Wakesurfing boats on WI lakes; calls to restrict 'monster trucks' of water

A conflict is brewing on Wisconsin lakes as a new generation of powerboats is making big waves. That is setting the stage for a water war in Madison.

With more than 16,000 recognized bodies of water, Wisconsin is a land of liquid paradise. Sometimes, though, paradise gets crowded.

"All the sudden a monster truck comes into the public park and starts doing donuts," said Scott Rolfs, a fisherman who lives along the shores of Big Cedar Lake in Washington County.

Rolfs is talking about wakesurfing, a sport that is quickly growing in popularity on inland lakes across the country. 

"It's a lot of fun," says Drew Jelen, an avid wakesurfer and owner of Wiscoboardco, a small business that makes custom wakesurfing boards.

Like water-skiing, wakesurfing starts with a motorized boat pulling a rider out of the water with a tow-rope. But unlike skiing, wakesurfers can toss the rope back once they get up on their feet. The wave produced by the boat then pulls the surfer along, untethered.

Drew Jelen is a wakesurfing athlete and owner of Wiscoboardco, which makes custom wake boards. He lives near Little Muskego Lake in Waukesha County.

To generate a wave big enough to surf, so-called "wake boats" are designed with deep hulls containing built-in holding tanks that fill with lake water to weigh them down. The ballast tanks are intended to create an artificially-magnified wake. 

"If the boat is sunk down, that wave comes up high," Jelen said.

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The wake boats are also equipped with special plates that push the boat's wake to one side, creating taller and longer waves, even at slow speeds.

"You just want slow, steady and a nice wave," Jelen said.

To create the biggest, steadiest wave, wake boats in surfing mode never go fast enough to level out on the surface. Instead, they plow through the water in a pre-planing position, with the boat's rear end, or stern, angled down. The boat rarely reaches a speed of more than 11 to 13 miles per hour. According to boating industry experts, that's one of the things that makes wakesurfing attractive, not just to young surfers, but those with aging bodies.

"You’ve been water-skiing your whole life," said Jesse McArdell, policy manager for the National Marine Manufacturer's Associatio, (NMMA). "You have bad shoulders, bad hip. You don't feel comfortable anymore going 30, 40 miles per hour out there."

McArdell says older boaters are also the ones most likely to have extra money to spend on the sport, which is important since new wake boats tend to cost upwards of $100,000 to $200,000 or more.

"This is not the sport of the common guy," Rolfs said.

According to McArdell, wake boats first came onto the watersports scene in the early 2010s. They surged in popularity during the pandemic, when social distancing made other public activities harder to do.

The most recent sales figures released by NMMA show wake boats now represent 4.6% of all new powerboats sold in the United States and nearly 90% of boats with inboard motors.

Wake boats represent a relatively small, but growing percentage of all powerboats sold annually in the United States.

"The new kids are on the block now," Jelen said.

But popularity is a matter of perspective.

"This is a serious issue," said Rolfs, secretary of a newly-formed special interest group, Lakes at Stake. The non-profit's aim is to severely restrict the use of wake boats in Wisconsin.

"It is controversial," said Hans Mayer, a lifelong sailor and Vice President of Lakes at Stake.

"When there's a wake boat out there, it owns the lake," said Joe Garstecki, a water skier who is acting as Lakes at Stake's treasurer.

"This is an issue that affects millions of people in this state," said Jaimey Minney Maples, the group's communications director. "They are crowding out the lake."

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According to NMMA, recreational boating is an $8 billion per year industry in Wisconsin, ranking the Badger State 7th in the country in economic impact. Those dollars come from lake users in ski boats, pontoons, jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks and, of course, fishing boats.

Lakes at Stake members say wake boats are making it harder for everyone else to enjoy the water because of the massive residual waves they generate.

"When the wake boat comes by, we all have to quick grab onto the sides and hang on," Rolfs said.

To demonstrate the impact of wake boats on smaller vessels, Lakes at Stake invited the FOX6 Investigators to spend Memorial Day weekend in a kayak on Pewaukee Lake.

FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn kayaks on Pewaukee Lake, Memorial Day weekend 2024

As one of Wisconsin's biggest lakes, Pewaukee Lake can handle a lot of powerboat traffic. Still, at the peak of the afternoon, with three or four wake boats circling at the same time, our kayaks had to navigate some treacherous swells.

"Getting knocked around, frankly," Garstecki said. "There’s not a better word for it."

A video posted on the Lakes at Stake website shows a child stranded atop a slide on Lake Keesus in Waukesha County. After a wake boat passes nearby, divergent waves build as they traverse ever-shallower water on their way to the shoreline. The child's grandfather warns her to stay put as the waves batter a floating dock, as well as the bottom of the child's slide.

But wake boat critics say the greatest threat is not lake enjoyment or safety. It is the health of the lake ecosystem.

"They damage the environment, destroy personal property and erode the shoreline," said Jeff Meessmann, a member of Last Wilderness Alliance, which has repeatedly lobbied the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to do something about it.

"You need to act immediately to stop the harm," said Tom Olson, a resident of Vilas County, at an NRB meeting in 2022.

"I think this is one area that’s bipartisan as hell," said Fred Prehn, a former Natural Resources Board member.

"Wakesurfing represents a threat with the broadest spectrum of damage to our lakes, lakeshores and lake users that I’ve encountered," said John Richter of Plum Lake, Wisconsin.

State law currently requires ski boats to stay 100 feet away from other lake users, but a study by the University of Minnesota in 2022 found waves produced by wake boats have three to nine times the energy of that from traditional ski boats when measured 100 feet from a wake boat's path. That same study found the wake boat waves still had three times the energy of ski boat waves after 500 feet. And that's just the beginning.

"There may be a lot of things going on underwater," Rolfs said.

