LACONIA – Shawn Minor knows boating in the Lakes Region, and he says renting a craft can be a stressful experience if you’re not prepared. Key in taking the edge off is obtaining a permanent New Hampshire boater’s license before you show up with your suits, towels, picnic food — and super excited children.

Minor, the parts and rental manager at Irwin Marine in Laconia, explained that to complete a rental transaction you must provide proof of a the boater’s license; if you don’t have one, you can take a test once per year that allows you to drive on the state’s waters for 14 days.

“People come in, and they’re anxious about it, and there’s a lot on the line,” said Minor. “They’ve invested in renting a house and a boat, and if they don’t have the license, they have to sit down and take that test. If they don’t pass that test, they’re not going boating. I’m encouraging them to get that out of the way before they even get here. They show up more relaxed because that part of it is over.”

He added, “There’s a lot of pressure there. You got your kids waiting to go on the boat. If mom and dad don’t pass the test, you get some sad faces.”

Renting a boat can be sheer joy. To ensure it will be, both Minor and Bruce Wright, president and general manager of Irwin, also recommend that people make a rental reservation at least three weeks in advance and study up on how to navigate the body of water they will be visiting.

How it all works

Wright said it’s helpful for people to know that you can’t call the day before you want to rent a boat and expect one will be available. There is a high demand, especially during the pandemic when people have had more free time, so it is best to make a reservation two or three weeks in advance.

Irwin rents boats at two of its three locations — in the Laconia store on Paugus Bay, a waterway that feeds into Winnipesaukee, and in Alton Bay, which is on Winnipesaukee. These shops, and the Irwin Marine store in Hudson, also carry all paraphernalia from tubes and floats to personal flotation devices, skis, and tow ropes.

The Irwin rental fleet offers roughly 24-foot pontoon boats with a 115-horsepower engine on the back or roughly 22-foot fiberglass runabouts with 200 horsepower behind them. People can plan to tube behind a pontoon boat, as the crafts can get up to about 34 miles an hour, but they should choose a Runabout if they also want to waterski.

Pontoons rent at Irwin for $420 per day or $280 for a half day, from 8:30 a.m. to noon or 1 to 4:30 p.m. Runabouts, which have an open bow, rent for $450 for a full day and $320 per half day.

If you don’t have a tube, a tow rope, or waterskis, they can also be rented. Irwin has tube, waterski and wake board packages for an additional $34 per day.

Like many marinas in the area, Irwin does not rent jet skis, but is one of several marinas that rent power boats. Others include Fay's Boat Yard in Gilford, Goodhue Boat Company in Meredith, Thurston's Marina at Weirs Beach, Trexler's Marina in Moultonborough, and Winnisquam Marine at two locations, in Belmont and Weirs Beach.

Obtaining the license

Minor started pumping gas at Irwin in the summer of 1986, when he was a teenager. He has worked there, with a gap of some years, since 2007. As the rental manager, he sees all the scenarios and especially enjoys the smiles on peoples’ faces when they return their boat at day’s end.

To activate the smiles, first obtain your New Hampshire boating license, which is also accepted in all U.S. states. Formally called the New Hampshire Safe Boating Certificate, the credential is issued by the New Hampshire Department of Safety Division of State Police. Visit NH.gov to learn more.

Wright said the test for the permanent license has 60 questions that run the gamut from safety equipment requirements to rules that govern such things as speed, safe passage and who has the right of way of any given scenario.

Live and online courses have been offered for many years, but the exams have only been offered live, with a proctor. “Right now, they are not testing in person, so people can go online and not have to sit through a proctored test so this may be a good time to get the permanent license if you want to,” Wright said, explaining that the in-person courses and exams were halted by COVID-19.

If you do not have a permanent license when you arrive to pick up your boat rental, you will be asked to take the test for the 14-day license, which you can only obtain once in any given year.

Minor and Wright both recommend you study the state’s boating handbook, which they will email you when you make a reservation. “Pretty much anything on the test is in the handbook,” Wright said. “People can familiarize themselves with that.”

To pass the test for a temp license, you must answer at least 20 of 25 questions in 25 minutes.

Once you pass, you formalize your rental agreement and carry your gear to the boat.

Tutorial and navigation

Once you are on board, the rental professionals at Irwin will walk you through the boat’s basic operations, introducing you to the throttle and the various instruments, “so people are comfortable and familiar with it before they leave the dock,” Wright said.

Minor said people will be asked where they are heading, and staff will review the map of Lake Winnipesaukee with them and suggest a route. “And then off they go,” Wright said.

Like many marinas, Irwin collects a damage deposit; theirs is $2,000, and that is in place because, as Minor said, “The licensing process doesn’t teach you how to drive a boat. It only allows you legal use.”

He said many renters have never boated in the state, or at all. “We’re really careful to spend extra time with those super green folks, going over the chart in more detail and going over the operations,” Minor said. “The last thing we want to do is rush them off the boat and push them off and have them have a bad experience out there. The last thing we want is to ring up a giant repair bill. That’s a bummer. That can ruin a vacation.”

This summer, Minor said hundreds of boat rentals were sent out at Irwin over the course of the season, but only two rentals came back with serious damage, both from impacts in a rocky area. “It’s not something that happens a lot, but when it does, you got to feel for the folks,” he said.  

He added that Lake Winnipesaukee “is no joke to navigate. There’s a lot that can jump up and bite you if you’re not where you’re supposed to be. We want to give them the tools they need so they can go out and have a great time. And we can get repeat business.”

Wright added that there are many underwater obstacles in Winnipesaukee, and they can surprise longtime boat owners as well as renters.

During COVID-19

Minor said the wait period to rent a boat once eased before Labor Day, back when kids went back to school around the last week of August. This summer, with children going to school remotely, or in a hybrid situation because of COVID-19, he predicts the season will remain busy far into the fall.

“There are no sports. School schedules are different. I think people are going to enjoy boating deeper into the fall than we’ve seeing,” he said. “We’ll have more happy kids and parents. The looks on their faces when they come back — that’s the best part of my job. No doubt about it.”

 •••

Janice Beetle is an author, editor and owner of Beetle Press, a public relations and marketing company. She can be reached at janice@beetlepress.com.

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