Uninsured boat rental companies attracting attention on Smith Mountain Lake

SMLBWRA is a voluntary organization encouraging companies to be above the law

SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, Va. – The boat rental business continues to grow at Smith Mountain Lake and those who have been renting to customers for decades said the newer businesses cropping up aren't playing by the unwritten rules.

Regulations for boat rentals in Virginia pale in comparison to something like renting a car. Because of that, many of the most well-known companies take matters into their own hands and operate above the law to not only protect themselves, but their customers and the general public too.

The sticking point is liability insurance, which while highly suggested, is not required to rent boats and that's something the new Smith Mountain Lake Boat and Watersports Rental Association is looking to regulate among themselves.

Smith Mountain Lake continues to be a jewel in Virginia's Blue Ridge, but it's no longer a secret. Just ask Ryan Waters of Bridgewater Marina whose family has operated on the lake for decades — the times are changing.

"We've been renting boats for 30 years and it's grown a little bit every year and again as long as the weather is good we anticipate that to stay the same," Waters said.

Jeff Prowse and his wife own Mitchell's Point Marina and SML Boat Rentals, purchasing the business within the last decade and bringing the rich history along with it. Prowse said as the lake continues to grow, the demand for rental boats is outpacing the supply. Both Prowse and Waters welcome new competition, they consider it more like a fraternity than anything else. But they are concerned about newcomers to the industry who aren't breaking the law, but are cutting corners that could that they feel can impact safety.

"Typically we call those rogue operators and those are people with no insurance, that don't plan to comply with any of the regulations and it's very hard to police them," Prowse said.

They said rental companies operating without liability insurance threaten not only the rental business, but the safety of everyone on the lake. Together they formed the SMLBWRA to help correct the issue and they want rental customers looking for signs that say that the company is a member.

Insurance isn't a legal mandate to offer rentals in Virginia, but it is to be a member of the new group.

"It keeps both our customer base and the people on the lake who are not renters in a situation where rental boats are not an issue, they're an augment to what goes on here," Prowse said.

Mitchell's and Bridgewater are two of the largest operators on the lake and said the new organization isn't about trying to reduce competition because they fear potential customers going somewhere else, but rather elevating the industry as a whole.

Prowse said the longtime rental companies on the lake get along, work together, and help one another out. If one needs something, the others line up to help. They coordinate with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and educate one another on rules regulations and best practices. They all want to make sure the customer has a good experience.

He credits a lot of what he knows now to Roy Enslow, a previous longtime managing partner at Bridgewater Marina. Prowse said Enslow championed safety for boat rentals at the lake and initiated many other programs that helped shape boating culture at the lake into what it is today. When he arrived at the lake to run his new business, he said Enslow took him under his wing and helped make sure he was running a professional, safe operation.

And that's where the group sees the issue. While they and others went above and beyond to be above board, they say newer companies are sliding in and choosing to just do what's required instead of being above board. They previously operated on a series of gentlemen's agreements, and now they said with changing times, it's time to put things on paper and create the official organization.

"Especially when it comes to the boating safety and the insurance, Waters said."  "We've been here for 30 years we plan on being here for 100 more and we want boat rental to stay safe and for Smith Mountain Lake to stay safe."

The association is also strategizing how to tackle another new, growing issue at the lake. More and more homeowners are choosing to rent their homes themselves through services like VRBO and Airbnb, instead of using traditional listing agencies that guide homeowners through the process. Many homeowners are including access to their personal boats in the rental and that's where the issue arises.

When a customer rents a boat from a boat rental company, the customer is required to watch a boaters safety course to receive a temporary boaters license if they do not have a permanent one and go through a comprehensive safety checklist before ever leaving the dock regardless of license status.

Anyone who drives a boat is required to have a license by Virginia law, but Prowse said homeowners renting their boat with their home may not be as rigorous as traditional rental companies are, instead just leaving the keys on the counter and leaving the burden on the renter. While perfectly legal, Prowse fears that leaves room for unlicensed, inexperienced boaters with no one-on-one guidance to be on the water, making for a potentially dangerous situation for themselves and those around them.

Prowse said homeowners who do that can be members of the association and that their membership dues, $50 annually, would be waived. The same would go for traditional rental companies with only a handful of boats. He said he's not as concerned about recouping the money as he is making sure everyone is on the same page and following the best practices to stay safe on the water.

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