Photos by Tom Spencer
Give Me a Lift
Why worry about tides, waves, chafing dock lines and lost fenders? Install a boat lift and store your boat up on high.
Living on the water isn’t always beer and skittles. In many areas—Ft. Lauderdale comes to mind—some harborside homes face enough open water for wind-driven chop to make things boisterous along the bulkhead. Add wakes from boats big and small running hither and yon, and things get even worse. Boats tied up in front of these houses can take a beating. Short of moving to a home on a canal, or renting a slip in a well-protected marina nearby, what’s the answer?
Maybe it’s time to invest in some kind of boat lift. There are, after all, advantages to hauling your boat after every use besides not whacking into pilings when conditions are rough. First, you’ll have no worries about galvanic corrosion, although you might still have to deal with zincs. Your boat won’t sink dockside because of a failed through-hull fitting. You needn’t paint the bottom, it won’t get overgrown with algae, grass, barnacles and other marine organisms, and you can easily hose off any gurry when you hoist the boat. Moreover, some marinas are installing boat lifts in slips, charging a premium for them and filling every one from a waiting list.
Here’s the good news, though. Lifts are not cheap, but they’re not coma-inducing expensive, either. And they’re a good investment for keeping an expensive boat safe. Here’s what you need to know before you call a pro to help you choose and install a boat lift. This is NOT a DIY project.
There are many varieties of boat lifts, from old-fashioned davits to piling-mounted hoists to miniature floating drydocks. But what’s the best one for you? I asked Ken Felty, vice president of sales for Golden Boat Lifts in Ft. Myers, Florida, for advice. Golden has been building boat lifts for more than 35 years. Their lifts are fabricated from welded aluminum and fitted with Golden’s own Sea-Drive gearboxes, double-reduction worm gears in-cast aluminum housings, grease-filled so they can’t leak and don’t need refilling. The gear design means they don’t need brakes either. Goldens look like pretty good boat lifts to me, although I don’t see a waterfront home in my future anytime soon. (There are other good-looking lifts on the market as well: Hi-Tide and HydroHoist are two.)
Felty said the first question to ask when choosing a boat lift is: “How much does the boat weigh?” All boat lifts are sold by capacity. Add about 10 percent to what you think your boat weighs to compensate for gear, fluid levels and so forth. If you’re planning to move up in boat size before moving out of your waterfront home, buy a lift for the boat you plan to own. A quality lift installed by competent, licensed professionals will last a long time.
Next, how deep is the water you’re dealing with? There must be enough depth for the lift to sink until its bunks are below the boat’s keel. Since the lift itself has some depth, that has to be added to your boat’s draft—how much depends on the lift. If the water’s too shallow, the lift will fetch up on the bottom before it’s submerged enough to let the boat slide on. And take tidal rise and fall into consideration, not forgetting spring tides at the full and new moons.
What style lift do you want? First, said Felty, see what your neighbors have; that’s probably what you want. The most popular ones, he said, are the elevator lift and the four- or eight-post lift. The elevator lift is good for narrow canals where there’s limited room. Its frames attach at the top to a seawall or two pilings, while the lower ends sit below the water. You lay the boat alongside, push a button and the elevator lifts the boat like the arms of a forklift.
The four- or eight-post lift is supported by pilings with aluminum beams running lengthwise across their tops. It’s like a slip, but with a boat lift attached. The lift is raised and lowered by stainless steel cables attached to the four corners. For folks comfortable with slips and who have the room, it’s the better choice, in Felty’s opinion.
Docking Made Simple
Felty said some people prefer the elevator lift because it’s easier to slide the boat onto, but it also requires more maintenance. Some parts of the aluminum frame are always submerged, so anodes are necessary to prevent corrosion. They have to be inspected and changed as necessary, just like the ones on a boat. There has to be a power shutoff, too, so there’s no chance of stray current running into the water through the lift, which will accelerate corrosion and can be dangerous to swimmers.
