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Boaters are making waves about jet boats on the Niagara River

LEWISTON – This quiet village on the banks of the Lower Niagara attracts thousands of tourists to a quieter place and time, drawing on its colonial history, small restaurants, country charm and scenic vistas of the strong but silent river.

Until the vroooooooooooooom of the jet boats, that is.

Turbulence now describes the riverfront in Lewiston, as well as the docks across the Niagara River in Ontario. Two successful – and expanding – jet boat companies operate on the Lower Niagara, and this summer especially they are leaving many unhappy boat owners and riverfront homeowners in their wake.

The jet boats, which take tourists on thrilling rides into the once forbidden limit rapids and gorge, are leaving wakes around Lewiston that are damaging other boats at dock, neighbors complain. The relatively high water of the Niagara River this summer also may be contributing.

“It has pretty much ruined the river for pleasure boating,” Terry Brolinski said of the jet boats,

Brolinski, Lewiston’s director of public works, said he has seen six jet boats on the river at one time.

The jet boat owners say they have tried to work with other boat owners on the river and met with the Lewiston Village Board to discuss solutions. But still, their boat rides are for thrill seekers, not a quiet day on the beach.

“Our trip is meant to be fun. We don’t tell” our passengers “to sit on your hands,” said John Kinney, owner of Whirlpool Jet Boat, which has a fleet of eight jet boats on the river. “Are we talking to the fun police here?”

Several boat owners recently took their concerns to the Lewiston Village Board, which is now talking about plans for a floating break wall. But even that option is years away from coming to fruition.

“Our boat was tossing and really throwing people around. … Pulling into the dock space was almost impossible to do,” Brian Zachary said of the damages from the boats. “Not only that, but the fenders are being torn right off the boat because the boat rocks so much that it gets stuck underneath the dock and it just rips them.”

The Whirlpool Jet Boat has a dock in Lewiston as well as more docks across the river in Niagara-on-the-Lake. In the past 23 years, the company has grown from one boat to eight, with up to seven in operation at the height of the season.

A new company, Niagara Jet Adventures, started offering jet boat rides out of Youngstown this summer.

Aaron Dey, a spokesman for Niagara Jet Adventures, appeared at the Lewiston Village Board meeting last month. He told residents that the company worked out a deal to slow down with Smugglers Cove in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“We want to find to find a way to do the same thing here,” he said.

But boaters said they have not seen any changes.

“My biggest concern is safety when a tsunami-like wave starts rocking the boat,” said Zachary, showing his pontoon boat with a caved in fender and side docked at the Ridge Comber Marina, located next to the Whirlpool Jet Boat docks. He pointed out more damage, including cracked fenders, smashed windshields and ripped covers.

Residents said they also have implored the jet boat owners to slow down as they travel through Lewiston on their way to the rapids and gorge upriver.

And Kinney said his Whirlpool jet boats have slowed down, but he noted the water levels are high this summer, the highest he’s seen in the past 23 years. That “creates challenges for all boating activities,” he said.

In addition, he said many of the private docks on the river are improperly engineered for the conditions and traffic on the Lower Niagara River.

Nevertheless, when meeting with the Village Board this week, he applauded the idea of a floating break wall to slow down wakes from not only his boats, but also the other jet boats.

Harry Buckholtz’s family has owned a marina on the Lewiston waterfront since 1972.

“This year, the damages have been much more aggressive,” he said at his Ridge Comber Marina.

And his wife, Suzanne, said the problem goes back well beyond this year, calling it an “ongoing problem.”

Other Lewiston residents who said their boats have been damaged joined the Bucholtzes in voicing their concerns.

“When they come in slowly, like they should, there is no wake, no damage,” said Joseph Impellitier, describing an encounter. “But all of a sudden one of the little jet boats fly by and in a manner of minutes or so my bow rail is ripped right off. It was rocking so violently.”

But it not just about big wakes and high speeds, residents said. Growing jet boat traffic – with nine or more jet boats operating – is also part of the problem.

“The operative words are frequency and intensity,” Claudia Marasco said of the jet boats.

“I feel bad for Harry, down here on his knees replacing boards,” Impellitier said of his dock repairs.

Lewiston Mayor Terry Collesano said he hadn’t been aware of how bad the situation had become until a boater showed him a phone video of a Whirlpool Jet Boat, about 50 feet from the dock doing 360-degree turns.

“They are all whooping and hollering, and you can clearly see the boat is well within our buoys in the five-mile-per-hour zone,” Collesano said. “You could see the wakes and you could see the boats along the dock going up and down and banging everywhere.”

When Niagara Jet Adventures approached Youngstown for permission to begin a new jet boat ride in 2012, the late Mayor Neil Riordan told the company that its boats must adhere to a speed limit traveling near Youngstown.

Youngstown has had a “safe boating zone” of six miles per hour since 1999, Village Attorney Thomas J. Caserta Jr. said.

“No one has asked us to repeal it,” said Caserta, when he was asked if the local law was legal. “We just did it. Neil used to say, ‘I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission.’ I just want everyone to be aware. We want it to be safe.”

And it seems to be working.

Caserta said both jet boat companies have been “pretty good citizens.”

“We’ve had that speed limit for 16 years,” Caserta said. “Boaters know what it is and it has had the desired effect.”

Complaints also are heard on the Canadian side of the river,

“The wake that they throw is incredible,” Doug Dixon, commodore of Smugglers Cove Boat Club at Niagara-on-the-Lake, said of the jet boats. “We’ve tried and tried for a number of years to work with Mr. Kinney to put in a no-wake zone. We just see it as taking away from the enjoyment of what we do sometimes to the point of being unsafe.”

Dixon said his boat club has a “semi-agreement” with Niagara Jet Adventures.

“They throttle down before they get to us,” Dixon said. “It’s similar to what a small power boat would put out.” The Whirlpool Jet Boats, “from Niagara-on-the-Lake are big boats and their wake hits us with about a 2½- to 3-foot wake.

“We have contacted Mr. Kinney, many, many, many times. We have asked him to come to meetings to work out an agreement, but he basically ignored us,” said Dixon.

“We’re not against the enterprise,” Dixon said of the Whirlpool Jet Boat. “It just takes away from our enjoyment. After they do their last run at 7 o’clock at night the river becomes a mill pond, but between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. it is just constantly churned up.”

Kinney said he has met with other Lewiston residents along the Niagara River and started slowing his boats to a troll when he leaves the docks in Lewiston. He said he immediately responded and had taken the action weeks prior to the Village Board meeting in August.

Kinney said a speed limit is “completely unenforceable” in an international waterway and said the only way to eliminate wakes was to eliminate boat traffic. “The right to navigation is what we fought the War of 1812 over,” he added.