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From the SIERRA Experts

Can you take a freshwater boat into saltwater?

A man in bright orange rain gear fishing off the side of his aluminum boat in saltwater with a long blue and white fishing rod

Many boaters throughout the U.S. use their boats in freshwater but live within driving distance of salt water. Whether or not it’s safe to take your lake or river boat to the salt is a frequently asked question. The simple answer is yes – lake boats can operate in saltwater. But, understanding the differences between fresh and saltwater boating and the impact saltwater can have on your equipment can help you decide if you're prepared for the salt.

Is your freshwater boat seaworthy?

It’s important to be realistic about the seaworthiness of your boat. First, ask yourself – what’s the intended use for my boat? We don’t advise taking a bass boat 30 miles offshore in pursuit of tuna, marlin, or other pelagic fish. However, a bass boat could be at home on a sheltered bay chasing striped bass, redfish, snook, or sea trout. 

A spacious pontoon boat or deck boat could be a fine fishing platform on a lake, sheltered bay, or harbor waters but will likely take waves over the bow in any steep chop. A fiberglass or aluminum walleye rig with high freeboard could serve double duty on open ocean waters, but only in calm ocean conditions.  

Always check the weather and tides

You should always be aware of weather forecasts before boating, but saltwater boaters should take extra precautions when reviewing weather, swell, and tide reports. Wind and wave conditions can kick up suddenly. Tide swings can leave boaters stranded or present powerful currents. Of course, wind and waves are also factors in freshwater, but we’re back to a core question – is your boat seaworthy? 

Are you geared up for saltwater fishing?

If your purpose in hitting ocean waters is fishing, think about your setup and how it might translate to saltwater fishing. For example, does your boat have adequate gear storage and rod holders for what you plan to do? Does it have a large enough livewell to carry live bait? What about storage for ice and any fish you plan to bring home? A good cooler and a supplemental live bait tank might be a worthy investment if you’re going to regularly fish saltwater.

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Fuel capacity 

Fuel tanks on freshwater boats are generally smaller than a typical bay boat or deep-vee saltwater center console. This makes sense, as fuel range isn’t as critical as it is aboard saltwater boats or fishing machines, where you might run 20 miles or more before you even start fishing. You need to figure out your boat’s realistic fuel range. Remember that your fuel economy will fluctuate when bucking wind and waves.

Freshwater boating equipment versus saltwater

A boat designed for ocean use will likely have a lot of things that won’t be found on a typical lake boat. Things like multiple house and starting batteries to run pumps and electronics, multiple bilge pumps, and large scuppers to quickly drain any water that makes it onto the deck. Even basic ocean boats can have marine electronics for safety and fishing, such as radar, an MFD with chart plotter and fish finder, a VHF radio, and safety gear such as EPIRBs, visual distress signals, and emergency locator beacons.  

If you’re interested in venturing into saltwater, consider adding some basic electronics that may not already be on your boat. A handheld GPS and VHF radio can help bring you home safely in an emergency. 

Clean and care for Your Boat After Each Trip

Those who use their boats exclusively in saltwater are familiar with the long list of preventative boat maintenance steps required to keep them in top condition. And, these boats are designed and built for use in salt water, with greater use of easy-to-clean non-skid decks, waterproof materials, stainless steel components, hardware, and the like. 

It’s even more important for freshwater boat owners to protect against saltwater corrosion. Flush your boat’s engine with fresh water for several minutes. Do this as soon as possible after every trip, without exception.

While newer outboard motors have a dedicated hose attachment, it may be necessary for owners of older outboards or sterndrives to attach freshwater flushing earmuffs and run the engine for a few minutes. 

Clean your boat bow to stern with freshwater and boat washing soap. Use a soft cloth or sponge to hit every exposed surface inside and out. If you have a boat with a carpeted deck, this needs to be washed as well. Blood, fish scales, slime, and saltwater grit can cause rot if left alone. Make sure to pull the drain plug to purge any saltwater that may have made it into the boat.

Don’t Neglect Your Trailer

Your trailer demands just as much attention as your boat, maybe even more. Most ocean boats use trailers designed for harsh saltwater environments, with all aluminum or galvanized steel construction, stainless steel disc brakes, heavy-duty bunk carpeting, and more. Even with all this in their favor, savvy saltwater boaters still put effort into cleaning and protecting their trailers.

Many freshwater boats live on painted steel trailers that haven’t been built for life in the salt. Your trailer isn’t going to rust away under your boat if you dip it into salt water occasionally, but it should be washed thoroughly with soap and fresh water after every trip. Pay special attention to cleaning and rinsing moving parts like bow rollers, winch cables, and wheels. Keep your wheel bearings well-greased, and if your boat does have trailer brakes, make sure to thoroughly rinse them.

Yes, you can...

The answer to whether you can use your lake boat in the saltwater is yes — provided you use common sense safety and take extra measures to protect your boat and trailer against the ocean’s harsh and corrosive environment.

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