A four- or eight-post lift comes completely out of the water, so there’s no corrosion, which means comparatively low maintenance. There are some fittings that need grease once in a while, said Felty, but otherwise a four- or eight-poster is pretty much maintenance-free. Only thing is, you’ll need to hire a marine contractor to sink the pilings. Whether you choose old-fashioned timber pilings, fiberglass or concrete is up to you—but Felty emphasized that they have to be sufficiently sized to support the combined weight of the lift and boat. No matter what style of lift you choose, work with a licensed marine contractor to sink the pilings or make the attachment to the seawall, and have a licensed electrician do the wiring. A boat lift is only as good as the installation.
What about davits? According to Felty, although they’re fine for the deck of a yacht, ashore, they’re a thing of the past. They were fine when boat lifts weren’t as good as they are today, but they need a big concrete pad to sit on, and they’re hard on a boat. Now, he says, “We’re constantly taking out davits and installing lifts.” However, some people prefer a davit to lift a small boat or a personal watercraft, but the lift still needs a substantial concrete footing. Some really small davits can be secured to a piling—but I’d want to be darn sure the piling was solid before hoisting anything. A piling that looks great at the top can be eaten away to half its size below the waterline.
Float On, Float Off
Shipyards haul and launch big vessels—and I mean really big ones, like aircraft carriers—using floating drydocks. Sink the drydock by filling it with water, move the vessel onto its chocks, then pump out the water. The drydock rises and—bingo! The ship’s high and dry. You can buy a boat lift that uses the same hydrodynamics. Free-floating lifts, like those built by HydroHoist, for example, are basically mini floating drydocks, with the frame attached to flotation tanks that flood and empty with a pump. Once your boat’s in place, pump out the tanks and the lift will raise your boat out of the water. Because the lift free-floats with the boat on top, it doesn’t add weight or stress to the dock, doesn’t need pilings for support and doesn’t rely on cables that need occasional replacement.
HydroHoist’s saltwater-ready HarborHoist can handle boats with beams up to 13 feet, 6 inches and weighing as much as 25,000 pounds. The lift itself is 28 feet, 2 inches long but can hold a boat up to 45 feet long. The company says it can build custom lifts for vessels over 120,000 pounds.
The HarborHoist can be tied in a slip or alongside, just like your boat was before you bought the lift. Its structure is aluminum, and the flotation tanks are heavy-duty -marine-grade polyethylene. You need sufficient depth under the HarborHoist to sink it enough to get your boat onto its hull supports; for the largest model, that’s at least 3 feet, 7 inches plus the draft of the boat. As I noted before, take the tidal range into consideration, too, and if you’re planning on putting your new -HarborHoist into a slip, measure between the pilings first. The lift will be about 3 feet wider than your boat’s beam.
There are some downsides to the HarborHoist, of course. Your boat is still tied to the dock, only not in the water, so you have to keep an eye on docklines, weather, etc. You’ll also want to use fenders, but the HarborHoist takes the beating, not the boat. On the other hand, you get the benefits of storing your boat high and dry, and it’s easy to move the HarborHoist from one berth to -another—just tow it.
Bottom line? Don’t despair if your ship hasn’t come in yet. You don’t need a waterfront mansion to move your boat onto a lift—you only need to make a few decisions. But a mansion would be nice, wouldn’t it?
No Pilings? No Problem
If for some reason you can’t sink pilings to support your boat lift, there are four-legged freestanding lifts that sit on the bottom with wide pads on each leg to keep them from sinking in. Golden and ShoreStation both make them. Some freestanding lifts are hydraulic and use pistons rather than a cable to raise and lower the frame, something like the action of a scissors jack. Others use cables with a lifting mechanism similar to a hydraulic yacht davit—a ram pulls the cable rather than winding it onto a drum or shaft, which manufacturers say is easier on the cable. There are freestanding lifts that run on DC electricity and solar power, while the smallest models use a manual winch. And you can protect your boat from the sun with an optional canopy for a freestanding lift.
You still need at least a finger dock to board the boat, of course. Since only gravity holds freestanding lifts in place, I’d throw on some dock lines just in case, especially with smaller boats. Rough weather can move even heavy things. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to move the lift onshore during the off-season; some offer optional wheel assemblies. I found freestanding lifts with capacities of up to 32,000 pounds.