Green Boating: 10 Best Practices for Boaters

Soon after a boat passes its wake has vanished, but as boaters, we should always remember to practice responsible, green boating. It's important to recognize that what we do impacts the waters we love, and that there are ways to keep our “wakeprints” invisible as we protect the marine environments.

green boating tips

Protecting the environment and following sustainable boating best practices takes a conscious effort by all of us and it starts with how we boat, where we boat, and the products we use on our boats—the little things count. Often, going green and boating in a thoughtful way also makes time spent on the water more pleasant, more affordable, and more fun.

To get started, here are a few clean boating tips that you should always keep in mind while out on the water.

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1. Prevent oily discharges.

If you have an inboard or stern drive boat, secure an oil-absorbent pad or pillow in your bilge and under your engine where drips may occur. Check the pads often, do not let them clog the bilge pump, and dispose of them as hazardous waste at a marina or local hazardous waste collection center.

No matter what type of power system your boat has, for oil changes:

  • Use an oil change pump to transfer oil to a spill-proof container;
  • Then take the used engine oil to a recycling facility;
  • When you remove the oil filter, wrap a plastic bag or absorbent pad around it to prevent oil from spilling.


2. Keep your engine well-tuned, maintained, and inspected.

A well-tuned and maintained engine will maximize fuel efficiency. Not only does this help reduce your carbon footprint, it also saves you money since you’ll go farther and faster on every gallon of gas.

Also be sure to visually inspect parts of the boat’s propulsion system, like fuel tanks and supply lines, that have the potential to leak as they age. If you spot any problems, have them fixed immediately. Inspect your propeller to be sure that’s in tip-top shape, too, because a propeller with bent blades or dings will cause a drop in the boat’s efficiency.


prevent boat fuel spills

3. When fueling, stop the drops!

Prevent fuel spills by filling fuel tanks slowly and using absorbent pads or rags to catch drips and spills. Don’t "top off" or overflow your fuel tank. Leave the tank 10 percent empty to allow fuel to expand as it warms.

If you do spill fuel (or oil), never use soap to disperse it. It increases harm to the environment, and it is illegal. In the case of fuel spills, notify the marina management for immediate assistance. They should have the equipment on hand and a procedure in place to act quickly to address the problem. In the case of a significant spill call or contact the Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802.


4. Slow down, and wake responsibly.

Most modern powerboats will go quite fast and blasting around the bay at top speed may be fun, but you’ll vastly reduce your carbon footprint if you spend the bulk of your time running the boat at its most efficient cruising speed and save the high-speed antics for rare occasions.

The most efficient cruise is where your boat gets the highest MPG (miles per gallon), and will generally be around two thirds or so of wide-open throttle. With most modern power systems, you can scroll through the engine monitor and find the MPG display, bring your boat onto plane, and then slowly increase speed in slight increments until MPG peaks.

Note how many rpm your engine is turning at that peak mpg, and you’ve found your most efficient cruise. Also note that it’s important to use RPM, not MPH, when establishing most efficient cruise. Factors like wind and current can cause your boat to run at different speeds in different conditions, but you can consistently set your throttle to a specific RPM.

wake responsibly and stay 200 feet from shore

Along with slowing down, don't forget to keep in mind the three main pillars of "Wake Responsibly"—especially if you're on wake or ski boat:

  1. Minimize repetitive passes.
  2. Keep music at a responsible level.
  3. Stay 200 feet from shore.

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5. Minimize maintenance in the water.

If possible, save maintenance projects for when the boat’s on dry land. When you do have to perform work on the water: 

  • Minimize your impact by containing the waste;
  • Use tarps and vacuum sanders to collect all drips, dust, and debris for proper disposal.

In the case of outboard-powered boats, it’s almost always much safer and easier to perform regular maintenance tasks like oil changes, fuel filter changes, and tune-ups with the boat out of the water.

