Down on the Dock | Make your Boathouse Work for You

Anyone who lives or plays at Smith Mountain Lake knows the dock can be a wonderful extension of summer living and entertaining space. So for lakefront property owners planning a dock build or renovation—
or just hoping to DIY some improved functionality into their headquarters for waterfront fun—we offer our top tips for making your dock more functional.


Increase Storage

AEP’s shoreline management rules limit the size of new dock house enclosures to, in most cases, just 72 square feet. Adding to your boathouse a ceiling with a pull-down access stairway will create out-of-sight storage for water toys, fishing gear, extra life jackets, noodles, and other bulky water fun equipment. Getting all that gear stowed above a ceiling means precious dock house space can be used for a small fridge, bar, cabinetry and other entertaining essentials.

Welcome Guests

Nothing says “Welcome to our dock!” better than a floating dock equipped with guest lines and pre-attached fenders. A pair of nylon or Dacron dock lines (synthetics stand up to weather’s ravages; inexpensive cotton lines won’t) and dock cushioning make it quick and easy for guests to tie up and come ashore. Mount your fenders a few inches out of the water; floating fenders more rapidly turn black with mildew.

Mark Lift Height

A ring of colored tape wrapped on one of your lift guide poles (or a zip tie on one chain) will designate exactly when the lift is low enough for the boat to float off, and also tip you to water level changes that may have occurred while you were out cruising. When deciding where to place the visual cue, take into consideration the weight of your typical crew on board when you want to float free.

Ease PWC Boarding

For those who use cradle lifts (as opposed to the drive-on/slide-off kind) for personal watercraft (PWC), getting aboard when the water is down a few feet can be tricky and dangerous. A remote lift control eliminates this problem. But if you don’t have this handy gadget, mount a swim ladder beside your PWC and simply climb down to straddle the saddle.

Install Lighting

Evening cruises mean you sometimes return to a pitch-dark dock, which can be difficult to approach. Install a photo-sensitive switch on a dock spotlight; flip it on before you leave so it turns on after sunset to light your return. Solar-powered dock lighting is normally photo sensitive, too, and comes in various styles to suit where you want fixtures placed.

Check out the Game

A flat-screen TV can be mounted on a covered dock piling or dock house wall—just about anywhere that’s convenient for watching weekend games or catching the evening news during cocktail time. Prices have dropped considerably in recent years, perhaps leaving room in the budget for a wireless signal or cable feed down to the dock. When determining where to place the screen, be sure to pick a spot that’s always shaded.

Encourage Napping

Attractive and budget-friendly furniture built to withstand the outdoor elements can be found in stores and online, so there’s no excuse for not having at least one comfy snoozing lounge chair. Don’t forget hammock options, either free-standing or strung between pilings (or even trees on shore).


Store Water Toys

Tow tubes, water “chairs,” kayaks and paddleboards take up precious dock space and are susceptible to UV deterioration (and taking flight in a brisk breeze). Develop a custom rack or pulley system to raise them up and out of the way. Be sure to contain them with shock cords or other fasteners so they don’t flop around in the wind or break free when an afternoon storm blows through.

Pamper Tender Feet

Covering your floating dock with outdoor carpeting avoids splinters and protects from a surface that otherwise gets blistering hot on a summer afternoon. Make sure the carpet you choose is resistant to moisture and UV rays.

Display Life Vests

Most boaters accumulate various sizes of life jackets to make sure there’s a proper fit for any guests they take aboard. Church rummage sales are one good place to find fill-in sizes at attractive prices (but note that if there are rips, missing straps or safety labels that are no longer legible, they won’t qualify as USCG approved). Create a rack near the primary lake-access door from the house, or in the dock house, to hang a selection of life jackets. The SML Water Safety Council recommends this as House Rule #1: “Children must wear life jackets on the dock and in the boat.” Adults can set a good example by donning theirs when on the water, too.

ondeck-1Experienced dock builders are familiar with the limitations on storage and functionality imposed by SML’s shoreline management plan, and having a professional perform a dock survey is a good way to identify opportunities for making better use of space.

Many of the ideas noted here, however, can be accomplished by a reasonably handy do-it-yourselfer intent on making his or her dock more user-friendly. Have at it and enjoy the results!

Photography provided by KG Thienemann, Jerry Hale and Michael Patch