Houseboating 101


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Houseboat Tips for your Crew

If you're planning a houseboat trip these tips will help novice crewmen.  Have the entire crew read these tips 1 month before your trip, giving enough time to shop and buy any essentials.  These tips will help to prepare and minimize risk during your vacation.  This list of tips can put you 2yrs ahead of the curve, read carefully if you're going houseboating for the first time.

The following helpful hints were contributed by experienced houseboat owners who's combined experience totals more than 100yrs.  If you want to contribute your own hints, just send them in by email.  We will review and post for all readers to see.

First Aid Kits
Food Logistics
Marine Radio Practices
Campfires and Fireworks
Houseboat Anchoring
Anchor Stakes

Houseboat Campsite Selection
Houseboat Navigation after 4pm
Clothing, how much to bring
Water Socks, Beware
Keeping Sand off the Houseboat

Ice Chest Efficiency

Ten Tips from Cris Garcia

First aid kits

First aid kits are important during any camping trip.   Make sure everyone knows where the first aid kit is located on the houseboat in case the captain is not on board.  Before beginning your houseboat trip, make sure your first aid kit is  stocked with gauze, snake bite kit,  Band-Aids, Neosporin, Solarcain (for sunburn), Ace bandages, scissors, and white tape. This is one area of equipment you can’t over pack. In many areas of Lake Powell and Lake Mead you can be hours from a hospital by ski boat.  Be prepared, the lives of many count on it.

Food Logistics

There is no better way to reduce the preparation and loading stress of houseboating than to have someone else do your food shopping. Although this may sound risky it's worth the planning and effort.  At Lake Powell's Wahweap and Antelope marinas you can have Bashas or Safeway in nearby Page, AZ do all your shopping for a small fee.  They will bring the food right to your boat slip exactly when you need it delivered. For a group of 12 people you're talking about a lot of food, maybe $750 to $1000 depending on how fancy you want to get. Handling that much food is a lot of work.  We recommend keeping things simple, like chicken, burgers, fish, spaghetti, tacos, and don't forget the condiments. Plan your menu with your guests 1 month before your vacation.  Refine it carefully then contact the store 3wks prior to arrange the shopping. You can fax in the list, or use their online system.  Make sure to include all the heavy stuff, like drinks, water and ice.  Yes, ICE, because it's heavy and it's cheaper to buy ICE in town than from the marina.  You can even buy dry ice.  Make sure you buy enough for the ice chest scenario you have.  6 to 8 blocks and 5 bags of crushed is a good start, assuming you have enough ice chests, or a deep freezer on the houseboat. If you have a 7CF deep freeze I recommend 10 blocks and 7 bags of crushed. Once you learn the convenience of having Bashas or Safeway do your shopping, you'll never do your own food shopping again for a houseboat trip, except maybe special stuff like vegetables, or filets, etc.  Although there will be a mistake or two, the store will generally hustle back and bring anything they got wrong or forgot.  Make sure you have your food list with you upon food arrive and check every item to insure nothing was overlooked.  This is critical, BE ORGANIZED and be prepared to QUICKLY check off each and every item.  One person does the checking and 3 others can move the food from arrival bags to inventoried bags, one item at a time, at a clip.  By the 3rd year you'll have this down to a science. Trust us, it's worth the learning curve, it saves a ton of time and stress if you go houseboating every year.

Marine Radio practices

It’s always a good idea to have a marine radio on Lake Mead.  Most houseboats have radios built in, but many captains don’t set a routine time slot to monitor the radio.  Since it is possible to receive emergency phone calls via marine radio, it’s good practice to leave the radio ON at a certain time every day AND MONITOR the radioi so you can be reached in case of emergency.   Many chose between 7pm and 9pm to monitor channel 16 since the odds are good that someone will be on the houseboat during this time for dinner, etc.   Just inform relatives and friends to call you during that time slot in case of emergency.  Emergency "Shore to Ship" calls can be arranged by calling the emergency Lake Mead dispatch.  Remember this is only for emergencies. There are 3 things land callers must know to reach your boat by phone in case of emergency.

