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Saltwater vs Freshwater Boating (Ultimate Guide)

There are multiple things to consider when deciding to buy or rent a boat. Not all boats are built the same, so before making a decision, an essential question to ask is where and how you plan to use your boat.

Do you plan on boating in a freshwater area or a saltwater area? You might live near a freshwater lake, or perhaps near somewhere with saltwater like the ocean. This is a critical topic to explore because whatever the situation is, understanding the difference between boating in saltwater and freshwater is important.

You may use almost any kind of boat in both freshwater and saltwater, but saltwater is much more corrosive than freshwater. This means that additional maintenance tasks will be needed for saltwater boats that otherwise wouldn’t be needed if you were to use the same boat in freshwater.

Maintenance

Saltwater can be much more corrosive on boats than freshwater. In fact, saltwater corrodes metal five times faster than fresh water does and the salty, humid ocean air causes metal to corrode 10 times faster than air with normal humidity.

Due to these environments, boats used in saltwater require much more maintenance than boats used in freshwater. However, this doesn’t mean that fresh water boats don’t require maintenance. Freshwater boats can also face corrosion and hull bottom fouling issues similar to saltwater boats.

So here are 5 maintenance tasks that need to get done often for saltwater use:

  • Flush engine with fresh water after every use
  • Rinse off everything, including the trailer, multiple times with fresh water after every use
  • Wax your boat at least once every 3-6 months
  • Check for rust in your engine compartments and all over your boat often

If you have a high-quality saltwater boat, chances are it has an internal engine flushing system to help with this process. The engine shouldn’t be the only part that needs to be rinsed, the exterior of the boat such as the hull as well as any metal parts, such as exposed bolts, propellers, brackets, railings, and even your trailer should be properly rinsed with fresh water and desalted with a desalt solution such as this one if possible after every saltwater use.

Check out this video to learn how to flush an outboard motor. Inboards can be a little more complicated, and you may have to refer to your owner’s manual.

A good rule of thumb is to rinse each part for five to ten minutes to allow for a proper rinse.

Boat and Engine Designs

Old saltwater-specific engines and boats are built differently and have unique designs and structures than freshwater engines and boats. This is mainly due to the different environments found in saltwater areas versus freshwater areas. However, modern engines are designed to work just as well in both saltwater and freshwater.

From the exterior like the boat itself to the interior like the engine, these different designs allow each boat to thrive and be more effective in their intended environments. Some of the key differences between the designs include the following:

  • Hull Design: Boats designed for freshwater are built with hull shapes and fins meant for near flat shores and designed to handle flat waves. Saltwater boats are designed to handle rougher water conditions and are equipped for harsher environments.
  • Hull Fouling: Boats designed for saltwater are more prone to marine life growing on the hull. For example, barnacles can grow on the hull and can slice open bellows, damaging boat parts. Removing marine life from the hull can be a time-consuming task, so generally, boats used in salt water have a much more toxic bottom paint that needs to be repainted often.
  • Corrosion Resistant: Saltwater boat engines are designed to be more corrosion resistant than freshwater boat engines. High-quality saltwater boat engines are designed with closed cooling systems, which allow boat owners to easily flush their engines with fresh water after every use. It’s critical to rinse out your boat’s engine with fresh water to ensure no rusting or corrosion occurs.
  • Galvanic corrosion protector: Some saltwater boat engines are commonly designed with galvanic corrosion protection systems such as a mercathode systems on mercury engines. These systems provide cathodic protection by running electrical currents throughout the boat engine and will prevent galvanic corrosion.

Best boat types for saltwater and freshwater

Best boat types for saltwater

  • Center console
  • Walkaround
  • Cabin cruiser
  • Go fast boats
  • Yachts
  • Sailboats

Best boat types for freshwater

  • Ski boats
  • Bass boats
  • Deep-V boats
  • Pontoon boats
  • Deck boats

Cost

When it comes to cost, there is a big difference between saltwater boating and freshwater boating. Due to the harsher environments, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done on saltwater boats to ensure they are in good working order.

