Chartering versus Renting a Boat 

On Lake Tahoe 

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Chartering versus renting
a boat on Lake Tahoe.

 

Warmer weather is around the corner and there’s no better way to enjoy it than by spending some time out on gorgeous Lake Tahoe. One of the purest lakes in the world featuring stunning mountain-framed landscapes and crystal blue water, it is a uniquely beautiful place that is always my first choice for a summer getaway. I’m a native Texan who has had a long-term, long-distance love affair with California. As such there are a lot of “Lake Tahoe lessons” I’ve had to learn the hard way. I’ve also received some great pointers from locals who know best, and when it comes to boating the most valuable advice I’ve ever received is this- Charter. Don’t rent. Possibly the biggest mistake people make when heading to the lake is also one of the most common; renting a boat instead of chartering one. Choosing to charter not only ensures that everyone in your group will get the most out of a day on the lake, it can even save you money in the long run, and it may even save your life.

 

Imagine a day on the lake where all you have to do is show up. Delicious food, a full bar, water toys, sports and safety equipment, an expert captain who knows every corner of the lake, and even a watersports instructor have all been arranged and provided according to your preferences. When renting, you’ll spend a significant portion of your vacation time packing up food, drinks, and supplies for the day, not to mention hauling heavy coolers and equipment down to the boat. In the past when I’ve rented instead of chartering I always dread the end of the day when, exhausted from wakeboarding (and in all likelihood at least somewhat inebriated after the day’s festivities), we then have to haul everything back to the car. While the coolers might be a bit lighter by then, wet inner tubes are not. I’ve often remarked jokingly at this point about all the hard work we put into trying to relax, but there’s a lot of truth to that when you choose to rent a boat for the day. 

Vacation is supposed to be about relaxation and an escape from responsibility. This will be impossible for whoever ends up with the burden of driving the boat, as constant vigilance will fall to them as well. Part of the beauty of Lake Tahoe is its unique underwater topography, which does make it fairly dangerous to boat on without extensive experience in the area. Not to mention having to maintain strict sobriety (the legal BAC limit while operating a boat in California is .04, which is half the legal limit for driving). Even if you weren’t planning on drinking and don’t mind being the DD, most rental policies stipulate that someone must be at the wheel at all times, and have dash cams installed to enforce these policies. Many rental companies in fact require two designated non-drinking adults per group- one to drive and one to continuously scan the water for lines, swimmers, obstructions, etc. Often, if the rental staff observes that the helm is unattended even for a moment, they will come retrieve the boat and cancel your rental immediately without a refund. This means that if your group wants to visit any of the many fabulous boat-up restaurants and bars that Lake Tahoe has to offer, at least one member of your party will have to be left behind on the boat at all times. There are also plenty of companies who don’t allow dropping anchor or docking of any kind, so visits to these and other iconic Lake Tahoe landmarks are entirely out of the question. 

Additionally, as anyone who has rented before probably knows, rental boat breakdowns are incredibly common. My theory is that the rental companies have to spend so much money on towing and repairs from renters running aground on shallow water or collisions with underwater obstructions, that they can’t afford or perhaps don’t bother to keep the boats in good repair, knowing that they’ll need to be towed soon than later anyway. When I realized that I had been on more trips where our rental boat had broken down in open water (due to disrepair rather than operator error) than trips where we made it out and back without incident, I realized that I had to find a better way to enjoy the lake. That’s when I discovered the far superior stress-free option of chartering. 

But it’s about more than fun and convenience; safety is a major factor in why chartering a boat is so much smarter than renting one. Much of what makes Lake Tahoe such an amazing place to visit is also part of why a poorly planned trip can be so dangerous. The secret alcoves and hidden lagoons are magical if you know where to find them, but an unguided search for such treasures can instead turn up unexpected underwater obstructions and shallow patches that can bring your fun lake day to a screeching halt by causing damage to your rental and injury to your party. On the lakes I visited while growing up in Texas, the most we had to worry about was an occasional errant tree stump, so it was shocking to learn how many huge rocks and unexpected shallow areas crop up, even in what seems like open water. Texas lakes also reach temperatures of tepid bathwater at midsummer, whereas lovely Lake Tahoe is crisp and cool year round with surface temperatures rarely rising above 65 degrees. Refreshing though it may be, cold-shock response is a significant safety concern, and has been directly attributed to most of the drowning deaths that occur annually on Lake Tahoe.

Dangerous Weather Conditions

Because of the way in which Lake Tahoe is nestled against the Sierra Nevada mountain range, another safety concern is rapid unexpected changes in weather conditions. Rare in the summertime but not wholly uncommon, the interplay between the high-pressure North Pacific atmospheric system and the low-pressure Aleutian-Gulf of Alaska atmospheric system can cause the weather to change in a flash. A seasoned captain will know exactly what to look for and how to respond. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally spend my day on the lake analyzing weather patterns, so it’s great to know that someone knowledgeable is keeping a lookout and ready to react accordingly.

The treacherous topography, rapidly-shifting weather, and crisp water temperatures of Lake Tahoe are part of what makes it so beautiful and unique, which is why it pays off to have a professional at the helm. What you get when you charter is an expert who knows the lake in intimate detail and can take you to all of the best private spots, a watersports instructor who will provide all necessary equipment and show you how to use it, and most importantly a sober person trained in water safety who will be there all day looking out for you and your loved ones so that all you have to do is relax and enjoy yourself. 

I think the main reason people are more likely to rent than to charter is because yes, chartering is nominally more expensive. But the extra cost doesn’t seem like that much when you factor in the fact that food, drinks, gas for the boat, and equipment are included, not to mention the time and effort saved on preparation and packing. Also, rental accidents are expensive and all too common. With Lake Tahoe’s particular underwater terrain, running aground in shallow water and hitting underwater rocks is a frequent occurrence, and as a renter, you would be liable for any damages to the boat. And when you consider that the fine for a DUI is $1,000 plus at least one night in jail, the additional cost of chartering seems well worth it. 

The older I get the more I’ve come to realize that peace of mind is priceless, and that’s exactly what I got when I stopped renting and started chartering instead. It has been so special to indulge in a vacation experience that has been truly tailored to the needs and desires of our group. The bar was stocked with all of our favorites and we were able to select a custom menu for brunch and lunch (fresh quiche, caprese salad, lamb gyros, and charcuterie boards, if you were curious). When I say everything is included and accounted for, I do mean everything. The only thing you need to bring is yourself and your swimsuit. Despite not having kids, I’m often the “mom” in my friend group- i.e. the one who remembers to bring the first aid kit, sunscreen, extra water and towels for the friend who inevitably forgets theirs, etc. So it has been absolutely wonderful to be able to just show up, knowing that all the details have been accounted for. When I invited my friends who have three younger children on a chartered trip, they told me that this was the first vacation they’d been on in years where they felt like they actually got to relax and enjoy themselves, confident in the knowledge that the captain and crew have cultivated a safe environment for everyone. Now, the only hard work we do during our lake vacation is out on the wakeboard and water skis! And I must also mention that my skills in this area have improved considerably under the tutelage of the crew. Did I mention that individual watersports instruction is included on these chartered trips? As the most senior water sports veteran in our group, my brother was often put upon to show the newbies the ropes, which gets more and more tedious as the group gets bigger. He used to grumble if our headcount rose above five, justifiably worried that he’d end up spending the whole day teaching others. Now, we go out in groups as big as ten, and everyone gets to spend their time on the lake doing what they want without obligation.

 

As a veteran adventurer, I can attest that the most important thing besides having as much fun as possible is making sure you live to party another day. This is ultimately why I now always choose to charter.