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A pontoon boat of Tahoe Sports makes its way out the channel to enjoy the smooth and frigid May waters of Lake Tahoe.
Tahoe Sports Deck Manager Ben Garcia and deckhand Zach Discher prepare a boat for customers.
Ahead of what is expected to be another extremely busy summer tourism season on Lake Tahoe, community leaders there are embarking on a campaign to prevent dangerous behavior on the water.
Tahoe sees about 15,000 vessel launches a year — mostly between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the time when millions of visitors arrive to fish, wakesurf, kayak, Jet Ski, tube or just putter around in the sun. Rental companies stationed around the lake, primarily on the California half, are readying their fleets for another banner season.
“Once it warms up, we’ll be slamming,” said Dustin Kenney, office manager at Tahoe Keys Boat Rentals in South Lake Tahoe, one of the most popular rental operators on the lake.
But Tahoe presents all kinds of challenges for inexperienced boaters. Locals say it functions more like an ocean — with bone-chilling water temperatures, currents, chop and variably harsh surface conditions. There are drownings every year, including one already this month.
Tahoe authorities are working to better organize activity on the lake for decades to come. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which regulates development around the lake’s 72-mile shoreline, is seeking to expand lake access with more buoys, piers and boat ramps, rein in illegal practices and emphasize safe travel, with special attention paid to environmentally sensitive areas.
Deckhand Brandon Thornberg of Tahoe Sports goes over life jacket safety with Michael Korcek before a day on Lake Tahoe.
“The goal is to improve recreation for all,” said Jeff Cowen, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency public information officer.
Central to the agency’s efforts is reaching visiting boat renters.
Renting a boat on Tahoe is easy: Adults need only a valid ID and credit card. Rental companies typically brief customers on lake rules and give quick vessel tutorials before turning people loose on the water. However, many visitors don’t have even a cursory understanding of boating etiquette, and companies aren’t held to specific standards of education or training when giving safety briefings, according to the Tahoe planning agency.
Visiting boaters frequently break basic decorum — blazing through low-speed zones or ignoring life jacket requirements, sometimes while obviously intoxicated — which may draw the ire of locals and citations from any of the various law enforcement agencies patrolling Tahoe. Scenes of greenhorn boaters struggling with outboard motors, stalling their vessels or running aground are not uncommon.
This season in particular will test boaters’ awareness. For a second year in a row, Tahoe’s water level is likely to drop below the basin’s natural rim in late summer, bringing boats closer to shallow boulders and other underwater hazards. A lower lake also dries out boat ramps, particularly in North Tahoe, and funnels people to fewer access points to launch and retrieve their vessels.
Once boaters get out on the lake, it’s typically smooth sailing.
“There’s nothing you’ll hit, because the lake is so deep,” said Mike Crow, owner of North Lake Tahoe Boat Rental. “The problems occur when people try to beach their boats or get too close to shore.”
Dock manager Ben Garcia goes over a safety briefing checklist with boat renter Alex Ibarra at Tahoe Sports in the Tahoe Keys Marina.
Crow’s company sends renters safety videos when they book, walks them through a 20-minute safety speech on-site, then tracks their boat via GPS during their tour to make sure they stay in safe zones.
“We’ll gladly abide by any rules that TRPA puts in place to make our renters more knowledgeable about safety on the lake,” Crow said.
The state Division of Boating and Waterways is in the process of requiring all boat owners to obtain the California Boater Card, a recent certification program meant to educate boaters and curb accidents and fatalities on the water. But there is no such program for boat renters.
With the help of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, an environmental protection nonprofit, the planning agency developed the Tahoe Boating App for mobile devices, a wellspring of guidelines and information that features an interactive map of the lake dotted with sightseeing destinations, fuel stops and restrooms as well as no-wake zones.
A new safety video the groups produced is being disseminated to rental companies this month in the hope that they’ll screen it for renters. It walks viewers through boating fundamentals and underscores the mortal risk of the lake’s cold water.
