Bigger boats, bigger wakes breed conflict on Lake of the Ozarks

As a large cruiser plowed past, Adam Morris watched its wake send waves crashing into his boat rental dock.

Morris knew the ocean-worthy vessel churning through the Lake of the Ozarks would circle back, so he readied himself to record it on video.

On its return pass, the boat slammed another series of waves into his livelihood. The breakers made the Pirate’s Point dock lurch upward, crumpling some of its metal posts. About $1,500 in damage. He tracked the cruiser and found where it was docked and who owned it. Then Morris went to the Water Patrol division of the Missouri Highway Patrol with his evidence.

“They couldn’t do anything,” he said. “If the guy had rammed my dock with his boat and done the same damage, I could have had him pay for it. But when his wake does it …”

Because the damage came from the wave created by the boat, not the boat itself, troopers who patrol the lake could not write a ticket. If Morris wanted to pursue a civil case, he’d be looking at legal bills that would quickly eat up any compensation he might get in return.

Instead, Morris ate yet another repair bill and gave in to the mounting realization that ever bigger boats crowding onto the lake mean ballooning bills to repair his dock and the rentals he moors there. The damage has become so regular that he spent $5,000 on a welder this spring to make more fixes himself.

Popularity and prosperity — more people crowding increasingly bigger boats upstream from the Bagnell Dam — make for rockier waters on the Lake of the Ozarks. The resulting waves feed ongoing gripes about boat size and careless drivers. The phenomenon isn’t new, but it continues to grow without an obvious resolution in sight.

For now, the one solution revolves around gentle persuasion. Lake dwellers say they see some progress, maybe, at getting people more mindful of the wakes that trail their boats.

Any effort to limit boat size appears doomed to sink. Too many people already spent plenty of money for their floating getaways. Even grandfathering in the large cruisers already on the lake invites bureaucratic complexities sure to tick people off and confuse everyone, say politicians and the local residents they represent.

In the end, the only thing keeping more monster-sized yachts from steaming across the lake may be the width of the winding highways leading to the water’s edge.

“The ability to limit the size of boats, it may have passed,” said state Rep. Rocky Miller, whose district includes lakeside territory. “Maybe there’s a solution down the road.”

Waves of problems

Lakefront property owners say the sturdier docks they put in today demand more repairs than flimsier versions that survived with less care in years past.

Boaters talk of buying bigger craft just to stay afloat — going to a 28-footer from a 22-footer to avoid getting swamped by the 50-footer that replaced a 40-footer.

Troopers patrolling the lake say that escalation of boat size, combined with more traffic on the lake, makes for more treacherous waters.

In 2015, the last year for which records are available, water conditions contributed to 20 injuries and five deaths — as much as any other factor and more than drinking and drugs. Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Scott White said that water conditions nearly always refer to the waves created when boats move too fast near shore or other boats.

The fatal accidents can be spectacular, like when a racing boat tore across the lake and slammed into the water when its nose caught the wake of a larger boat. Or they can be less dramatic, like when Jesse Blakely, a 20-year-old from the Chicago area working as a restaurant server during the summer, was tossed from the deck of a boat in May when it hit a wake. He drowned.

On the busiest weekends, boat traffic pushes waves above 6 feet. That can capsize bass boats, swamp crowded pontoon boats and make it practically impossible to launch smaller boats from their docks.

State law prohibits anything faster than idling speed, “slow-no wake speed,” within 100 feet of a dock, an anchored boat or an area marked off with buoys. But boat wakes don’t stop at the 100 feet set by law. Water-plowing boats can send waves busting into docks, or wakes that can topple smaller vessels, from much farther away.

Restricted areas around the lake can shift with time. Storied “Party Cove,” for instance, for years featured buoys declaring it a no-wake zone. After all, a single, fast-moving boat in the lake side channel could have sent dozens of people toppling from the decks of the recreational armada anchored there. But its popularity has waned, so the buoys are gone and boaters pulling into the cove now make their own judgment of whether to push on the throttle.

In the main channel of the lake on a Friday afternoon in June, the Highway Patrol’s White watched as weekend boaters began to cruise the water with their beer coolers and wakeboards. He pointed to boats that might create a problem, and those moving more carefully through the lake.

“There, that guy’s plowing,” White said, pointing toward a white cruiser with its nose up and leaving behind waves that sent docks rocking when the boat had pulled nearly out of view. “Some people don’t realize what they’re doing.”

Motorboats move along in essentially three stages. First is idling speed, a slow pass that doesn’t dig into the water or move a boat fast enough to cause much wake. You can probably walk or jog as fast.

Next is plowing, when the person captaining the vessel gives it some gas. The bow, or nose, of the boat pitches up while the stern, or rear, tends to ride deeper into the water.

