The life of a houseboater—on, in, and surrounded by water—has always seemed idyllic to this road-weary soul. So I leaped at the chance to spend a weekend this spring tooling around the pristine coves of Shasta Lake, Calif., in a top-of-the-line, 56-foot boat with my husband, three kids, and a few friends.
Our trip didn't go exactly as planned. Stormy weather kept us indoors most of one day and pulled the boat loose from its moorings one night. We'd been told to use our cell phone in the case of an emergency. But when a short circuit stalled the boat's engine not far from the marina, we were already out of cell-phone range and reduced to the time-honored method of seeking assistance: standing on the deck shouting "Help!"
Despite the mishaps, we'd go back in a minute. The kids loved the fishing, and my husband and I cherished the quiet of having our early-morning coffee as we watched the sky turn pink. We also learned a few lessons that should ensure smoother sailing next time around:
Choose your waterway carefully. Snoop around to find out when lakes are especially crowded. Arizona's Lake Havasu, for instance, is awash with partying teens during spring break every March. On the other hand, California's Shasta and Trinity lakes, as well as Lake Powell, which straddles Arizona and Utah, are more likely to lure families at all times of the year. Even in high season, these three lakes are big enough to offer some privacy. But anyone craving quiet should time a visit for the spring or fall. And if lovely scenery isn't enough to entertain you, consider the Sacramento Delta, where you're never far from the next marina and the chance to enjoy a restaurant meal.
Book the right boat. Choices range from modest 36-footers that sleep six and offer few frills to vessels that stretch 56 feet or longer, sleep 12, and sport a hot tub, water slide, satellite TV, and CD and DVD players. On a rainy weekend with the lake too cold for swimming, we rotated between the hot tub and the couch, cozying up with old movies. But in sultry July, the refreshing lake water might be entertainment enough. Weekly summer boat rentals run from about $1,500 to $6,500 or more; remember to budget for gas. Look for bargains from October through May—many companies cut rates in half and some include free gas and a powerboat rental.
Pack lightly. Space is tight and first timers usually bring too much of everything—except ice. Most boats have fully stocked kitchens and all you need to supply is clothes, bedding, and food.
Prepare for problems. Neither my husband nor I had ever piloted anything bigger than a rowboat, and though docking takes nerve and practice, after our half-hour orientation we did fine. Still, make sure there's a manual on board and insist on a ship-to-shore radio.
Stay safe. Keep small children in life vests, and don't swim when the motor's running. To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, turn off the generator at night.
Bring toys. Whether you rent or bring your own, you'll be glad to have a miniflotilla of rafts and inner tubes. And even if you don't water-ski, a powerboat (typically, an extra $200 a day) is great for exploring a large lake without tugging the house along. If you love Jet Skis—or hate them—check with the marina to see if they're permitted. We relied on a couple of kayaks to explore little coves and creeks reachable only from the water. Nothing could break the peaceful spell as we paddled along.
Not even the rain.
Photography courtesy of Aramark Parks & Resorts
This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.