Boats are anchored for summer at Tahoe Sports in the Tahoe Keys Marina in South Lake Tahoe.
The groups also partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary to host a workshop this month for rental companies and marinas in hopes of bringing them into alignment on rules and protections for renters.
“We’re trying to bring the floor up on everyone who wants to do this legitimately,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. In conjunction with the league, the TRPA is in the process of crafting a new concessionaire permit, which will require rental companies to adhere to certain standards when training customers.
“There will be new regulations coming down the line,” Patterson said. “We just want consistency around the lake.”
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency recently lifted a 30-year moratorium on new shoreline structures and created a lottery system for permitting new buoys and boat ramps, effectively paving a path for more vessels and expanded lake access. It allows for a maximum of 128 private piers and 1,486 new private moorings.
The agency has also pursued claims against rental operators skirting the law. For example, last year the agency reached a $90,000 violation settlement agreement with Action Water Sports, a prominent rental company that the agency said had operated 10 illegal moorings on the lake. The company did not respond to a request for comment. The settlement notice said that “AWS continues to dispute the alleged violations” but would implement a number of safety measures.
“Our board really wants to get the message out on enforcement and fines,” Cowen said.
The push to bring order to Tahoe doesn’t yet include regulations on peer-to-peer rental marketplaces such as Get My Boat, Boatsetter and Craigslist, which have surged on the lake in recent years. Lake Tahoe postings for Jet Skis, pontoons and other vessels on Get My Boat, for instance, have risen from 40 at the beginning of 2021 to 112 this year.
Deckhands for Tahoe Sports take Jet Skis out for a test. Lake Tahoe presents many challenges for inexperienced boaters. Locals say it functions more like an ocean — with bone-chilling water temperatures, currents, chop and variably harsh surface conditions. There are drownings every year, including one already this month.
While those rental platforms operate in something of a gray area, Get My Boat requires hosts to brief renters on Tahoe’s laws and general boating safety practices, according to marketing manager Val Streif.
Authorities’ overarching concern this summer, however, is drownings, which occur every year and often involve visitors unfamiliar with Tahoe’s deceptively frigid water and fast-changing surface conditions.
A 58-year-old man from Palo Alto drowned this month after falling out of a boat in 15 feet of depth off of the West Shore. His death was attributed to “cold water shock,” a physiological phenomenon that can trigger the gasp reflex or cause erratic breathing and muscle failure in people who plunge into the chilly lake. It is often cited as a cause of accidental drownings in Tahoe, where water temperatures just below the surface can hover around 50 degrees in May and typically top out at about 68 degrees in August.
“Tahoe can be sneaky. We see a lot of sudden shock syndrome from people not realizing how cold the water is just a foot or two down,” said Doug Leavell, recreational boating safety specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard’s District 11, which covers California and Nevada.
The Coast Guard couldn’t immediately provide exact figures on the number of drownings at Tahoe but said it has responded to an average of 73 search-and-rescue cases on the lake in each of the past five years. Those include distress calls from vessels taking on water, people who have fallen overboard and medical incidents.
The best way to stay safe while boating on Tahoe is to wear a life jacket at all times, authorities say. Another important piece of equipment to heed on the water: the fire extinguisher. Fire is “the No. 1 threat to any vessel on the water,” said Chief Colt Fairchild, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Lake Tahoe.
“Our hope is that these rental companies will touch on those things,” Fairchild said. “A lot of people, especially the tourists, aren’t aware of the dangers of Tahoe.”
Gregory Thomas is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle and outdoors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @GregRThomas
Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s Editor of Lifestyle and Outdoors, focusing on California activities and destinations. He also hosts the Wild West podcast, which features interviews with environmental thought leaders and adventure athletes (subscribe here). Before that, he served as Senior Editor at Outside Magazine in New Mexico where he edited news, enterprise stories, and features in print and online. He’s worked at a tech-media startup, reported for major metro newspapers, written features for national magazines, and done his share of internships. He holds a Master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and he’s on Twitter at @GregRThomas.
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