1. The time slot you will be monitoring the marine radio (i.e. 7-9pm).

2. Your vessel name.

3.  For Lake Mead, call Emergency dispatch at (702) 293-8998

4.  For Lake Powell, call 800-225-5288 if you use ATT for long distance or have an active ATT calling card.  Otherwise call 10102880 if you don't use ATT for long distance.

This call will need an operator to assist you. When you get the automated voice for various options, wait till the end, then SAY "OPERATOR" and you'll be connected to a real person, an operator.  When you reach the ATT operator ask to connected to the Window Rock Marine Operator in Arizona to place a Shore to Ship call.   If the operator acts like she doesn't know what your talking about (likely) and doesn't know who the Window Rock Marine Operater is, ask to speak to a supervisor.  Ask the supervisor for Window Rock Marina Operator, tell the supervisor the ATT router number is 520058121 (this is not a phone number) for Window Rock Marine operator.  They will ask you for the name of the vessel to make the call.

 This call is not cheap, about $15 first minute, $1/min after that, plus the marine operator charges (varies).  

Campfires and Fireworks

Although many of us have shot off fireworks during vacations, but trust me on this..... don’t bring them to Lake Mead, Lake Mohave, or Lake Powell.  It's illegal within the National Park boundaries, a federal offense. The surrounding sage brush can burn like gasoline, and with the prevailing winds a fire can spread out of control very quickly.  If you plan on having a campfire, be careful, especially if a sudden gust of wind comes up.  Sudden gusts of wind are common at Lake Mead, Mohave, and Powell, right out of the be forewarned.

Houseboat Anchoring

These Colorado River lakes can have powerful wind storms at almost any time.   Adequate anchoring  on shore is very important.  The typical "danford" anchor looks like upside-down "A" with a 1/2" shaft welded to the feet of the "A", providing so-called "ears" that extend about 6" on each side.   Bury the anchor deep enough so the "spade" is hooked good under ground, yet shallow enough so the shackle shaft can point directly to the rear houseboat cleats. After burying each anchor, back them up with a stake in front of each ear of the  anchor ears (2 stakes per anchor, one on each side of the anchor).  If you own your own houseboat, we suggest using car axles for these stakes.   They work great because the hub flange works to pin the anchor ear down, plus they are big, heavy, and strong.  It's also good practice to use one of these axles for staking the bow of the boat to the beach.  This keeps the bow from blowing sideways in rising waters and high winds.  See our Anchor Page.

Anchor Stakes

As stated above, car axles are the best method for backing up buried anchors.  If you own a houseboat and don’t have car axles for this purpose you should consider it.  Junk yards sell car axles for $5-$10/ea.  Look for the lightest axles while still having about a 3’ length.  Generally smaller cars with 4 lugs bolts are good, but some light 5 bolt axles are OK too.   Look for axles that don’t have the axle bearings, otherwise you have to use a torch to cut them off.   Pound the lug bolts out of the flange with a sledge hammer.   Clean up the axle with lacquer thinner for painting.  Paint the axle flange a fluorescent color so they are easy to see and won’t be lost or forgotten on the beach.  It’s recommended to paint the whole axle so they clean up easier in water after use. For drawing how to use the stakes, see our Anchor Page.

Campsite selection

Several things should be considered when picking a beach campsite for your houseboat. 

1.   Is the location is close enough to a marina to get ice and gas if needed?
2.   Is  there potential for afternoon shade from surrounding cliffs (a good thing)?
3.   Is it is too close to other houseboats, will their loud music or generator disturb you?

It's suggested to always have a scout walk the beach and inspect the campsite and surroundings before beaching the houseboat.  Generally the scout uses another boat or personal watercraft to do this 6 point inspection..

1.   Is the beach is free of stickers and sharp rocks?
2.   Is the approach to the beach free of big rocks that could damage the houseboat?
3.   Is the beach wide enough (175ft preferred) to get a good shoreline angle for anchor lines ?
4.   Is the sand deep enough to bury the anchors and back them up with car axles stakes?
5.   Is there enough is room to tie up any ski boats or PWC you may have?
6.   Is the campsite tucked up a canyon away from the main channel for good protection from waves and wind?

