There are more than half a million acres of navigable water within a hundred miles of Dallas. To help you take advantage of it, here’s some advice on buying a boat, getting it afloat, and operating it safely.

Buying your first boat

If you wonder why people spend more for boats than they do for cars, take a look at that old Douglas Fairbanks movie The Black Pirate. Lake Texoma isn’t the Spanish Main but the attraction is the same.

Unfortunately, the romantic side is probably all you know about boats. For this reason, you need to pick a dealer very carefully. Check out sales and service records to make sure you get a reputable one.

One of the most common mistakes people make when picking out a first boat is getting one that’s too small. All boats look big on the showroom floor, but it gets pretty uncomfortable when you have to sit for three hours on the lake with Uncle Fred’s elbow in your side. For two people a 14- to 16-foot boat will do nicely; for four people you need from 17 to 19 feet; and for six or more passengers you’re in the 20- to 24-foot range.

Most people in Dallas buy boats for either fishing or water skiing. Although it’s possible to water ski behind any boat that can go 30 miles an hour, the primary activity you plan for your boat will help you decide what kind of hull construction you want.

There are basically two types of hull construction: the tri-hull and the single vee (also called the deep-vee). The tri-hull is good for fishing because it gives more lateral stability at rest, especially on smaller boats. You see tri-hull boats wherever the fishing’s good. Boats with single vee hulls can go faster and get a smoother ride than tri-hull boats because they cut through waves more easily and plane higher. Single vee boats are seen out in the Gulf where tri-hull boats pound badly in rough water.

Bass boat builders pioneered single vee construction for small boats to be used on lakes and reservoirs. Boats with single vee hulls have been always used on the open sea, but only recently have lake fishermen become interested in them. With the passage of time most lakes are losing their wind cover and becoming rough and choppy, making single vee boats very desirable.

The three engine types available are inboard, inboard/outboard and outboard. Inboard power plants sit in the boat and spin the propeller through a shaft passing through the the hull below the waterline. Inboard motors usually come only with the larger cruisers, 30 feet and up, and are a permanent part of the boat. They aren’t as good for the shallow lakes around Dallas as other types of engines, because the prop can’t be tilted upward to keep it from being damaged in shallow water. An outboard drive unit can be raised out of the water, letting you beach or trailer your boat easily. Outboards are popular with the fast crowd, because, being two-cycle engines, they have a higher power-to-weight ratio than four-cycle (automotive type) inboard powerplants. But there’s a price for high performance: Outboards just don’t last as long as in-boards – on the other hand, they’re cheaper. The most popular powerplant in the 100-horsepower-and-up range is the inboard/outdrive, a hybrid between inboard and outboard offering some of the advantages of each. The inboard/outdrive combines a four-cycle inboard engine with a propeller-shaft unit that kicks up like an outboard.

Power steering, now available with some types of engines, makes handling a lot easier. Some old salts don’t like power steering because they say it doesn’t give them the proper “feel” for the boat.

The U.S. Coast Guard sets a maximum power rating for all boats, so you need to find out the rating for your boat before you buy an engine.

Remember when you buy a boat that you have to keep it somewhere. If you like to go boating on the spur of the moment it would probably be better to keep your boat in a marina. The price for a slip varies from $2 to $2.50 a foot for covered space and a little less for uncovered space. Most marinas require a 9- to 12-month lease and a deposit. Your other choice is to buy a trailer and keep the bodt at your home. Trailers start at about $500 and go up depending on the length and weight of the boat to be carried. Boats spend about 90 percent of their time on the trailer, so it’s best to get one with boards that distribute the weight over 70 percent of its length; rollers create pressure points along the hull that can cause dents. Get one that has a maximum loading weight a few hundred pounds more than your boat weighs. Otherwise, it’s easy to break an axle after you’ve loaded your boat full of ice chests, fishing equipment, water ski paraphernalia and the like.

