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By Doug Smith, Published September 02 2007

Data reveals that Minnesota’s love affair with boats is changing

MINNETONKA, Minn. – The lake, rippled by a warm south breeze, shimmers in the morning sun like cut glass. Jack Honmyhr noses the bow of his 25-foot cruiser into the bay, then nudges the chrome throttle lever forward.

With a throaty roar, the V-8 Chrysler engine below deck comes alive, churning up a wake of frothy white water. Waves slap the white fiberglass hull, rhythmically rocking the boat. It’s another fine morning on Lake Minnetonka.

“I’m in love with the water,” Honmyhr, 60, said the other day above the din of the engine. “I’ve loved it since I was 5 or 6. There’s just something about it. ... I think in my previous life I was a sea captain – or maybe a pirate.”

Honmyhr – a Minneapolis resident who swapped a duplex for his 1980 Trojan cruiser 20 years ago – is a postal worker by night, captain of his boat by day. “I’m out here almost every day,” he said.

He represents Minnesotan’s affinity for boats – and water.

Call it an addiction. An indulgence. Even a seduction. Boaters themselves have a difficult time describing the mesmerizing attraction of the water. It’s often many things: The loon calling at dusk. The waves lapping the shoreline. The fish tugging the line. The cool swim. The camaraderie with friends or family.

Whatever, for many it is like the mythical Greek Siren’s call: irresistible.

The Land of 10,000 Lakes is No. 1 in the nation in number of boats per capita. The number of boats as a percentage of the population – about 16 per 100 residents – likely has never been higher. And residents rank boating as their No. 2 favorite outdoor recreation, far ahead of such activities as biking, camping, golfing and hunting and behind only walking/hiking.

From basic canoes to lavish yachts and every floating craft in between, more than 853,000 boats were registered here last year – one for every six men, women and children.

And though we have only 5 million residents, the state ranks No. 4 in total number of boats, behind only far more populous Florida, California and Michigan.

Boats are an integral part of Minnesota’s culture, heritage and identity. Its first inhabitants traveled by birch bark canoes; its first white settlers arrived in boats. It has a storied history of boat builders, fishing tackle makers, lake cabin lore. Heck, water skiing was invented here.

“It’s just a way of life for us,” said Dave Perkins, 65, a lifelong boater, angler and former owner of the Minneapolis Boat Show and Northwest Sportshow who lives in Eden Prairie.

Of course, it’s also become big business. Boating – and all that goes with it, including fishing, resorts and travel – is a major component of the $10 billion state tourism industry. Minnesotans spent $500 million for power boats, trailers and accessories last year.

But Minnesotans’ love affair with boats has changed dramatically in recent years. Those who plied the state’s waters just 20 or 30 years ago would barely recognize the boating world today. Fueled by population growth, technological advancements in boats, motors and the vehicles that tow them, a wealthier middle class and a desire for things bigger and better, boating has been transformed.

Call it a sea change. Among them:

- Boat numbers – up 30 percent in the past 20 years – have climbed steadily with the state’s population. But that growth has leveled off in recent years, and state officials wonder if the number of boats is about to plateau.

- The basic 14-foot aluminum fishing boat with a small outboard – once ubiquitous – has disappeared. Boats – and the motors that power them – have grown ever larger. The average boat length was 15 feet in 1986, 18 feet by 2005. The average horsepower was 35 in 1986, and 100 in 2005, according to Department of Natural Resources surveys.

- As incomes have risen, people are spending more for boats. Nationwide, the average boat-motor-trailer package cost $26,000 last year. “Americans are a lot wealthier now; they can afford more,” said Tim Kelly, a DNR research analyst. “They want a more substantial boat.”

- People have the money to buy boats, but they apparently have less time to use them. DNR boating-use surveys show that though there are more boats in the state than ever, they are being used less. “We suspect people have the means to purchase them, but they just don’t have the time to use them,” Kelly said.

- While fishing was – and remains for many – a driving force in boating, that, too, has changed. In 1986, 71 percent of boaters in a west-central Minnesota survey reported fishing was their primary activity; that number fell to 47 percent in 2005. That trend appears to be a statewide phenomenon, Kelly said. “More are engaged in pleasure boating and fewer are fishing,” he said. “The decrease in fishing has been pretty dramatic.”

