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Clean and Green Boating

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Anyone who spends time on the water in a boat knows that times have changed on the environmental front and that boaters face greater scrutiny every day. One of the reasons many of us pursue cruising is because of the unique access a boat can provide to many pristine and unspoiled regions. If we are to continue to enjoy these wild places, it's essential that we protect them.

One important question to ask is, "What is clean boating?" As a longtime advocate for conservation and protection of our natural resources, I can tell you what it's not. Clean boating isn't some high-minded conspiracy; it's a practical way for us to operate our watercraft responsibly. Clean boating isn't some recent regulatory scheme; it's an outlook we adopt that considers the effects of our actions as they relate to the greater good. Clean boating doesn't need to be expensive; many of the best practices limit environmental impact and save money.

As a harbormaster in Alaska, I have seen the concept of clean boating touch many parts of the waterfront community. Clean boating really is an approach and mindset that boaters take as they enjoy the things they do. There are a myriad of ideas for "green" boaters to consider; here, I'll touch on just a few, such as saving fuel, practicing good marine stewardship, and keeping marinas clean.

It's important for boaters to share their experiences and to pass knowledge on to others, bearing in mind that solutions developed to address the environmental impact in one region may not be appropriate at your marina or where you cruise. Both boaters and marina operators can take positive steps to limit boating's effects on the environment.


With fuel prices rising, one major incentive for saving fuel is saving money. Taking steps to lower boat fuel consumption directly lowers operating costs, but it also helps lower our impact on the environment. Burning a gallon of diesel fuel generates around 22 lb. of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Saving fuel is a matter of balance and careful vessel maintenance. Here are a few hints that can help you save fuel and reduce emissions:

  • Practice good seamanship. Learning to be a better coastal navigator allows you to plan trips that account for prevailing winds and tides. Running with the current saves fuel. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Plotting a route reduces the distance traveled to the intended destination. This is information that is needed for filing a float plan.
  • Consider purchasing a four-stroke outboard engine for your tender. Four-stroke outboards utilize the same combustion process used in automotive engines and are the cleanest outboards to operate. Unlike two-stoke engines, four-strokes never have an intake and exhaust port open at the same time, so they don't expel unburned fuel in the exhaust. The first four-strokes offered to boaters were low powered, and it took a few years for technology to develop higher-horsepower versions that didn't weigh too much.
  • Use biodegradable two-cycle outboard oil if you're running a two-stroke engine. Because of their design, conventional two-cycle outboard engines release significant amounts of fuel and lubricating oil into the environment. There are many, many two-stroke outboards in use that have many years of useful life left in them. While it isn't practical to arbitrarily replace a functional motor, using a biodegradable two-cycle oil helps mitigate the environmental impact.
  • Maintain your boat. Good vessel maintenance saves fuel by ensuring engine efficiency and smooth movement through the water. Fouled spark plugs, clogged fuel nozzles, dirty filters, and poor timing lower engine efficiency and raise fuel consumption. Keep the bottom of your boat clean and propellers free of nicks or dings. Grass or barnacles reduce a hull's performance and require the use of more power to push the boat through the water. Consider installing trim tabs, which can reduce hull drag and help get a boat on plane sooner.
  • Slow down and lose some weight. Slow down and find the right combination of speed and throttle. Each vessel has a sweet spot where it runs most efficiently. Most boats burn 50 percent more fuel at wide-open throttle, compared to a midrange point. Boats often accumulate weight through gear and equipment added throughout the season. A heavier boat requires greater power and fuel consumption to move it at any speed.
  • Use shorepower while in the slip. Typically, power from the local electrical grid is generated at lower costs than power from an onboard generator. Plus, many communities are served by hydroelectric generation systems that produce lower emissions.


