Changing tastes in watercraft are showcased on Minnesota lakes

If licensing patterns are any indication, racks of canoes like these are becoming a thing of the past.

It came out earlier this summer that Minnesota is No. 1 in the nation— by a healthy margin— in the number of registered boats per capita. Approximately 819,000 total watercraft were registered in 2020, which was only a slight departure from earlier this century (812K and 814K in 2000 and 2010, respectively). The makeup of the fleet, however, is becoming noticeably different—and it’s not all smooth sailing.

For starters, canoe ownership is not as strong as it used to be. Though Minnesota is host to the nation’s most-visited wilderness, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, canoe registrations have declined by 26% since 2000, and are currently around 110,000.

By contrast, kayaks have surged in popularity. In the same time period, kayak registrations increased from around 11,600 in 2000 to more than 64,000 in 2020 — more than a five-fold increase. That increase in registrations swells when compared to 1990, when there were just over 2,500 kayaks registered.

The number of canoes and kayaks registered in Minnesota as a proportion of total watercraft has not changed much in the last two decades. In 2000, canoe/kayak registrations amounted to about 19.8% of watercraft registrations statewide; in 2020, that number was about  21.3%.

It should be noted that an unmotorized craft less than 10 feet in length is not required to be licensed/registered. Since a large proportion of single-paddler kayaks are shorter than 10 feet, the actual number of kayaks in use is generally assumed to be much higher.

Sailboats, like canoes, are largely accounted for in registrations due to overall lengths of boats. Like canoes, their numbers have declined steadily. In 2010 there were 13,257 registered sailboats. In 2015, that number was 11,591; by 2020, it had dropped to 10,224 — a decline of about 23% over the past decade.

Aside from more traditional watercraft, there are some newcomers on the scene. Stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) are considered watercraft in Minnesota. As such, they require users to have life jackets in possession, and require a watercraft license if they’re longer than 10 feet. The DNR has begun to track SUP licensures and reports almost 7,000 were registered in 2020. SUP’s now rank fifth among nonmotorized watercraft (behind canoes, kayaks, sailboats and rowboats).

Another relatively new sight on local waters is the motorized hydrofoil surfboard. Lift Foils, a Puerto Rican company, claims to have invented them and have only made them available to the public for a few years. Their website lists three retailers in Minnesota that sell their “eFoil.”

The motorized hydrofoil consists of a short board with a “mast” below it, which supports the propeller and stabilizing “wings.” On the water, the user appears to be floating on the board, inches above the water surface. They are controlled by a wireless device and can attain speeds over 25 mph. On July 4 this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was famously filmed riding a motorized hydrofoil board while holding an American flag.

Another rapidly increasing sight on Minnesota lakes? “Wake boats” (also: “wakesurf boat” or “wakeboard boat”). Their primary purpose is pulling wakeboarders and creating large wakes ideal for wakesurfing. The creation of those types of wakes is achieved through hull design, wake-shaping attachments and taking on ballast to set the boat deeper in the water. The rise of wake boats has also ushered in a fair amount of debate.

One point of controversy is the potential of wake boats to spread aquatic invasive species. A 2018 study from the University of Minnesota measured volumes of water retained by different compartments of recreational boats, as well as numbers of zebra mussel veligers (larvae) present in the samples. Results were unflattering to wake boats, saying in part, “recreational equipment that contains one or more ballast tanks poses the greatest likelihood of moving high numbers of veligers.”

Perhaps even greater controversy rolls with the waves themselves. Research studies from Canada in the last decade have shown that those types of wakes impact shorelines much more than others. Wake boats, the studies say, contribute to suspended sediments, which in turn increase phosphorus levels in the water. The St. Anthony Falls Laboratory at the university began a crowd-funded study in 2020 to measure these potential problems. The results are expected to inform decision-making by state and local officials as well as local organizations and law enforcement who have been fielding many complaints from boaters about large wakes.

White Bear Lake Conservation District (WBLCD) board member Scott Costello cites big wakes as one of the main complaints the board receives. And he says that not only is WBLCD aware of the university’s wake boat study, the organization contributed to its funding.

Costello reports that the district is “waiting to see the results,” and that they anticipate taking some regulatory action. He thinks it could come in the form of a setback from shorelines and other boats, measured in hundreds of feet. When it comes to translating scientific findings into policy, however, he knows they’re in uncharted waters. “What we’ll do, who knows?”


Roy Heilman is a contributing writer for Press Publications. He can be reached at or 651-407-1200.

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