Once most boats get going fast enough, they plane — the bow and stern move at a more balanced angle while the craft rides higher in the water, more skimming across the surface and less gouging into it.

So, counterintuitively to the land lover, that higher speed typically creates a smaller wake. Waves build when a boater stays in that in-between plowing stage instead of speeding up to reach a plane nearer the water’s surface.

And some boaters, locals complain, don’t seem to care. They see boaters who seem to have more money than courtesy, more hull displacement than boating judgment.

Robert Grassel moved into a lakefront property near Greenview 12 years ago on Memorial Day. Big boats passed his home and dock then, just not as many and not quite so big. From his place, it’s just 1,200 feet from the shore to the cliffs across the lake. He’d like buoys placed posting a speed limit.

For now, he deals with the aggravation that’s forced him to pour more money into his dock, including installing truck springs where it connects to the shore to absorb the energy of big waves. He’s also had to replace his old boats with bigger ones to maneuver on the lake, and he stays off the water on weekends.

Grassel recalls being particularly annoyed with the way a large boat thundered by his place one day last summer. He saw it dock a few houses down from his and went over to ask the driver to think about moving nearer to the middle channel and away from shore through that part of the lake.

“Then his wife came up and said, ‘Well, other boats create the big waves, so we have the same right to it that they do,’ ” Grassel said. “These are the people that have more money than God. … A lot of them just don’t know that they’re making the wakes that they are. A lot of them don’t care.”

It used to be that people complained about 25-foot boats, said Ron Mueller, the owner of Trico Dock Center in Osage Beach. Now, he said, they gripe about the 45-footers that can sell for more that $400,000. Meantime, the docks he makes now weigh perhaps five times as much as what he would build in the same place 15 years ago — at nearly five times the cost.

“People have no choice,” he said. “The lake just keeps getting rougher with the bigger boats.”

Elusive consensus

The chop in lake waters hasn’t come without talk about how to keep it calmer. Legislators have floated several bills in recent years aimed at the issue.

“Everyone has a different solution,” said Rep. David Wood, whose district on the west side of the lake has traditionally been quieter and drawn retirees less welcoming of raucous boat traffic.

One measure would have put a no-wake policy on boats 35 feet or longer whenever they came within 300 feet, rather than the existing 100 feet, of a dock. Another would have actually lowered the penalties for excessive wakes, hoping to encourage the Water Patrol to write more tickets.

Time and again, a consensus on law changes proved elusive.

“My side of the lake would like to limit the boat sizes,” Wood said. “But the marina dealers don’t want that, and people who’ve invested in large boats don’t either.”

Rep. Diane Franklin, who grew up on the lake, said the freedom to drive large boats and drive them fast is part of what attracts the tourism trade that supports the region’s economy. Lake-area residents appreciate the weekdays when the waters are calm, but folks driving in from Kansas City or St. Louis only know the rougher waters that define the busiest weekends.

“We’re a tourism lake, and you’ve got to find a balance,” she said. “We may come to legislation at some point. But folks just taking responsibility for their wake … that goes a long way.”

The people who sell boats, including the big ones, argue “education not legislation.”

“Bigger boats are not the problem,” said Mike Kenagy, the executive director of the Lake of the Ozarks Marine Dealers Association. “Our stance is that it’s an educational issue … and we put out the message to boaters and all people in general to watch your wake, be courteous and follow the rules of the water.”

Ameren Missouri, the utility that operates the dam and controls the Lake of the Ozarks shoreline, caps boat slips at 55 feet for residential areas and 60 feet for commercial developments — effectively limiting boats that can stay at the lake for long times.

Even those boats are large enough to cause consternation among people who want a calmer lake. And boats that won’t fit in those slips can still be anchored offshore.

Ameren’s shoreline management supervisor, Jeff Green, said bigger boats and more traffic are bound to increase erosion of the shore — although he said the utility has not seen a dramatic increase in recent years.

Would Ameren support a tougher limit on boat size?

“We definitely would be open to that discussion,” Green said. “We are open to dialogue. We do receive complaints of dock damage. We typically are reflective of what the community wants. There are a lot of people out there that like large boats as well.”

For many, rougher waters are simply the cost of the lake’s popularity. Kevin Gude and Leon Midgett have come to Osage Beach from the St. Louis area for 25 years to snag bass and the occasional catfish. They’ve seen traffic and boat sizes grow, even fished out some other fishermen who cracked their boat in half by hitting a big boat’s wake too hard.

“It’s definitely changed,” Gude said as the two prepared their bass boat for an outing on a steamy afternoon this month. “The traffic has gotten heavier over the years, and the wakes have gotten bigger. You just have to watch yourself more closely.”