  • Marine debris is a threat to the aquatic environment everywhere, and boaters can incidentally contribute to the problem. Boats generate tons of pollutants and toxic waste every year. Boaters and marina operators can do a number of things to protect pristine areas and wildlife habitats through responsible practices in their operation and maintenance of boats and harbors.
  • As they age, marinas often become attractive refuges for plants and wildlife. Floating docks, pilings, breakwaters, and shorelines are colonized by shellfish and aquatic vegetation, making them a perfect home for fish, birds, and marine mammals.
  • The following suggestions can help lessen the impact that operating a boat has on the local environment:
  • Exercise "leave no trace" practices. Boaters can learn from the popular Leave No Trace (LNT) program, which stresses minimizing environmental impact through actions like disposing of waste properly, respecting wildlife, preserving natural and historic resources, and being considerate of others. "Pack it in, pack it out" is an axiom of the movement.
  • Minimize the maintenance and storage of boats in the water. Most communities have upland facilities for the storage and care of boats. It is much easier to contain the wastes generated by bottom cleaning at an onshore station than in the water. Something like an oil spill is much easier to clean up on land.
  • Marina design can protect the environment. Mooring facilities can be designed to work better with nature and its wildlife. Marinas can be improved by providing adequate upland comfort stations, using screened trash receptacles, and designing moorings that minimize shading of aquatic vegetation. Responsible marina operators provide sufficient pumpout facilities and properly equipped fuel docks.
  • Operate within channels and watch your wake. It is important for boaters to operate within defined harbor channels. Running in shallow water or generating a large wake can erode soil on the bottom and along the shore. Erosion damages aquatic vegetation and puts more sediment into the water column. Excessive wakes can easily damage other boats.
  • Ensure the use of proper sanitation practices. Use and maintain approved marine sanitation devices (MSDs) as recommended by the manufacturer and as required by law. Encourage passengers to use upland comfort stations prior to a trip, and use marina pumpout facilities upon your return. Don't discharge waste into a mooring basin or marina. Most marinas already have compromised circulation, and introducing waste into the water lowers the amount of oxygen available to aquatic wildlife.
  • Be aware of transporting invasive species. Thoroughly clean your boat before moving to another body of water. There are many invasive species of plants and animals that can easily hitchhike to a new habitat on your trailer or boat. Accidental introduction of a species like the green crab can devastate native wildlife and local economies.


In Alaska, a broad-ranging group of organizations have joined forces to develop a guidebook and certification program to help keep state harbors clean. (Most Alaskan communities use the term "harbor" synonymously with "marina.") The effort is patterned in part after programs developed in other states along the West Coast. Harbors in Alaska were concerned that approaches developed in other regions would not be appropriate in our northern climate.

The Alaska Clean Harbors Program focuses on two broad areas of concern: harbor design, and harbor and boat operations. The guidebook provides harbormasters and boaters with information about current "best management" practices and checklists that can be used by a harbor manager to audit the performance of a facility. Ultimately, the program will recognize facilities through a formal Clean Harbor designation. Although the guidebook pertains to Alaska, many of the concepts it promotes can be applied to marinas in other locations. These concepts include:

  • Designation of harbor site and harbor design. The initial design of a marina can make a huge difference in how friendly it is to the aquatic environment and how well it supports its users. It is much easier for a boater to do the right thing for the environment when adequate infrastructure has been put into place. Design topics can include circulation patterns, wildlife habitat protection, stabilization of shorelines, properly equipped fueling stations, and proper sanitation facilities.
  • Harbor and boat operations and maintenance. Maintenance activities generate an amazing amount of hazardous waste. In a marina, boaters need to be provided with proper reception facilities to handle used oil, old antifreeze, sewage, solid wastes, and oily bilge water. Having upland washdown stations makes hull maintenance easier, helps contain toxic bottom paint coming off hulls, and filters dirty water before it can reenter the marina.


There are many things that fall under the topic of clean boating. Subjects not covered here but that should be considered include fueling, bilge care, engine care, and bottom painting. Don't let it overwhelm you. Clean boating is more of an attitude than an imposition of a fixed set of rules. Being a responsible boater comes through learning and asking questions. Other boaters, boatyard operators, and harbormasters can be wonderful sources of information, if you ask.

Boaters truly have a vested interest in preserving the marine environment. Taking responsibility now ensures the likelihood of having access to pristine waters in the future. Simply defined, clean boating means showing concern for what you're leaving in your wake.