Other luxuries to look for in a camp site are:

1.  High cliffs nearby to the west for afternoon shade.
2.  Centrally located so you can run about the lake and sight-see the area.   At Lake Powell, this means not camping 5-7miles back up into a canyon, increasing your gas consumption and limiting your flexibility to visit other canyons.
3.  Absence of insects.  Generally speaking there are always insects.  Gnats are the most prevalent, while flies can also be annoying.   At Lake Powell from Wahweap Marina to San Juan River you should note that the land on the south side of the lake belongs to the Navajo Indians.  Their cattle use Lake Powell for drinking, hence there can be a lot of cow poop along the shoreline, a source for flies. These "cow-pies" can also be unhealthy to swim near as water level rise during spring (April to June).  There are a lot less flies on north shores of Lake Powell, since flies won't fly across big bodies of water.

Houseboat Navigation after 3pm

Late afternoon sun can reflect off the water and easily impair the captain's vision.  Although many submerged rocks are marked with buoys or milk cartons, there are many unmarked shallow rocks.  You have to be careful for those unmarked hazards.  Spotting submerged rocks in late afternoon becomes more difficult, especially when heading into the sun.  So it's recommended to have your boat beached and tied up by 3pm to avoid potential accidents.  If you must navigate in the late afternoon, use the upper deck controls from up high.  This will give you the least glare and best visual angle for submerged trouble.

Clothing, how much to bring

Most people bring too many clothes for their summer houseboat trip.  Unless you are unusually vain you probably wonít need more than three swim suits for a 1 week trip.  Most will only need 1 set of clothes for cool weather in case the evening gets cool (unlikely at Powell, Mead or Mahave in the summer).  Add a few T-Shirts and 3 pair of socks, you should be set.  Also bring 2 pair of water socks and 2 pair of cheap sunglasses.  Leave all jewelry and expensive designer sunglasses at home so itís not lost, broken, or's just not worth the risk.  

Water Socks, Beware

Water socks are great to protect your feet at the lake because they are made to get wet.  They are highly recommended as standard equipment on the lake to prevent foot injuries, especially while riding PWC, then hiking.  The problem is ..... you can wear wet water socks too long, producing "prune foot" after several days.   Extended exposure to water will dry your skin out (yes dry out) which wrinkles up the skin like a prune.   When your feet dry off they will crack, resulting is a painful situation when you get home.   This generally happens with 4+ day houseboat trips, but some people experience the problem with weekend trips, depending on their sensitivity to dry skin.  To prevent prune foot, always remove your water socks and go barefoot when it's safe, like on clean dry sandy beaches, on a ski boat or houseboat, etc.   Some people switch to thongs to let their feet dry off when on the docks, etc.  Believe me, severe "prune foot"   can be painful the week after you return home.  For those with naturally dry skin, take skin moisturizer along to use on your feet every night.  Another trick is to use Vaseline on your feet every night and wear socks to bed to keep the Vaseline from rubbing off.

Keeping sand off the houseboat

Tracking sand onto houseboats can be a nagging problem, especially if you have kids and you're picky about keeping your $300-500K houseboat in good condition.    A  good solution for this is two square plastic pails of water, big enough for two size 12 shoes.  Put one pail on the beach at the bottom of the houseboat gang plank ramp, full of water.  Put the other on the houseboat front deck near the top of the gang plank,  3/4 full of water.  The routine when boarding is..... dip your feet (with water socks on) at the bottom of the gang plank, then walk up gang plank to the deck and take off the water socks.  Dip bare feet and stay barefoot or switch to thongs on the houseboat.    You will need to clean out the pails about once a day and rinse off the gang plank if it gets sandy.  This is a lot easier than vacuuming sandy carpets on a daily basis.

Make a rule to leave all watersocks on the front deck for best results.  Once everyone is trained, this routine should minimize the sand tracked on the houseboat.  As a side benefit.....getting out of those watersocks regularly will prevent potential "prune foot" which can be very painful at the end of the week, resulting in cracked skin and sometimes bleeding feet.

Ice Chest efficiency

Keeping the drinks cold in the summer is as important as having enough sunscreen available...... very important.    Most will agree that drinks from the ice chest are a lot better than from the refrigerator during summer months.  Here a few suggestions that should help cut drink costs and reduce the number of trips to the marina for more ice.