Financing and insuring your boat

Banks like to finance boats. As more and more people take to the water, the prices of new boats rise about 7 percent annually. Consequently, the resale value of a well-found yacht is excellent, its rate of depreciation slow. So banks will stretch out the payments much longer than they will for cars: 48 to 60 months with a 10 to 15 percent down payment is typical. Total finance costs are in the neighborhood of 7’/2 percent (about 13 percent annual rate). To get the best interest rates, buy a fiberglass boat. It’s stronger than wood and will remain sound with no maintenance. Loan officers generally prefer inboard/outboard power plants to out-boards – the inboard engines spin slower and are easier to maintain, so they tend to last longer.

You’ll need a stronger credit position to get financing for a boat than if you were buying a necessity (like a car). The rate of repossession of boats rises markedly in the winter months, when the summer plaything is just sitting in the garage soaking up payments – so banks look hard at your payment records on other loans. If you can’t get your banker to spring for the boat of your dreams, you might let the dealer try to finance it. Expect to pay for this service with higher rates, however.

Insurance companies don’t like boats. It does not gladden the heart of an actuary to think of his company’s money riding on a boat charging around crowded, unpatrolled waterways with an unlicensed operator at the helm. In addition, many companies are simply unfamiliar with boats and don’t quite know how to assign value or risk. Because insurance companies don’t solicit boat business, your best bet is simply to get the boat written in on your automotive or home policy.

Safe sailing

You don’t have to pass a driver’s test to operate a boat; you don’t need any kind of license at all. Neither do any of the other weekend mariners whizzing around the lakes at up to sixty knots. All the more reason to learn the rules of the nautical road. As Thucydides said, a collision at sea can ruin your entire day.

Safe boating is more than just avoiding collisions. Before you drive away from the yacht dealer with your new toy in tow, be sure you understand trailer procedures and maintenance, boat safety equipment (life jackets, anchor, lights, bilge blowers, pumps, fire extinguisher, etc.) and emergency procedures. It’s best to have a checklist, to be completed each trip. Even if you think of yourself as an experienced yachtsman, ask plenty of questions to make sure you know your way around a new boat. If you’re a neophyte, enroll in a course. Your boat dealer can tell you about U.S. Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary courses in everything from basic powerboat operation to celestial navigation. And the Dallas County Community College District offers boat training courses every summer. Call 746-2135 for information.

The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife will send you free copies of their boating safety pamphlets. Write to:

Water Safety Division

Texas Parks and Wildlife

4200 Smith School Road

Austin, TX 78744

Or call their toll-free number, (800) 252-9327.

For copies of the rules of the nautical road, safety pamphlets, and information about Coast Guard Auxiliary courses, write the Coast Guard:

Office of Boating Safety

U.S. Coast Guard

Hale Boggs Building, 500 Camp Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

Where to float your boat

It’s time to try out your new boat. The trailer’s hooked up to the car, the boat is laden with picnic supplies, you’ve finished your two-week course in seamanship and you’re ready for some fun. Where do you go?

You might just follow the crowds. Last year the Army Corps of Engineers counted over 30 million visitors at lakes within two hours’ drive of Dallas. But don’t despair of finding a picnic spot and a patch of open water: There are 20 good-sized lakes within 100 miles of town, with surface areas totalling over half a million acres and 2000 miles of shoreline.

Unless you own a lake, you won’t find one all to yourself anywhere near Dallas, so you might as well go where the amenities are. Most boat dealers sell charts which mark the locations of public launching ramps, recreation areas, restaurants, marinas, emergency repair services, and fuel clocks (but tank up at a service station on the highway – gasoline is 90¢ a gallon at the lake).

Here’s a short guide to nearby lakes:

Lake Texoma is the most popular lake in Texas; 10,000 boats and 9 million people visit there each year. There’s plenty of room for all of them, with 144,100 acres of water, 600 miles of shoreline, 57 campgrounds, 110 picnic areas, and 80 launching ramps. Texoma is well stocked with black bass, crappie, and catfish. It straddles the Oklahoma border, so fishermen should get Texas and Oklahoma licenses. Take U.S. 75 north to 75A, which leads to the Corps of Engineers project office; you can get maps and information there.

