Where I come from, Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, water levels normally fluctuate about 10 feet during the season, and to deal with it floating docks are key. In fact, on all impoundments, floating docks have been raised to an art form by necessity. When the water goes up or down, the dock has to go with it.
Floating docks aren't restricted to the South, either. Boaters have also turned to them in the North, where freezing lakes can damage piers. Some floating docks, like the VersaDock models, can be left in all winter.
"More than 80 percent of our northern installations stay in all winter," says Teo Leonard, president of president of VersaDock. "They pop up on top as the ice puts on the squeeze."
Other systems, like the EZ Dock systems we tested, can be rolled up on shore on special wheels that remain in place year-round.
Still another feature of floating docks intrigued us. We wanted to test drive-on boat hoists that would lift boats out of the water when we were through with them. Did they work? Was there a trick to it? And would the average boater like such an arrangement?
With the five top dockmakers in place, we converged on Okeechobee at a lagoon we'll call Home Port. Our plan was to make it all happen in one day.
Putting It All Together
On the morning of our test, thick fog blanketed Okeetantee Park on the northern tip of Lake Okeechobee. It hovers on our lagoon until well past our scheduled 7 a.m. starting time. Piles of dock segments are stacked on trailers and along the shore. Cartons of connectors, hardware and tools, and dozens of dock builders wait for our "go." We watch an 8-foot alligator stalk a shorebird and then drop out of sight when the heron catches his drift and flies away. Fog or no fog, after two hours of waiting, it's time for action.
If we'd waited longer, we didn't think our crews would have time to get the docks built by sunset. In a half hour we'd know how wrong we were. At the starting gun, the gangs start sliding dock segments into the water.
Eric Laviollette of CanDock begins sliding sections of dock into the water, each cube weighing 14 pounds. "We usually ship much of our dock to our customers already assembled," he says while he and his partner slide the next section into the water.
VersaDock, a brand with similar modular cube-shaped flotation sections, follows suit. ShoreMaster's team, however, works diligently on shore, considering the ideal location of pilings and arranging their connectors.
"Somebody hand me a drill," says Kevin Viscardi as he slips into the water where moments earlier our gator
disappeared. I cringe, but he begins tightening connectors made of a durable polymer. They fasten each entire side of a floating module to the side of the adjoining module, clamping them tightly together at top and bottom. For a neat touch, the connectors have a wood-grain finish, and the floating modules look like brick pavers. The styling is first-class.
At the SportPort station three modules are quickly fastened together to form the boat dock/hoist. In less than a half hour they've completed that and hitched in a PWC port as well. Nearly all of the components are of rust-proof polymer, though we notice a few dozen stainless-steel bolts are used to hold things together. For SportPort, this would become "Dock in a Few Minutes."
"Our docks are primarily used alongside permanent docks," says Dave Reuckert, "so we don't make ramps for them. There are no working parts on them, and that adds to their durability, especially in salt water."
In just 10 minutes, each crew has at least half of its project floating. We begin to fantasize about spending the rest of the day touring Okeechobee, which though still painted in fog entices us to jump into a boat to explore. We could return to one of the magically appearing docks, the most elaborate being the EZ Dock, which has hoists for our Tahoe Q7i and for a SeaDoo GTX Si personal watercraft.
Sharon Wharmond of EZ Dock headquarters is part of the crew assembling the dock and boat lifts.
"We can't really call the lifts 'hoists,' so we came up with EZ Port," she explains. The six men in her crew are working like log rollers, putting modules in place without ever getting wet. They use a special tool to hold "dog bone" connectors in sockets below the deck while another hand bolts in another bone above the deck. These shock-absorbing connectors of heavy rubber are sacrificial, saving the flotation modules from damage when the water gets too rough.