Problem:    Sports bottle drinks......  If your kids are like mine, they will open one up, drink about 5 sips, then leave it somewhere on the counter to get warm.   Sound familiar?  Then.....if there are 15 people on the houseboat that drink becomes "lost" and nobody knows who it belongs to, sometimes getting tossed.  

Suggestion:   Don't buy sports bottle drinks !!    Buy the gallon jugs of whatever drink at PriceClub/Costco.  Put one of those in the ice chest for everyone to use.   Never put two of the same gallon jug in the ice chest.  That will do nothing but melt ice needlessly.  When someone needs a drink, pour it into a plastic 12oz cup.   Mark each cup with black felt marker with the persons name.  This cup should try to be used 6-10 times before replacement.  Make each kid (and adult) responsible for his or her cup.  Pour the amount you think the kid (or yourself) will drink each time.  When the gallon jug gets empty, put another jug in the ice box.  You will be amazed how much ice and money this routine saves.  This works great with drinking water, Gatorade, grape juice, apple juice, anything that comes in gallon or half-gallon jugs.

Problem:   Ice melts, right?  Yes, especially in the summer.  Usually nobody ever thinks about "ice protocol", it just melts and you can't do anything about it.   When the ice gets low you make trips to the marina and buy a bunch more, right?  

Suggestions: Well....yes, ice melts.  But it can be conserved if you train the people on the houseboat how to use it.  Most of the ice melts because people open the ice chest too much.  A simple awareness meeting about keeping the chest closed really helps.   Tell everyone to know what they want before opening the chest.  Don't stand there staring at the drinks trying to make a choice.  And when they want a drink, ask around if anyone else wants a drink so they can fetch two or three drinks with one ice chest opening.  Cool eh?  Yes, it's a simple concept that can easily be conveyed to all houseboat occupants as expected behavior for the benefit of all.

As plastic jugs become empty, don't through them away.  Rinse them out and fill 3/4 with potable water.  Later in the week if you have room in the freezer, freeze the jug overnight and put it in the ice chest.

As the ice melts, keep no more than 4 inches of water in the chest for most efficiency.  Inspect every morning and evening.

If you have two ice chests, use one to keep stuff in that isn't needed as much.....and make a rule that only the captain is allowed access.  This will keep the lid closed more, conserving ice.    This may sound obvious, but make sure the sun doesn't shine directly on the chest.  It also helps to wet an old beach towel around 10am every morning and spread it over the chest.  The ice in that chest will last much longer than the "public" ice chest.  

Also, if you are going to be in a remote area where ice isn't easily available, consider the dry ice option.    Make one ice chest (hopefully a 150+ quart size) an ice cache.  Put about 15 blocks of ice in this chest (full) with about 20lbs of dry ice on top.   Make sure to insulate the dry ice enough so it doesn't make direct contact with the regular ice.  Wrap the dry ice with bubble pack sheets, but leave the ends open to let the cold temp escape.  Don't open the chest till you need more regular ice for the drink chest.  It's best to duct tape it shut so curious kids won't peek in.  In the summertime this dry ice will last about 4 days.  The regular ice won't start melting until the dry ice is gone.  

As you get room in the refrigerator later in the week you can pre-cool 6-packs at night.  Then put them in the chest first thing in the next morning.  Obvious, eh?  Not really, just overlooked most of the time.

Ten Tips from Cris Garcia (one of our readers)

1) Preparation

Make sure you prepare early enough before the trip so you are actually on vacation when you leave.  This means, make sure the boat and trailer are both working properly, all the packing is done and drive times, transportation and shopping are all done in advance of the trip.  In other words.  Start your vacation on vacation.  There's nothing worse than scrambling around right before you leave to make the start of a trip less of a vacation and more like a job with high stress.  A good vacation is always carefully planned and organized weeks in advance, sometimes months.     

2) Early boarding.

If possible schedule your trip so that you arrive in the evening prior to your departure morning and arrange early boarding for the night before.  It's worth the couple of hundred extra bucks for a couple of reasons.  It's much cooler to load the boats in the evening than it is during the day.  Second, the carts used to load the houseboats are a necessity and are easy to get in the evenings, versus when the crowds arrive in the morning.  Third, you can depart first thing in the morning after your walk through, capturing the good beaches before others.   

