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Big, small boats battle for space on Lanier

BUFORD - Marcia Reese used to love to ski on Lake Lanier with her husband and son. She even dreamed of trading in her Grayson house for the scenic, peaceful view of a lakefront home. Reese doesn't ski anymore, but she's getting her waterside home - only 1 1/2 hours away on Lake Hartwell, which straddles the Georgia/South Carolina state line along Interstate 85. The Reeses are escaping the traffic on Lake Lanier that many say is becoming increasingly dangerous.

"I have a 14-year-old son who loves water sports, and the environment at Hartwell is much more conducive to the safety of my child," said Reese, a real estate agent. "Hartwell has always appealed to me because it is clean and beautiful, and not as crowded as Lanier. We went up there recently on a Saturday and was amazed at how little boating was gong on."

Lake Lanier's surface on any sunny weekend resembles a demolition derby or carnival bumper cars. On the shore, lines of boats wait at docks to get in the water. Of all the lakes operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Lanier is one of the three most-visited lakes in the nation, with about 8 million visitors each year and is the Corps' most profitable, said Chris Lovelady, chief ranger. Its proximity to a major metropolitan area and good roads draws visitors, while its shores lap the banks of three affluent counties whose residents have some disposable income for luxury items such as boats and personal watercraft.

Time changes everything

In the 1950s, when Lake Lanier was built, Gwinnett, Forsyth and Hall counties were mostly rural farmland. Fishermen paddled small aluminum boats across its surface. In the past half-century, and especially since the opening of Ga. Highway 400 in the early 1990s, Lake Lanier has changed from a weekend retreat to an Atlanta suburb where residents live full time. Property values have increased, and industry has moved in nearby as well.

"On Lanier, I couldn't have touched what I bought on Hartwell," Reese said. "I saved $50,000 by buying on Hartwell."

The quiet, country lake has gotten busy. The aluminum boats are getting scarce, and large, high-powered fishing boats, houseboats and yachts are taking their place.

One would think that Lanier's 38,000 acres of water would be plenty for everyone. But some boaters and fishermen say smaller boats, such as Jon boats, are being run off the water by large yachts, fast cigarette boats and jet skis.

Some boaters have made adjustments in their sailing routines, purchased larger vessels, or, like Reese, have abandoned Lake Lanier altogether.

"The Atlanta area has become by far our No. 1 market," said James Gray, broker at Hartwell Lake Properties in Lavonia. Of the 212 properties they closed in 2004, 106 were purchased by buyers with a metro Atlanta address. To date in 2005, Hartwell Lake Properties has sold 222 lake lots, 95 of those to Atlanta-area folks.

Many of Lanier's houseboats can reach 120 feet long and can produce a 3-foot-high wake, Lovelady said. As the cost of yachts and houseboats lessened and the general standard of living increased, many people traded in their little boats for large vessels.

'I upgraded for survival'

Scott Edwards, an engineer, lives only three miles from Buford Dam, but the weekend crowds restrict his striper-fishing times. Edwards and his parents have already purchased a vacation home on Lake Hartwell.

"You want some entertainment, come out here some Saturday and sit on the bank and watch the show," Edwards said. "It's chaotic. Some of those boats out there are enormous, and I've seen a wake swamp a smaller boat. Jet ski (drivers) aren't courteous; they act like they don't know boating rules and run up on you too close. I only come out on the weekdays or real early in the mornings on weekends. That's the best fishing time, anyway."

That chance of being swamped prompted Joe Snyder of Jefferson to trade in the Jon boat he had fished in for 20 years for a 24-foot, 45-horsepower Bayliner.

"I upgraded for survival," said Snyder, who fishes for striper and bass. "I had to get in a cove to avoid any wakes. I was afraid I would get tipped over with my 11-year-old grandson in the boat. The Jon boat was nice. It was easy to carry around, and I could get in smaller lakes and ponds. But we feel safer in this one."

Although large wakes can make a boat rock and aggravate fishermen, it hasn't hurt the fishing in Lake Lanier, said Tom Mann of Suwanee. Mann has been a full-time sport fisherman for 20 years and is a three-time national bass fishing champion. He drives a 20-foot-long Z-20 Ranger with a 225 horsepower motor.

"Being a fisherman, we're always against bigger, faster boats," Mann said. "We like the water quiet. No matter how big and powerful the boat is, it all boils down to the skill and knowledge of the operator. Considering the ratio of traffic to accidents on Lanier, I'm surprised there's not a lot more accidents."

Safety issue

No one over the age of 16 requires a license or any type of training to drive a boat in Georgia.

"It's a shame that someone can just go buy a boat, then come out here (Lake Lanier) and learn to drive it," Edwards said.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer organization, offers intensive boating safety classes. The classes usually fill up with 30 students, but Roy Crittenden, Coast Guard Auxiliary division captain, said they still don't reach enough boaters.

"The most common infraction we see on the lake is the failure of the boater to follow the rules of the road, like who has the right of way," Crittenden said. "Those rules are really not known by a lot of people. We rarely see a fisherman in our safe boating classes because they think of themselves as fishermen, not boaters. Some small bass boats have powerful engines, though the boat is small. In those bass tournaments, they race around from one hole to another, and speed is of the essence."

At MarineMax, a national corporation selling luxury watercraft on Holiday Road in Buford, everyone who buys a boat gets an unlimited amount of lesson time with a personal instructor. Kevin Cooper, MarineMax's boat brokerage manager, said they are having a record year for boat sales, even in the midst of a soft economy when gasoline prices continue to climb.

"Our $300,000 boats are selling like hotcakes," Cooper said. "The older-boat market has been soft, because the buyers are more sensitive to gas prices. Look at what it costs for a family to take a vacation versus buying a nice houseboat or yacht and financing it for 20 years. Most of them make it a lifestyle, spending weekends and holidays on the lake. They get a lot of bang for their buck with a houseboat, and they don't have to fly to get there."

Home away from home

Michael and Melissa Rosenbloum of Atlanta spend every weekend on the lake with their daughter, Sarah, 4. They recently upgraded from a 30-foot Bayliner to a 39-foot, 390-horsepower yacht, aptly named Southern Comfort. The elegant two-bedroom, two-bath boat, which would cost $450,000 for a 2005 model, keeps the family in climate-controlled comfort. The efficient kitchen offers a convection oven, cherry laminated cabinets and solid surface counters. Other perks include an LCD TV, washer/dryer and barbeque grill.

"We needed more room, we wanted a vacation home and we thought, 'Why have a house that is stationary?'" said Rosenbloum, 33, a personal-injury lawyer.

Few boaters complain about the large houseboats, which usually tie up in a cove for the weekend, or the cigarette boats, whose speeds can top 100 miles per hour. The little jet skis zipping around produce the most ire in the boating community.

"Two or three of them will get behind you and cross your wake," said Tom Bohn, boat owner. "They act like they don't know what they're doing. They run up on you too close and they cross in front of you, like they expect the big boat to stop for them."

The weekend traffic and unsafe drivers on Lake Lanier is reflective of the daily situation on Interstate 285 or Ga. 400. However, on weekdays and in the fall, Lake Lanier returns to the tranquil, pristine setting long-time fishermen remember.

"It's really only bad until the end of September," Mann said. "Then we get our beautiful lake back. They have their time and we have ours."