Guilford — June 22, 2005 — Marc Bourgeois hardly ever drives his boat as fast as it can go. But on a clear, calm morning on a nearly empty Lake Winnipesaukee, he finds no harm in showing passengers a little bit of what it can do.
“Don’t turn your head. Your glasses will fall off,” he warns before he pushes his 47-foot, yellow-and-purple Fountain performance boat up to 75 mph.
The boat shoots along the wide part of the lake between Gilford and Wolfeboro known as The Broads. The riders stand, bracing against padded stalls and holding onto grab bars. As the Fountain -which Bourgeois has named “Summa Humma” – picks up speed, the wind stings their cheeks and the sound of the three engines is replaced by the air whipping past their ears.
The Fountain can go up to 100 mph, although Bourgeois says it’s rare that he pushes it that fast. But even the 60 mph he often travels in The Broads may not be allowed soon.
A bill in the Legislature would set speed limits of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night for Winnipesaukee, the state’s largest lake. Supporters say it’s needed to protect smaller and slower craft and swimmers. But Bourgeois says much smaller boats shouldn’t be out near the power boats anyway, and the lake is big enough for everyone to share.
“If you’re out there where you’re running at high speeds, you won’t find canoes there,” he said. “These super-speeders aren’t in these coves. They’re not buzzing shorelines.”
Room for Everyone
Bourgeois grew up in Bedford and spent summers at the lake. He now lives year-round on Governor’s Island in Gilford. He started boating about 21 years ago, when he was 20. He began with a Jet Ski. Over the years, he moved up to a 21-foot boat, a 25-footer, a 30-footer, a 38-footer, a 42-footer and then his current boat – a $500,000, canary-yellow and grape-purple craft with a black checkerboard design on a V-shaped hull that rises further out of the water the faster he goes.
Bourgeois thinks proponents of the speed limit are hoping it will drive large performance boats like his off the lake, but he said other craft will be affected, too.
“He’d be breaking the law right now,” he said, pointing to a personal watercraft that zipped by his boat as it was rounding Governor’s Island.
Rob Frye, the president of the New Hampshire Bass Anglers’ Sportsman Society, says his organization is opposing the speed limit because it could make it impractical to get to good spots in fishing tournaments.
“The tournaments only last so long, so if you want to get to a further spot – say you’re launching in Wolfeboro, and you want to go up to Moultonboro or Lee’s Mills or Center Harbor – it’s going to take you forever on a smaller motor,” he said.
Frye also said the speed limit would render irrelevant the investments his group’s members have made by buying boats with larger, more powerful motors.
Supporters of the speed limit have cited similar laws already in place for Squam Lake and for Lake George in New York. But Bourgeois said the argument doesn’t hold up when it comes to the lakes’ relative sizes: At 44,586 acres of water, Winnipesaukee dwarfs Squam, at 6,765, and Lake George, at 28,000.
With that amount of space, Bourgeois said, boating on Winnipesaukee has safety advantages over recreational activities such as snowmobiling, which has a speed limit of 45 mph, and driving, where vehicles can go up to 65 mph legally and often go faster. Instead of traveling on a trail or a road where two lanes pass within feet of each other, boating requires a distance greater than 150 feet between vessels going faster than idle speed. Boaters also have better visibility.
“You can see everybody from so far away,” he said, steering his boat north past Weirs Beach. “You can see front, you can see behind, you can see left, you can see right.”
Under the right conditions and with drivers wearing the right eyewear and using their running lights properly, he said, it’s perfectly reasonable to go 50 or 60 mph at night.
Or Too Crowded?
Speed limit proponents have also said the lake is growing too crowded for what posters on an Internet forum about the bill,http://www.winnipesaukee.com, call “GFBL” (go fast be loud) boats.
Jeff Thurston, one of the owners of Thurston’s Marina on the channel in Weirs Beach, says his customers tend to agree. Thurston’s Marina sells and rents family runabouts, pontoon boats and fishing boats.
“Forty-five, for most people when they’re out on a boat, is faster than most people would prefer to go,” he said. “I do think the days of high, unlimited, unbridled speed probably are going to a close.”
Bourgeois disagrees. Forty-five feels fast when you’re first out on the water, he said, but after a year or so, you want to go faster.
He said it’s the desire of a significant amount of boaters to go quickly that has forced the speed limit debate in the first place, and that the reactions he gets to his boat prove that some people just want to go fast. As he steered the Fountain into the Weirs Channel, he and the passing boaters all waved to each other. The bikers and tourists looking down onto the boats from the bridge smiled and waved, too. Whenever a big performance boat docks, people come up and look at it, he said. Fast boats are a fun thrill, he said, and most people would like to ride in one.
“You can’t show me a little boy or a little girl that doesn’t see a power boat and go, ‘Wow, wow, wow, I can’t wait to go for a ride on it,'” he said before taking the boat out.
In the channel, two teenage boys in a small craft with an outboard motor watched Bourgeois pass, their mouths slightly agape and a faraway look on their faces.
Bourgeois thinks that instead of imposing a speed limit, the state should focus more on enforcing the laws that are already in place, namely the 150-foot distance rule. Maybe the state could increase the registration fees and give the money to Marine Patrol, he said, or maybe there should be special certification for drivers of boats that can exceed a certain speed.
At least one poster on http://www.winnipesaukee.com agreed.
“This summer, take a look around,” the person wrote. ” . . . You’ll see for every boat exceeding 45 mph, you will see 100 boats breaking the 150-foot rule, and 50 boats operating otherwise unsafely.”
Rep. David Currier, a Henniker Republican and the chairman of the House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, said the bill is staying in committee until next session in part because of other concerns that were raised during the bill hearing earlier this year.
“A lot of testimony in that original hearing had to do with other violation of statute, not speed, such as the safe-passage rule,” he said.
The committee will hold three public sessions in the Lakes Region in the coming weeks where residents can offer lawmakers more input.
Kevin McCarthy, the owner of Winnipesaukee Lake Tours (formerly the Winni Water Taxi), said the key to a safer lake is more boater education. McCarthy’s company takes seven trips, seven days a week during its season.
“I don’t believe the speed limit will make the lake safer,” he said. Most boats that go fast do so reasonably, he said, and performance boat owners tend to be skilled drivers.
McCarthy pointed out that the state boater certification program that began in 2002 isn’t fully implemented yet. Anyone born in 1967 or later must take a boater education course to operate a boat. By 2008, the course will be required for everyone. He said the state should wait and see how that legislation works before imposing more laws.
Debating Their Values
For both sides, the debate over a speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee seems to boil down to freedom. Supporters of the limit say it will make passage safer for all types of boaters and swimmers, all over the lake. Opponents, such as Bourgeois, say they should be able to drive their boats at any speed, as long as they’re doing it responsibly.
“(Boaters) may not always go 60 or 70 or 80 mph, but this is New Hampshire, and they don’t want to be told they can’t . . . on a lake that can handle it,” he said.
Bourgeois isn’t sure what he’ll do with the Fountain if the speed limit passes. He doesn’t want to leave the lake, but he also wants to use his boat. He might drive it in the ocean – he put in down near Block Island, R.I., once, and that was pretty fun, he said.
But it’s unlikely that he or anyone else wanting to go really fast would head for another lake in New Hampshire. Winnipesaukee is by far the biggest, and the others aren’t as safe for fast driving.
“Winnipesaukee is pretty much the lake in New Hampshire for boats like this.”