So maintenance is generally going to cost 2-3 times more for saltwater boats. This comes out to about 10% of the value of the boat every year that you will have to pay for maintenance if you don’t do it yourself. For example, you may need to change the propeller more often, spray your boat off more often, wax your boat more often, etc.

Additionally, depending on your area, saltwater boat technicians generally have a higher hourly rate when compared to freshwater.

Outside of maintenance costs, things like insurance can also be more expensive as well. Insurance companies understand the risk saltwater imposes on your boat just as much as anyone else does.

Ease of Access

Both freshwater and saltwater areas should provide designated ramps to allow you to enter and exit your boat. However, depending on the water conditions will determine how simple it is to enter and exit the area. Depending on the area, accessing freshwater areas is usually simpler than accessing saltwater areas.

For example, in freshwater areas like a lake, you may only have to face small winds when entering your boat into the freshwater area. Or in a freshwater lake, you may only have to handle minimal currents to enter and exit your boat. Once the boat has been released into a freshwater environment, it should be relatively simple to begin boating.

However, when it comes to entering saltwater areas, such as the open ocean, you may come across rougher water conditions, such as strong winds, tides, currents, and likely bigger boats. These conditions can present a greater challenge to entering and exiting the area.

This is why most people need larger boats for saltwater boating.

Skills

In saltwater environments, there are more opportunities to come across challenges. When it comes to the skills needed for these water environments, saltwater boating requires more maneuvering skills than freshwater boating.

For example, in the ocean, water levels may rise and fall dramatically, and you could face challenging water conditions such as tides and currents. Additionally, the weather can change rapidly and viciously. The last thing you want is to get caught in a storm. These conditions require more skills for maneuvering these waters. While maneuvering the ocean, it’s critical to know how to read radar, keep an eye on weather forecasts, and navigate through wind and waves.

Related article: Boating And Docking In The Wind And Waves (Tips And Tricks)

Freshwater areas usually have calmer shores and flatter waves, which allows for easier maneuvering when compared to saltwater. However, there are still challenges that arise in freshwater environments. For example, freshwater is not as deep as saltwater areas, which has the risk of hitting the bottom unexpectedly.

So, Freshwater boating requires more understanding of different channel markers to ensure you are boating in safe areas.

Environment

When it comes to saltwater and freshwater environments, these are two different worlds. Freshwater areas like lakes and rivers may provide more diverse environments, such as waterfalls and trees, that are not often seen in saltwater.

However, saltwater environments like the ocean offer more diverse wildlife, such as dolphins, otters, and more, depending on the area. Additionally, fishing in saltwater areas have a much more diverse pool of fish that can be caught. From the type of fish to the size, saltwater areas offer much more variety when compared to freshwater fishing. 

Can a saltwater boat be used in freshwater, and vice versa?

While these are some key differences between freshwater and saltwater boats, freshwater boats can be used in saltwater and vice versa. Even saltwater boat engines can be used in freshwater perfectly fine.

However, if you decide to take your freshwater boat into saltwater, freshwater boat owners must keep in mind the risk of corrosion in saltwater. To protect your freshwater boat, be sure to desalt the engine with fresh water after saltwater use and rinse the exterior, as any unrinsed salt can lead to corrosion.

On the other hand, saltwater boats are designed to be tough and handle anything the ocean may through at them. So they can generally handle freshwater lakes very easily unless the lake is too shallow.

Conclusion

All in all, there are multiple things to consider when deciding to buy or rent a boat. Many of the considerations will be guided by your location, specifically whether you live near a saltwater body of water such as an ocean, or a freshwater area such as a lake or a river.

Whatever your situation is, it’s critical to consider many different boats thoroughly before making a decision. We hope the above sections provide a clear overview of the key differences between saltwater boats and freshwater boats.

Sam
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