What to know and how to go about renting a boat in the age of COVID-19

Laveta Brigham

TARPON SPRING, Fla. — With the sun warming our skin, the wind blowing through our hair and the sea spraying onto our faces, it could not have been a better day out on the water on a recent Friday morning in Florida. We spotted dolphin feeding and frolicking, birds playing in the […]

TARPON SPRING, Fla. — With the sun warming our skin, the wind blowing through our hair and the sea spraying onto our faces, it could not have been a better day out on the water on a recent Friday morning in Florida. We spotted dolphin feeding and frolicking, birds playing in the updrafts and settling onto their sanctuary roosts and other boaters seeking a sense of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal world.

After months of staying in during the pandemic, a day on the water could have been just what the doctor ordered. In fact, the best-selling book “Blue Mind,” by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, cites scientific evidence that being within close proximity to the water can result in being happier.

But what if you don’t have a boat, or a friend with a boat? In addition to boat rentals at local marinas, there are several Airbnb-type boat rental companies that match renters with owners in the U.S. and even internationally. For our day out on the water, my friends and I opted to rent with Boatsetter, which had plenty of boats near us from which to choose.

If you’re ready to get out on the water, here are tips from my recent experience that may help if and opt to rent a boat.

First, make sure you know about boat safety

For inexperienced boaters like myself, it’s a good idea to take a boating safety course to learn the basics before setting out on the water. In fact, a lot states require would-be boaters pass one prior to operating a boat. Be sure and check state guidelines. In Florida, that requirement stands only for those born after 1987, but I thought it would be a good idea to take the course anyway, for my own benefit.

The boaters enjoy a break on the water.
The boaters enjoy a break on the water.

For those of us who may occasionally take the helm but aren’t planning to become full-fledged boaters anytime soon, the BoatU.S. Foundation offers free online boating safety courses that are developed for each state; the courses are recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard and approved by state boat licensing agencies.

Six lessons were presented, which can take between four and eight hours to complete at your own pace, with a final exam of 75 random questions. Topics covered in the courses included boats and the marine environment, boating equipment, trip planning and preparation, safe operation, emergency preparation, and boating activities.

Be aware and prepare

As the U.S. continues to reopen in phases, you should be aware of any boating restrictions where you’re considering renting a boat. Regardless of where you’re renting, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing and personal safety should be followed.

Discover Boating, an organization dedicated to helping people get started in boating, advises limiting the people aboard to family members only, not  tying up with other boats or beaching your boat next to another and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others at fuel docks.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s state-by-state closures guide and Discover Boating’s public water access guide are good resources.

Even if your locale is open for boating, there may be COVID-19-related guidelines to which you will need to adhere. For example, in Miami boat capacities are set at a maximum of eight (four adults) on boats 25 feet or less and a maximum of 10 (six adults) on boats between 26 and 36 feet, with limits on number of adults, whereas in Chicago capacities are a maximum of six (four adults) on boats 25 feet or less and a maximum of eight (six adults) on boats between 26 and 36 feet.

Find the right boat for your outing

On Florida’s west coast, we’re practically surrounded by water, so there are plenty of options when it comes to renting a boat for the day, ranging in size from small fishing boats and party-size pontoons to water skiing and wakeboarding boats and even sailboats and luxury yachts.

When we started looking at what was available in our area, we kept two thoughts in mind: which type and size of boat to rent and where we wanted to go as we have lots of bays, canals and open waterways here. In the end, my two friends and I decided on a 20-foot deck boat that seats up to six; it was in an area where we could venture out to a state park’s barrier islands for a bit of exploration.

Rentals are typically available by the hour, half day or full day. Ours was a full-day rental (eight hours, though we weren’t out that long) and included gas and insurance, which were two fewer things for us to think about during our day on the water. It cost $510.82 with tax. 

Consider who will be captaining

Though I had gone through Florida’s boating safety course, I am a complete novice as was my friend Tinna. Fortunately our third, Maureen, has her boating license for recreational use.

Even if Maureen hadn’t had experience and her boating license, we wouldn’t have been stranded at the dock. Captains are available for hire through the boat rental companies, and their expertise of the water and best places to go can make for a fantastic outing. Opting for a captain can be more relaxing for the entire group, too, so that no one in the rental party has to “work” while on the water. 

The author takes the wheel.
The author takes the wheel.

Learn all you can about the boat

When we arrived at the dock, Leslie, the owner of the boat was waiting to show us the ropes. She took her time walking us through the boat, pointing out the anchors, life jackets, ladders and ropes for docking. She showed us the battery housing “just in case,” and then focused on the boat’s depth finder, which was crucial for our outing as the waters Maureen would be navigating might (and did) change from 15 feet to 2 feet in the blink of an eye.

The boaters prepare to leave the dock.
The boaters prepare to leave the dock.

She also provided maps of the local waterways so we could navigate to the barrier islands and shared her favorite spots, too.

Once Maureen was fully confident she knew how to operate the boat, we set out.

Watch the skies

Before we left the dock, Leslie let us know that the day’s forecast called for a storm to roll into the area in the late afternoon. The three of us made note, and even though we had blue skies overhead for most of our day, we started checking radar apps on our phones around noon.

Sure enough, darker clouds started building by mid-afternoon, typical of Florida’s summer storms. Fortunately, the clouds dissipated as quickly as they built, and we were in the clear. We continued to watch the skies and check the radar for the rest of the day, but our luck held out – the skies waited to open until we were safely in our cars and headed to our homes.

Don’t forget food, drink and other essentials

The night before our outing, Maureen and I coordinated food and drinks for our day on the water. We also made sure to bring along plenty of sunscreen, towels, hats and even snorkeling gear in case there was a spot to jump in and take a peek underwater. Leslie mentioned that one of the barrier islands had a cafe if we wanted to dock and grab a bite, which we did and ate back on the boat.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boat rentals provide social distancing amid COVID-19. How to do it

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