A popular model of boat that creates wakes big enough to surf is whipping up conflict among lakeshore residents, enthusiasts, environmentalists and boat dealers.
Wake boats — watercraft specially designed to churn up massive wakes — are increasingly common on Lake Minnetonka and other lakes.
Enthusiasts say surfing behind them is one of the most enjoyable things you can do on the water. Opponents say they’re noisy, harm the environment and disrupt quieter lake activities such as canoeing and paddleboarding, and want them more tightly regulated.
“There’s no other boat on the lake that affects other people like wake surf boats,” said Michelle Morey, who lives on the lake in Orono. When a wake boat zips by their fishing boat, she said, she and her husband “get tossed around like rag dolls.”
Advocates call wake surfing a safe form of recreation at a time when pandemic precautions limit many activities.
“Everybody in the family can wake-boat surf, from kids to parents to grandparents,” said Andy Weigman, who organizes wake surfing programs on Lake Minnetonka. “Instead of buying a cabin, [families are] putting $200,000 into a boat.”
Some people simply feel Lake Minnetonka’s recreation rules should be as unrestricted as possible.
“I want everybody to enjoy the lake the way they want to enjoy the lake,” said marina owner Gabriel Jabbour, a longtime Lake Minnetonka advocate.
Wake boats aren’t especially fast, averaging 10 to 12 mph, or big, most under 25 feet. But their motors are two or three times more powerful than those of typical recreational watercraft. They churn billowing wakes on which people can surf, untethered to the boat, a few feet above the lake’s surface.
A proposal introduced in the Legislature this year that didn’t get a vote would have required wake boats to stay 200 feet from shore, a distance supported by advocates including the boating industry. That’s the length of a hockey rink, or 50 feet more than current rules. Many opponents want longer setbacks, potentially up to 600 feet.
A University of Minnesota engineer is raising money through a crowdsourcing campaign to study the environmental impact of boat wakes in general.
“We’re studying the wake and how that wake moves toward the shoreline and starts to interact with the bottom of the lake and crashes into shoreline,” said Jeff Marr, leader of the project.
Full results are expected to take several years, but if the funding comes in, preliminary data may be ready by the end of the year.
Marr doesn’t plan to include Lake Minnetonka in his research because it requires lakes with more uniform shorelines.
The wake boat controversy surged in May when Mark Kroll, a board member for the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District (LMCD), e-mailed more than 20 of his neighbors to ask how they would feel about banning wakes from Friday night to Sunday night and allow “people to enjoy fishing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating and other small-craft activities.”
Some were alarmed, thinking Kroll was suggesting closing Lake Minnetonka to motorized watercraft on weekends.
Kroll said he didn’t mean the whole lake, just quiet areas such as North Arm Bay in Orono where he lives. LMCD regulations already designate some channels and small bays as “quiet waters” with 5-mph speed limits.
Some of Kroll’s neighbors, including Morey, have complained to the LMCD that wake boaters crank their music too loud. “When I’m on the dock fishing it’s like I’m at a nightclub sometimes, ” she said.
The LMCD board has not put wake boats on the agenda, chairman Gregg Thomas said, but will address it “sometime in the future.”
He said he’d prefer to wait for results from the U study.
Weigman acknowledged that some wake surfers are too loud, calling them “uneducated boaters, teenagers who haven’t learned how to respect other people.”
But he said lakeshore residents should realize that some commotion comes with the territory.
“When you move to a fully recreational lake, I would say that you shouldn’t be surprised to see recreation,” he said.