- Pontoon boats are hot. They represented 6 percent of the boats in the west-central region in 1986 but climbed to 19 percent in 2005 – a trend likely occurring statewide, Kelly said. They are especially popular with lakeshore owners. “It’s probably the most social craft you can buy,” Kelly said. “You can take out a reasonably sized group, have lunch, stop and swim.”

- Two very disparate watercraft – personal watercraft and kayaks – once were virtually nonexistent on state waters but now are commonplace. While their overall numbers aren’t large, both have grown dramatically over just the past 15 years. Last year there were nearly 26,000 kayaks, an 891 percent increase from 1991. And there were 46,000 personal watercraft, up 512 percent from 1991.

The experience of White Bear Lake’s Dave Witte, 49, underscores the dramatic shift toward bigger and better boats. An avid angler, Witte, at age 17, had the classic red 14-foot Lund with a 25-horsepower Mercury outboard.

“My favorite lake was Mille Lacs, and I’d use landmarks to find the fishing spots,” he recalled.

Recently, 30 years and a half-dozen boats later, Witte bought the boat of his dreams: an 18.5-foot Ranger Reata, a fiberglass boat with a 150-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke motor, two depth finders, two GPS devices and an electric trolling motor. Cost: nearly $40,000.

He’s also very mobile, another trend of today’s boat owners.

“I fish the whole state, especially north – Lake of the Woods, Winnie (Winnibigoshish), Mille Lacs, Gull, Pelican,” Witte said. “I get a kick out of traveling around.”

He spent three weeks of vacation this spring on the water, fishing. His wife and son sometimes join him, but his 70-year-old mother, Betty, is a constant fishing companion.

“Fishing has always been part of my life; it’s in my blood,” Witte said. “When I’m on the water, my mind is totally released. You’re in another state of mind.”

Independence’s Kate Stenso Miller, 48, has traveled on Lake of the Woods with boats and motors since she was a youngster. And she’s boated and camped in Voyageurs National Park.

But these days, Miller is one of the growing number of kayak paddlers. She and her husband bought $1,300 plastic kayaks last year. And last month, they paddled them and camped for six days in Voyageurs.

“It’s just a quieter, fun way to travel,” she said. “We saw so much more than we’ve ever seen before. I like that you’re close to the water.”

Stenso Miller, an outdoor recreation specialist at Three Rivers Park District, teaches introductory kayaking courses, which these days are always full. One of the attractions is that, unlike most canoes, you don’t need a partner.

Still, despite the growth of kayaks, Minnesota remains canoe country. There are about 146,000 canoes – more than five times the number of kayaks.

Woodbury’s Joe Reischel, 53, paddles his 17-foot Old Town canoe every other weekend, often on the Namekagon River in Wisconsin or the St. Croix River. He leads canoe and kayak trips to those waters for the River Ramblers Canoe/Kayak Club.

“I’ve been paddling since I was a kid,” he said recently. “It helps me forget about work. I enjoy nature, it’s healthy, it’s easy on the environment ... there’s lots of good things about it.”

Scott Clausen and his family are at the other end of the boating spectrum.

The 47-year-old Maple Grove resident has had boats most of his life, starting with 17-foot runabouts. Five years ago, he bought a dandy – a 1995 40-foot Cruisers – the family’s home on the water.

It has air conditioning, a galley with stove and microwave, running water – even a TV and DVD for his 17- and 13-year-old daughters. And it has twin 454-horsepower engines to cruise Lake Minnetonka, where he berths it.

“The name of the boat is Quality Time,” Clausen said. “We’re always looking for quality time with the family. We spend a lot of time on it. The reason I like boating is it’s a time to enjoy family and friends.”

Often, Clausen and four or five friends anchor their boats together in one of Minnetonka’s bays and socialize or enjoy swimming or water sports.

“It’s a floating fun barge,” he said. “The whole scene becomes your social life.”

Yes, buying and maintaining a 40-foot luxury boat is expensive, Clausen said. “But so is owning a cabin,” he added. “And I don’t have to drive for hours to get there. I can be on Lake Minnetonka in 15 minutes from my home.”

The $4-per-gallon gas at marinas these days isn’t a huge problem, either, he said, because he doesn’t motor far in his boat.

Clausen echoed the thoughts of many Minnesota boaters, whether captains of small boats or large:

“As long as I’m on the water, I’m happy.”