Even the simplest maintenance chores, like cleaning the boat, can have an impact on the water, so be sure to use non-toxic, phosphate-free boat soaps. In cases where caustic cleaners are necessary, pull the boat and do the job on dry land where it’s much easier to contain spills and messes.


6. Reduce toxic discharges from bottom paints.

Minimize the discharge of heavy metals found in soft-sloughing antifouling paints by using the proper bottom paint. While boats left in the water in some areas do commonly require cuprous oxide paints to remain growth-free, in many parts of the nation and in almost all freshwater venues a less toxic or nontoxic antifouling paint will get the job done. In some cases (usually go-fast boats that are used on a regular basis) a slick film paint containing Teflon or similar materials is all that’s needed. And in others, paint containing Econea (a biocide that doesn’t contain metals) rather than cuprous oxide is effective.

If you have a “soft” ablative bottom paint on your boat, also remember to use only non-abrasive underwater hull cleaning techniques or you can scrub that paint right off the boat and into the water. If your boat is small enough, all the issues with bottom paint—and the cost of painting the boat on a regular basis—are good reasons for keeping that boat on a trailer, a lift, or in dry storage in the first place, since that eliminates the need for bottom paint completely.

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dispose of trash properly onboard

7. Dispose of trash and hazardous waste properly.

Obviously, to leave clean wakeprints, we all need to be careful to keep our trash contained onboard and dispose of it properly. Just as important, however, is where hazardous waste ends up.

Paints and used brushes, batteries, antifreeze, cleaning products, oil, oil filters, old fuel, and other hazardous wastes need to go to the proper local facilities, not the trashcan in the marina parking lot. If you’re not sure where to take them, ask around at the marina or call your local municipality’s department of public works.

And if you live in a climate where boats get winterized, don’t forget that used shrink wrap shouldn’t be shoved into any old trash dumpster, either, because it’s a recyclable material. You may need to remove things like straps, vents, and zippers, but most recycling centers accept shrink wrap and many of the larger marinas will have a dedicated place to leave it for pick-up.


8. Plan ahead and manage sewage waste properly.

It’s illegal to discharge untreated sewage from a boat within three miles of shore, and it’s illegal to discharge treated or untreated sewage in no-discharge zones, many rivers, and impoundments.

These days, however, most marinas and harbors have pump-out stations. If you have a portable MSD aboard your boat, you can use a pump-out station to empty it or carry it onto land and use a bathroom.


9. Be kind to the bottom. 

This can be a big issue or not an issue at all depending on where you do your boating, but anywhere there’s marine life on the bottom, boats and especially anchors can have dramatic impacts.

In some areas (such as on Florida’s coral reefs) it’s actually illegal to anchor because of the damage it can do to the corals. But anchoring isn’t the only issue. Boats can rip “prop scars” in shallow weed beds, churn muddy bottoms and cause cloudy water, and disturb shellfish beds.

Study up on the waters you rove, to make sure you’re being kind to the benthic brethren that live there.

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10. Clean, Drain, Dry: Stop the Spread of Aquatic Invasive Species

clean drain dry to stop aquatic hitchhikers

This is another topic that’s relevant to where you live. The concern is biggest for inland trailer-boaters, but can also apply elsewhere: hitch-hiking invasive species can jump from one body of water to another via your boat.

The best way you can help prevent this is to "Clean, Drain, Dry":

  • By inspecting your boat for plants and removing them immediately after hauling it out;
  • Washing the boat down thoroughly between trips;
  • Letting it dry for a several days before launching the boat in a different body of water.
  • Also be sure to drain the bilge, livewell, raw water washdown system, and anything else that may hold water.

You can clean more about the Clean, Drain, Dry initiative by reading Boat Ramp Etiquette 101.

You (hopefully!) already flush the motor as a matter of maintenance, but it’s doubly important to flush between uses to be sure there aren’t any hitchhiking invasives in that system, too. If you’re not sure about the process, see How to Flush an Outboard Motor and How to Flush a PWC Engine.

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in April 2019 and updated in January 2021.