3) Be patient. 

The people at the houseboat office are usually very friendly doing their best to help you out.  It's generally first come first served, but they do have to clean the houseboats before they will let you board on your boat.  Don't assume that because your boat is in the slip that it's ready for you to board.  Don't insist on being a pain because that will only add to your frustration and delay.  Use the wait time to have something to eat, or talk to other houseboaters and enjoy the amenities.  I've heard the houseboat staff refer to many customers as having the "California Attitude". Those who are generally rude to the employees and are generally looked upon with animosity.  So try to be pleasant in all circumstances. 

4) Communication is key

Having FRS radios are much better for houseboat landings than a cell phone.  Most cell phones barely get service at the ramp, can you imagine what that will be like once your out on the lake.  The radios (5 mile range) are available at Wal-Mart and other places for about 30 bucks a pair, they're invaluable.  Water resistant radios are preferred, but as we found out, resistant isn't waterproof, so keep them dry if possible. 

5) Search for a cove with ski boat or PWC. 

You'll save time and gas money if you send scouting boats out on an excursion to get the cove set up in advance of the houseboat arrival.  They can usually spot a good cove and investigate it quicker and safer.  If you take your houseboat into every cove you'll waste lots of gas just looking for a spot.  Use your FRS radios to communicate with the houseboat as to the status of your search. 

6) Select a safe cove prior to dusk. 

You should be tying your houseboat up by 3pm in the afternoon (before the Monsoon comes).  You don't want to be caught on the lake in the middle of a storm, so travel early and seek out shelter from the weather as early as possible.  Many a houseboat I've come across in trouble have all had one thing in common, they were caught by surprise with nowhere to go when the wind hit.  A safe cove is a cove that requires 2 turns to get into from the main lake.  A single turn to get off the lake and then another turn to add an element of shelter.  Try to resist those beautiful beaches with clean water that are open to the main part of the lake.  They are dangerous!  They're clean and swept with sand for a reason........waves!   

7) Tie off the houseboats at 6 points. 

1 on each side toward the front and 2 on each side toward the back.  The back lines are the critical ones.  If you don't do anything else, make sure the lines to the aft of the houseboat are secured to shore with good anchors, preferrably danford type with hold-down stakes.  When the wind comes, you'll be thankful for this tip because your entire houseboat vacation and deposit could depend on how well the windward side of the houseboat is anchored to shore.  I've seen countless houseboats sideways to the shore with the props destroyed due to a weak tie down.   For more information and diagrams, CHECK THIS.

8) Share the load

Nothing worse than going on vacation with a dictator who has to have everything their way.  Usually, no one benefits from this arrangement.  If you divide up the cooking and cleaning duties everyone gets a chance to participate and no one feels like they're along for the ride.  Make sure you decide in advance if you're going to move every night, or stay in one place.  We prefer to find the perfect spot the first day or so, and then use it as a base of operations for the week.  Your vacation will be much more enjoyable if you're not pulling up stakes (literally) every day and putting them down again somewhere else.  I know some of you out there are having problem with this, but usually they're the first timers.  If you need to break first timers from the desire to move every day, then make sure they're the ones who are pulling up the stakes and pounding them in.  They'll soon see it differently.   

9) Don't expect a 4 star hotel. 

Remember folks, this is just a step above camping.  Sure there is air conditioning, hot water and even hot tubs on some of the boats, but trust me, the hair dryer thing is going to be out unless you are staying around the dock all the time.  Leave your jewelry home along with those expensive sunglasses, too much risk of damage or loss on the lake. No one really cares about anything but relaxing and your in and out of the water all the time, so don't go on the trip expecting maid service.  It's more like RV'ing.  Water conservation is a must to avoid that costly trip to the dock for a pump out in the middle of the week. 

10) Live your best life on vacation. 

Enjoy all that the river lakes have to offer and take in the breathtaking scenery. You'll see things few other people ever get a chance to see.  Be respectful of the river, and the surrounding environment.  Don't take unnecessary risks and above all have fun!