No way around it, Pittsburgh's a boating city.
From the anglers trolling the Allegheny and Ohio rivers for smallmouth bass and walleye, to the power boaters who zip across the water with skiers and inner tubers in their wake, to the pleasure cruisers who tie up as many as five deep on the North Shore before concerts, fireworks or sporting events -- sometimes it's so busy on the water, you'd swear we live in Florida instead of Western Pennsylvania.
But what if you don't own a boat or don't know one of the more than 66,000 registered boaters in Allegheny and surrounding counties from which to mooch an afternoon on the water? No problem. It should be easy to rent a pontoon or speedboat in a city with easy access to more than 328 miles of navigable waterways. Especially now that the rivers are cleaner and more popular than ever for recreation.
Boy, was I wrong.
Save for Kayak Pittsburgh's fleet of solo and tandem flat-water kayaks under the Sixth Street Bridge, it's slim pickings for would-be boat renters on the Three Rivers. The only marina I could find that allows you to play boat-owner for the day -- and I spent a lot of time looking -- is Three Rivers Boat & Bike Rentals in Millvale Waterfront Park. It isn't exactly what you'd call a flotilla.
Nestled on the banks of the Allegheny River, the shop offers just three 22-foot, eight-person pontoons for rent. It's $200 for eight hours, plus the cost of fuel.
Renters are confined to the 24-mile-long Pittsburgh pool, and grills are forbidden. But coolers and picnic baskets are welcome, along with kids, as long as they wear life jackets.
"I know," shop owner Jesse Santiago agreed when I called to check prices and availability (he advises making reservations on weekends). "You think it'd be wide open."
Actually, says Andy Talento, general manager of Verona-based Tri-River Marine Trade Association, there's some good reasons boat rentals have never taken off in the 'Burgh, the main one being the high cost of insurance.
Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and there's also a lot of barges and tugboats on the water (the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers ranks the Port of Pittsburgh as the country's second-largest inland port). So it can be dicey for novice boaters.
"It's difficult to get people educated about the hazards of commercial traffic, especially at night," Mr. Talento said. "An empty tow going up the river is very dangerous and hard to see."
Adding to the financial risk is the ease with which a person could steal a boat out of the water and the fact that inexperienced boaters often go where they're not supposed to, damaging the bottom of the boat.
That's a reason I can relate to: When my husband and I rented a 58-foot houseboat at Raystown Lake two years ago, we (he) accidentally drove it too close to shore and ended up having to buy it a new propeller.
Who can blame local marinas for not getting into the rental biz?
If you're willing to travel to one of Pennsylvania's state parks or larger lakes, though, you've got plenty of options.
Pontoons and low-speed motorboats can be rented by the hour at both Moraine's Lake Arthur and on the 17,088-acre Pymatuning Reservoir in Pymatuning State Park, the largest lake in the commonwealth. You'll also find rentals at Presque Isle in Erie; on the Allegheny Reservoir in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest at Kinzua Wolf Run Marina in Clarendon; and at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania's largest natural lake. To the east, Seven Points Marina on Raystown Lake in Hesston, popular with local houseboaters, offers fishing boats or ski pontoons by the hour or day, skis, tow rope and vests included.
You also can find boat rentals across the state line in Ohio, West Virginia and western Maryland, if you're looking for a day trip.
There is, however, a catch to renting in Western Pennsylvania, especially if you're in your 20s and hoping to kick it up a bit on the water.
While low-powered boats require just 5 minutes instruction from a teenage dock worker, state law prohibits people who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1982, from driving a boat with a 25 or greater horsepower engine unless they hold a boating safety education certificate. (Courses are offered both in classrooms and online; for more info visit www.fishandboat.com.)
It's even more restrictive in Maryland, where all people born on or after July 1, 1972, must possess a boating safety education certificate to operate any motorized vessel.
No surprise you can't drink alcohol while driving a boat (penalties in Pennsylvania include fines up to $5,000 and 90 days in jail), though cooking often is allowed; Crescent Bay Marine at Moraine is among the state park concessionaires that rent gas grills for larger pontoons ($14). They also allow pets.
Also worth noting: Renters typically have to put up a sizable security deposit, occasionally in cash, and also are required to pay for any damages to the boat. (Expect to cough up about $100 for a propeller.) And don't forget about gas -- while the first tank is free at Crescent Bay, the final bill includes a 5 percent fuel surcharge.
On our 15-foot, 15-horsepower runabout, which we rented on a recent Sunday at Moraine State Park, that added just $1.90 to the bill, or the price of two cans of soda from the waterfront concession on the South Shore.
During the week, it's fairly easy to get one of Crescent Bay's many pontoons ($45/hour and up), runabout motorboats ($38/hour and up) or sunfish sailboats ($48 for a two-hour minimum). But on a brilliantly sunny weekend? Expect to stand in line or make a reservation (4 hour minimum, and you have to push off by 10 a.m.).
Like most everyone else queued up, we'd hoped to spend the afternoon on a pontoon. For our 2 p.m. arrival, we faced a wait of more than 2 hours in the heat. So we went with a less-sexy runabout with our cans of Dr. Pepper and a bag of Doritos.
The transition from landlubber to water baby couldn't have been simpler: After a short driving and boating safety lesson from deckhand Ryan Currie, 16, of Slippery Rock -- push the throttle forward to accelerate, backward for reverse, steer clear of the shore and stay to the right -- we were off, me perched on the cushioned seat on the bow and my husband squinting in the sun behind the steering wheel.
True, it wasn't quite the roaring SeaRay speedboat I remember renting with my husband when we were newlyweds in Miami. It was, however, a perfect fit for a couple looking to spend a lazy hour on the water without having to paddle.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 29, 2011) An incorrect name and phone number was given in a July 24 story on Pittsburgh boat rentals. Three Rivers Bike & Boat Rentals, and not Millvale Bait & Tackle, rents pontoons at Millvale Riverfront Park. It can be reached at 412-352-5358.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419. First Published July 24, 2011 4:00 AM