Seaworthy | From The BoatUS Insurance Files


Danger In The New Shallows

By Beth Leonard
Published: August/September 2013

With some inland lakes hitting unprecedented low water levels, boaters need to take extra precautions to keep their boats' bottoms clear of the bottom.

Photo of a Great Lakes mooring that lies exposed
Photo: Michigan Sea Grant
A Great Lakes mooring that once sat several feet underwater lies exposed.

Tip iconFor the Great Lakes, check out NOAA's Interactive Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard and the Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes Weekly Water Level Update. For other inland lakes, search by the name of the lake and "water level" online.

One sultry late August evening last summer, the TowBoatUS dispatchers started receiving phone calls asking for towing assistance on Lake St. Clair. At least four boats were aground, and others were experiencing engine problems after striking submerged objects. Captain William Leslie of TowBoatUS Lake St. Clair headed out for Muscamoot Bay, a shallow part of the lake he knows all too well. But this was not his normal dispatch. He would spend the next six hours freeing boats, some of them multiple times.

Situated between the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers, Lake St. Clair links Lake Huron and the upper Great Lakes to Lake Erie and the lower Great Lakes. Muscamoot Bay lies on the north side of the 22-mile-wide lake alongside the St. Clair River's Middle Channel, and for Detroiters and others with boats on Lake St. Clair, "the Moot" is the place to see and be seen. On hot, sunny weekends in the summer, hundreds of powerboats raft up in two parallel lines, and their crews wade, dance, drink, and party in the shallow waters in between. More than 1,500 boats have participated in the annual Muscamoot Bay Raft Off held in August every year, often described as Mardi Gras on the water. With charted depths of between three and six feet, the Bay doesn't have much water at the best of times. But due to a warm winter and the extended drought in the Midwest last summer, the lake had even less than usual. On that August night, the wind went from blowing water into the bay to blowing it out, lowering the depth still farther. In less than an hour, boats that had been floating weren't any more.

"It was as if they were caught in a spiderweb," Captain Will said. "I'd free them, they'd go a couple of boat lengths, and then they'd be aground again." That night on Lake St. Clair was just one example of a wider problem that has become increasingly evident in the BoatUS claims files: A lot of inland lakes are at or near historically low water levels, which means a lot of boats are finding the bottom in places where they never have before.

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