LACONIA — With a total surface area of 72 square miles, traveling around Lake Winnipesaukee is a fun-filled experience if you have your own boat or know someone who does.
But what if you don’t have a boat? Well, then getting around the Big Lake can be a challenge.
Boat rentals are the answer for some visitors. But if you’re just looking to get a ride from the mainland to one of Winnipesaukee’s 274 habitable islands, that can be a lot more difficult.
Periodically someone posts a note on the Winnipesaukee Forum message board inquiring if there is water taxi or Uber-type ride service on the lake.
The answer is there used to be, but not so much any more.
Water taxi service on the lake has gone away from Winnpesaukee the same way regular passenger train service disappeared from most of New Hampshire.
And for pretty much the same reason, according to Tup Goodhue whose father ran Goodhue’s Boat Yard in Gilford for many years.
“A lot of people on the islands didn’t have boats even though they had camps,” Goodhue said, thinking back to the 1950s when his father ferried people back and forth to the mainland on the Nony Tup, a 28-foot inboard craft which the elder Goodhue built himself. Over time, more island residents got their own boats and the demand for the taxi service declined.
But during the 1950s Goodhue regularly shuttled people to nearby destinations like Lockes Island, Welch Island, Timber Island, Mark Island and Brown Island, and occasionally to islands further away, including Diamond Island and Rattlesnake Island, both off Alton.
The longest taxi run was to Winter Harbor to take John Willard Marriott Sr., the founder of Marriott Hotels, to his lakeside home on Tuftonboro Neck.
Arriving in his private plane, Marriott “would buzz our place as he was getting ready to land at the Laconia Airport, and we’d know we needed to go to the airport and pick him up and bring him to the boat yard to take him across the lake to his place,” Goodhue recalled.
Today no one offers water taxi service on Winnipesaukee per se, though two businesses do it on a limited basis.
Island Service Company, in Meredith, will run people out to Bear, Jolly, and Birch islands, which are all close to the company’s base of operation on Meredith Neck.
“There’s not a lot of call” for the service, said Marc Lacasse, one of Island Service’s owners. This spring there was only one run to bring a building inspector out to one of the islands, he said.
Similarly, Mike Metcalfe, owner of Winnipesaukee Island Services, said his business will provide ride services on request. “But we don’t advertise it.” And he too said there is little demand. “Usually we’re delivering appliances,” he said.
Gonzo Soares, of Premier Private Charters, which does party boat charters, said while Premier does not offer ride service, they periodically get requests. “There seems to be a market,” Soares said, though he acknowledged there might not be enough of a demand to support a full-time operation.
Capt. Kevin Dunleavy, who heads state Marine Patrol, said five or six water taxi services have been launched in recent years, but none of them lasted.
“Based on my observations and feedback, they found the demand sporadic at best, and often the times when people wanted the service were extreme,” meaning either late at night or very early in the morning.
“Most people on the island are prepared” for getting themselves or their guests to or from the mainland, he said.
Dunleavy also noted water taxi service, like any other boat activity on the state’s largest lake, is weather-dependent. If the water is too rough, a water taxi operator would not be inclined to make the trip.
Anyone wishing to operate a water taxi business would need to have their boat comply with state regulations for commercial boats. Requirements include Type 1 life jackets for every passenger, an automatic fire suppression system for the boat’s engine compartment, and a fuel shutoff valve. Operators would also need to take a special written test and, if the boat is 34 feet in length or longer, a in-water practical test as well, Dunleavy said.