Lake Lewisville, just northwest of the city limits on Interstate 35E, is crowded with skiers and sailors. This is the local big boat venue, with lots of thirty-foot cabin cruisers. Lewisville has 183 miles of shoreline, plenty of public ramps, and a couple of year-round fishing barges (covered and heated). The big fish are to be found near submerged trees in the Garza-Little Elm area to the southeast.

Lake Ray Hubbard. lying inside the Dallas city limits, is definitely a city reservoir, with tired, crowded beaches and pretty dismal scenery. But it’s water and it’s close by, just the place for playing hooky. The southeastern part is popular for sailing and skiing, while fishermen prefer the northeast end, where barely submerged trees keep skiers out and provide a hiding place for big bass. There are public launching ramps off Interstate 30 and Texas 66. Robinson Park, just off I-30, is a good picnic spot.

Grapevine Reservoir is long and narrow, a good place for water skiing. It’s shallow, so when the water is stirred up it can be pretty murky. And the water’s edge recedes as the reservoir loses water in the summer, leaving many of the launching ramps high and dry. The skiing is consistently good near the dam, where there’s shelter from the wind. Take Texas 114 west to 121 north, then left on 121 to Silver Lake Park, which has a public launching ramp.

Lake Lavon, 22 miles northeast of Dallas off U.S. 75, is the source of hydroelectric power for the City of Garland. It was recently enlarged by the Corps of Engineers and. until the recent heavy rains, the water didn’t quite reach the new extra-wide launching ramps. Right now it’s the least crowded of all the lakes near Dallas.

Cedar Creek Reservoir, an hour’s drive east on U.S. 175, is perfect for skiing, 25 miles long and three miles wide. There are marinas at each end of the FM 85 bridge over the lake. It’s at the edge of the East Texas piney woods, and many resort developments make it a popular weekend retreat for Dallasites.

Getting up on water skis

Water skiing has come a long way since 1924. when Fred Waller (the man who invented Cinerama) patented his Dolphin Akwa-Skees. Water skiers are natural showoffs, and it was quickly apparent that being towed around on a pair of skis wasn’t a big enough thrill. In 1925 Ruth Richmond kicked off one Akwa-Skee. thereby inventing the slalom. (It was not recorded how long her first slalom run lasted.) Since then it’s been higher and higher speeds, sharper and sharper turns, ever more spectacular jumps and flashy stunts.

There are over ten million pleasure boats in the United States, and enough of them tow skiers to support a sizable ski and accessory industry. The current trend among skiers is to buy “professional” (read “expensive”) equipment, and ski manufacturers are happy to oblige, offering exotic materials and designs at $200 and up.

To start out, you need a “combination” pair, one of which has two bindings, ready for you to try slalom. A good pair of wooden skis costs around $60. For double that, you can get fiberglass. No one knows how long fiberglass skis will last, because they’ve been on the market only five years, but they definitely outlive wood.

Once you’re comfortable on one ski and ready to try some hard turns and wake jumps, you may want to buy a slalom ski. Good names to look for include Western, O’Brien, Jobe, and E.P. For recreational use, get a fairly flexible ski with a wide tail. Such a design is very stable and lets you jump the wake easily. More advanced skiers may want to try slalom competition skis, which are much stiffer and less stable but allow sharper turns and more rapid acceleration. Most skiers prefer fiberglass slalom skis to wood; the flex characteristics can be designed in, instead of depending on the grain of the wood. Fiberglass skis are constructed of laminated fiberglass, urethane foam, micarta, and, for stiff skis, aluminum honeycomb. Expect to pay up to $200 for a top-quality slalom ski. At that price, $15 doesn’t seem like much for a carrying case.

There’s more to skiing than just slalom. For $75 you can get a knee-board, basically a small surfboard on which you kneel while being towed in the boat’s wake. These are extremely easy to ride, good for those who aren’t sure they want to try skis. For real hot dogs, there are freestyle skis, short (42 inches), wide and rudderless, that let you spin around, ride backwards, sideways, or in any orientation you like. One of the most spectacular forms of the sport is jumping. This is expensive: $450 for a good pair of jump skis, plus the cost of constructing a ramp – the public jump ramps are few and far between. And when you finally consider yourself an expert, you can try the cheapest, and perhaps the most exciting, skiing barefoot.


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