedrooms, a full shower, air conditioning, an entertainment center — that’s living.
The pricetag at MarineMax? A little more than $1 million.
“For some boaters, this could be a summer home,” Schifferdecker said.
But don’t get the idea that this boat is in a class by itself.
The Lake of the Ozarks is full of boats that look like they belong in an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” On a recent weekday, Joe Gibbs took one of the Formula 400 40-foot Super Sport boats his dealership sells for a test run and quickly attracted attention.
“This is a cross between a cruiser and a go-fast boat,” said Gibbs, who manages Formula Boats of Missouri in Osage Beach. “It’s 40-foot long but it has 1,050 horsepower and it will run 65 to 70 miles per hour.”
Gibbs paused and added, “This is a toy for someone who has some money.”
The cost? $650,000.
Those “toys” still appeal to some. But many dealers are seeing a shift in interest.
“The (Baby) Boomers are beyond that stage of going down the lake at 80 miles per hour, chipping their teeth while drinking a beer,” said Randy Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Port of Osage Beach. “That’s why we’re seeing a bigger interest in boats like pontoons and smaller runabouts.
“They’re great family boats, but they still have some power.”The inevitable conflicts
Ed Franko is a big proponent of the boating lifestyle.
He is a popular fishing guide and he and his wife run a bed and breakfast at the water’s edge.
But he knows that even in paradise, there are bound to be problems.
“The waves these big boats put off are ridiculous,” he said. “They’ll send out 6-foot waves when they’re plowing through the water.
“You should see how rough the water gets on big weekends.”
Franko said that as he was hiring workers to repair his docks that were damaged by the Fourth of July activity. And he wasn’t the only one, he said.
“It’s not the boats themselves,” he said. “It’s the people driving them.
“Some of them just don’t know how to handle a boat that big.”
Reinsch of the Water Patrol said his agency gets many complaints regarding the waves those cruisers create, of personal watercraft users trailing boats too closely and of reckless behavior.
The agency has 19 officers assigned to Lake of the Ozarks, he said, and they do their best to police the lake. But in the end, Reinsch said, it comes down to responsibility on the part of the boater.
“When you have this many different user groups on the water at the same time, people need to show some common sense,” Reinsch said. “That means not boating while impaired, not following other boats too closely, being aware of your wake — basic boating safety.
“That’s why our presence is so important. If we can get boaters to act more responsibly, that a big part of our job.”
Jeff Green, shoreline manager for Ameren Missouri, is encouraged by the overall picture. A fisherman who owns a bass boat, he says the lake is much safer now than it was even 10 years ago.
“I remember in the mid-’90s, when you used to be taking your life into your own hands going out at night,” he said. “Boats used to run down the lake at 60 miles per hour and it was dangerous.
“Now, with the nighttime speed limit, it’s safer for everybody.”