SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, Virginia. – The boat rental industry continues to grow in Smith Mountain Lake, and those who have rented to clients for decades have said that new businesses that are springing up are breaking unwritten rules.
The regulations for renting a boat in Virginia are pale compared to something like renting a car. For this reason, many of the more well-known companies are taking matters into their own hands and acting above the law to not only protect themselves, but also their customers and the general public.
The sticking point is liability insurance, which, although strongly suggested, is not required to rent boats and is something that the new Smith Mountain Lake Boat and Watersports Rental Association seeks to regulate among themselves. .
Smith Mountain Lake continues to be a gem of Blue Ridge, Virginia, but it’s no longer a secret. Just ask Ryan Waters of Bridgewater Marina whose family has operated on the lake for decades – times are changing.
“We’ve been chartering boats for 30 years and it’s getting a little bit bigger each year and as long as the weather is nice we expect it to stay the same,” Waters said.
Jeff Prowse and his wife own Mitchell’s Point Marina and SML Boat Rentals, buying the business over the past decade and bringing the rich history with it. Prowse said that as the lake continues to grow, the demand for rental boats exceeds supply. Prowse and Waters both host a new competition, they see it more as a brotherhood than anything else. But they’re worried about newcomers to the industry who don’t break the law but take shortcuts they say could impact safety.
“Usually we call these rogue traders and they are people with no insurance, who don’t plan to comply with any of the regulations and it’s very difficult to control them,” Prowse said.
They said rental companies operating without liability insurance threaten not only the rental business but also the safety of everyone on the lake. Together they formed the SMLBWRA to help correct the problem and they want tenant customers to look for signs that the company is a member.
Insurance is not a legal mandate to offer rentals in Virginia, but it is to be a member of the new group.
“This keeps both our clientele and the people on the lake who aren’t renters in a situation where rental boats aren’t a problem, they’re an increase in what’s going on here,” Prowse said.
Mitchell’s and Bridgewater are two of the largest operators on the lake and said the new organization is not about reducing competition because they fear potential customers will go elsewhere, but rather uplift the industry as a whole.
Prowse said the longtime rental companies on the lake are getting along, working together and helping each other. If one needs something, the others line up to help. They coordinate with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and educate each other on regulations and best practices. They all want to make sure the customer has a good experience.
He credits much of what he now knows to Roy Enslow, a longtime former managing partner of Bridgewater Marina. Prowse said Enslow has championed the safety of boat rentals on the lake and has initiated many other programs that have helped shape the culture of boating on the lake into what it is is today. When he arrived at the lake to run his new business, he said Enslow had taken him under his wing and helped him make sure he was running a professional and safe operation.
And this is where the group sees the stake. While they and others have gone above and beyond to be above the bar, they say new businesses are stepping in and choosing to just do what’s necessary instead of being above the bar. . Previously they operated on a series of gentlemen’s agreements, and now they say times are changing, it’s time to put things on paper and create the formal organization.
“Especially when it comes to boating safety and insurance,” Waters said. “We’ve been here 30 years, we plan to be here for 100 more and we want boat rentals to stay safe and Smith Mountain Lake to stay safe.”
The association is also developing a strategy to tackle another new and growing problem at the lake. More and more homeowners are choosing to rent their homes on their own through services like VRBO and Airbnb, instead of using traditional SEO agencies that walk homeowners through the process. Many owners include access to their personal boats in the rental and this is where the problem arises.
When a client rents a boat from a boat rental company, the client is required to take a boater safety course to receive a temporary boater license if they do not have a permanent one and pass through a comprehensive safety checklist before leaving the dock, regardless of license status.
Anyone who operates a boat is required to have a license under Virginia law, but Prowse said owners renting out their boats with their homes may not be as strict as traditional rental companies, simply leaving them behind. keys on the counter and leaving the burden on the lessor. While perfectly legal, Prowse fears that unlicensed and inexperienced boaters without individual guidance are on the water, creating a potentially dangerous situation for themselves and those around them.
Prowse said owners who do this can be members of the association and their dues, $ 50 per year, will be waived. The same would apply to traditional rental companies with only a handful of boats. He said he wasn’t as concerned with getting the money back as he was making sure everyone was on the same page and following best practices for staying safe on the water.
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