11 Insider Tips for Smith Mountain Lake Boating (2024)

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Boating at Smith Mountain Lake is the most popular of the many, many recreational activities available here at our amazing retreat in the Virginia mountains.

As a long-time SML resident, wake sports enthusiasts, champion of lake safety initiatives and a captain for Sea Tow Smith Mountain Lake, I’m all about boating safety, enjoyment and etiquette.

To help make your experience boating on Smith Mountain Lake the most enjoyable possible, I’ve compiled some of my best tips and insights from years spent navigating SML’s awesome waters.

So whether you’re a full-time resident, part-time Laker or are just visiting our beautiful shores, you’re sure to find this info on Smith Mountain Lake boating helpful. Let’s get started!

1. Take a Trip Around the Neighborhood

The wake of a boat with Smith Mountain in the background.
Photo by Amy Hunter

At Smith Mountain Lake, we “neighbor by boat,” stopping to visit friends while cruising the lake. You can welcome them with a permanent set of dock lines and chafing gear (fenders, rub rail, other cushioning) on your floater so it’s easy for them to pull up and sit a spell. Have some cold water or other refreshing beverages on hand, and offer guests use of a restroom up at the house.

2. Heed Smith Mountain Lake “Rules of the Road”

The rule-of-thumb traffic pattern is to stay to the right of the channel. Pass oncoming traffic port side to port side when traveling up or down river. Offer the boats you pass a friendly wave to acknowledge that you know they are there and don’t intend to make any sudden turns toward them.

3. Wear a Lifejacket

Photo by FatCamera via canva

Experienced Smith Mountain Lake boat boaters know that wearing life jackets while aboard is akin to wearing seat belts while driving. Typically, boating accidents happen too fast for skipper and crew to find and don a personal flotation device (PFD). Best practice is to wear yours … and thus set an example for anyone who’s on the boat with you. Any child under the age of 13 is required by law to wear a life jacket.

Click here to compare USGA certified life jackets.

Insider Extra

You get to set the rules as to who wears life jackets while swimming off the dock. Our lake is wonderfully clean, but you can’t see bottom in 8 feet of water. Make sure the rules you set for kids err on the side of safety. Adults, too, should have a noodle or other floaty device while lounging in the water.

4. Pay Attention to Your “Wake Signature”

A young wake surfer rides at Smith Mountain Lake
Photo by Katie Waters

Boating courtesy begins with being mindful of your wake and its impact on others—paddlers, fishermen, swimmers, dock loungers and fellow boaters. Travel at either planing or displacement (at or just above idle) speed, avoiding a bow-high mode that plows up a huge wake.

If you’re operating a surf boat, maintain a minimum distance of 200 feet from shore, docks, swimmers and paddlers. It’s also courteous to refrain from repeated passes along the same shoreline. Tow surfers in open water.

5. Keep Music at a Reasonable Volume

We love music here at Smith Mountain Lake, but oversharing yours from tower speakers borders on obnoxious. Keep the volume to where you don’t impose your playlist on people relaxing on their docks or neighboring boats.

6. Avoid Towing Tubers in High-Traffic Areas

Photo by FatCamera via canva

When towing tubers, choose spots wisely, avoiding the busy main channel, especially on weekends. The worst (as in riskiest) possible place for towing anyone behind the boat is SML’s “S-Curve,” located between Channel Markers R21A and R16, adjacent to Smith Mountain Lake State Park.

Stick to safer coves for tubing as well as other water sports like water skiing, wakeboarding, paddleboarding, kneeboarding and kayaking.

7. Find Friendly, Safe Shelter During a Storm

Storms are prone to pop up quickly on hot, humid summer afternoons, but usually pass within the hour. At Smith Mountain Lake, dock owners won’t resent a boater pulling up to their floater and taking shelter from lightning or driving rain. Be safe and seek refuge from an approaching storm before it hits.

8. Keep an Eye on the Gas Gauge

Photo courtesy of Manitou Pontoon Boats

Make sure you have an ample supply of gas in your tank. Gauges are notoriously prone to “freezing” at three-quarters full, so if yours hasn’t moved in a while, don’t just figure your engine has decided to give you a break. Top off your tank and keep a wary eye on your fuel usage to make sure your gauge is working properly.

But if you do happen to run out, Sea Tow Smith Mountain Lake stands ready to bring you gas. (540) 719-5555

9. Store a Smith Mountain Lake Map on Board

Whenever you’re out on the water, take along a Smith Mountain Lake map. Our waterway is big and, while main channels are well marked, the many creeks and coves can be disorienting. A detailed, chart-version map with channel markers can be purchased through the Smith Mountain Lake Association.

Photo by stock-eye via canva

10. Seek out a Smith Mountain Lake Vacation Favorite: Ice Cream!

All scream! Some tasty ice cream on your palate is the perfect way to cap a fun day on the water. You’ll find ice cream shops accessible by boat at Bridgewater Plaza, Mitchell’s Marina and Magnum Point Marina. During the summer season, you can also track down the Ice Cream Boat.


Smith Mountain Lake Restaurant Directory

SML Waterfront Dining Guide

11. Plan Ahead for Smith Mountain Lake Boat Rentals

While Smith Mountain Lake is fun to visit any time of year, if you’re planning to visit in high season (May-September) and need a boat, jet ski or water sports equipment rental, be sure to book early. A number of companies open reservations in January and many visitors will book early to lock in the boat they prefer on the dates they need.

Be sure to visit our Smith Mountain Lake Boat Rentals Directory for details on where you can rent pontoon boats, deck boats, ski boats, wakeboarding boats, wakesurf boats, personal watercraft (commonly referred to as jet skis), fishing boats and more.

Another handy reference is our guide to Smith Mountain Lake Boat Ramps and Marinas.

Other Smith Mountain Lake articles you may enjoy:

SML Insider Jerry Hale, Freelance Writer

Jerry Hale

freelance writer

Jerry Hale has been writing about Smith Mountain Lake since 2004. When he’s not composing articles, you’ll find him practicing banjo, playing steel drums and volunteering for a number of organizations in the SML community. 

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