Wake boats operate with the engine's propulsion system angled down, which critics say can scour the lake bottom in shallow areas, churning up sediment and ruining fishing habitat.

This graphic from a study of North Lake in Waukesha County shows how the propulsion system of a wake boat angles toward the lake bed when the boat is in surfing mode, weighted down with ballast.

A study commissioned by the North Lake Management District in Waukesha County found that could have significant effects on lake bottoms as deep as 20 feet or more.

Lakes at Stake shared video from the floor of Big Cedar lake near the end of May 2014 showing lush vegetation and fish population. They then shared video from the same location 10 years later, showing what appears to be a significant decrease in lake bed vegetation.

They can't prove wakesurfing caused the change, but Lakes at Stake members say they believe it is a harbinger of things to come.

"It's mounting and some of it could be irreversible," Maples said.

That is why they want to ban wake boats on all but the biggest Wisconsin lakes. According to DNR data, Wisconsin has more than 2,000 lakes large enough to allow for motorized boats that create a wake. Those are lakes at least 50 acres in size.

Lakes at Stake wants to limit wake boats to lakes at least 1,500 acres in size. That would mean wake boats could only be used in wakesurfing mode on 77 lakes across the state, including just a handful near Milwaukee. Not many more in Wisconsin's northwoods, where water recreation is a summer rite of passage.

"I would move," Jelen said, referring to a possible 1,500 acre restriction. "I’m not even joking. I would get out of here."

"In effect, what you would do is concentrate this activity on a select group of lakes," McArdell said.

Wisconsin has more than 2,000 lakes of at least 50 acres in size, large enough for motorized boats

If wake boats are restricted to lakes at least 1,500 acres in size, there would be a total of 77 lakes that could accommodate them

"It just creates a very contentious issue," said Stephen Radtke, a member of the informally-organized Wisconsin Wakesurf Alliance, a group formed on Facebook to counter the growing campaign against wakesurfing.

"They do cause waves," Radtke acknowledges. "They do."

But Radtke said the research commissioned by critics raises theoretical concerns without proving wake boats cause any actual harm.

"Wake boats have been around 15 years, and we have yet to be able to point out, wake boats destroyed this entire shoreline," Radtke said.

Radtke has spent time studying the research pushed by groups like Lakes at Stake and, with a scientific background of his own, he refutes the claims one by one. Radtke is especially critical of the study design employed by critics, which tested one of the largest wake boats available and compared it to a 20-year-old ski boat.

Radtke points to a study commissioned by water sports enthusiasts that used computational fluid dynamics to estimate the impact of wake boat waves on lake shorelines. The study, published in the Journal of Water Resource and Protection determined a 200-foot buffer is enough to ensure wake boats have a "minimal" impact on the shoreline.

The study said the shoreline impact of wake boat waves generated 200 feet from shore is the same as naturally-occurring waves produced by 20 mile per hour winds.

But wake boat critics point out that two of the three authors on that study work for Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac, which manufactures boat engines.

"Each side is critiquing the other," Rolfs said.

Now, the two sides are racing to change state law.

Wake boat critics want to keep them 700 feet from shore (and other lake users) and require them to operate in 20 feet of water on lakes at least 1,500 acres. Wake boat supporters want to set a 200-foot distance limit with no depth or lake size restri

In November (2023), the water sports industry convinced a pair of northwoods state lawmakers -- Senator Mary Felkowski of Tomahawk and Representative Rob Swearingen of Rhindelander, both Republicans -- to introduce a bill that would have locked in a statewide 200-foot buffer for wake boat operation in Wisconsin.

Three months later, wake boat critics got Republican Senator Andres Jacques and Democratic Representative Christine Sinicki to introduce a 700-foot shoreline buffer and to require wake boats to operate in water at least 20 feet deep on lakes at least 1,500 acres in size.

"Is there a way for everyone to be happy here?" Polcyn asked Mayer.

"Almost certainly not," Mayer said, with a wry smile.

"I think there is," Radtke said.

Four states -- Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina -- have already codified a 200-foot distance restriction for wakesurfing. Maine set a 300-foot buffer. New Hampshire is still debating between the two.

"There are wake boat owners I've talked to that have said, we can live with 300," Radtke said. "Let's get it done."

Last month, Vermont became the first state to require wake boats to operate 500 feet from shore.

"500 really is the minimum," Rolfs said.

Now, other states are keeping a close eye on Wisconsin, which could become the first state in the lake-heavy northern midwest to set any standard at all for wake boats.

"It's an important state to the recreational boating industry," McArdell said.

"Our lakes are precious, and they belong to all of us," Mayer said.

"There's plenty of room on the water for everybody," Jelen said.

But is there? One thing is indisputable. The outcome of this water war will have ripple effects for years to come.

In the court of public opinion, wakesurfing critics appear to have a big head start.

In its spring survey, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress asked (Question 43, page 20) if the public would support legislation prohibiting wakesurfing on lakes smaller than 1,500 acres, in depths less than 20 feet, and at distances less than 700 feet from shore.

Of the more than 13,000 Wisconsin residents who offered an opinion, 75% said "yes," they would support those restrictions. The vote is non-binding, but could be influential with lawmakers. Wakesurfing supporters say they have work to do to get their message out.

In the meantime, there is a fast-growing patchwork of local ordinances that restrict wake boats, mostly in northwoods communities. Even some wake boat critics say that is not ideal. The varying rules from lake to lake could create a quagmire for boaters and law enforcement, they fear.

Meanwhile, wakesurfing supporters are advocating responsible behavior.

They urge wakesurfers to:

  1. Stay 200 feet away from shore and other lake users
  2. Limit repeated passes in the same area to avoid cumulative wave effects
  3. Keep the music down