The Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay—plus their numerous tributaries—make Washington a great place for boaters. You don’t need experience to get on the water. Here’s how:
Just Sit Back
Climb aboard the 74-foot schooner Woodwind for a two-hour excursion from downtown Annapolis to the Bay Bridge and back. You can help steer, or just relax and take in the scenery. The ship departs several times a day; sunset cruises—from 6:30 to 8:30 in summer—offer the best views. There’s a cash bar on board, and on Wednesday evenings you can watch the Annapolis sailboat races. Cost: $22 to $37 per person. For schedules and more information, visit schoonerwoodwind.com.
Narrated tours aboard the Potomac Riverboat Company’s water taxis are a relaxing way to do some sightseeing—or to avoid traffic. The boats, which make frequent trips between Alexandria, Georgetown, Mount Vernon, and National Harbor, float past the monuments and other landmarks. Pirate cruises geared towards children with onboard songs and stories of piracy on the Potomac are also available, as are canine cruises, which allow dogs to accompany you on your tour of Alexandria’s seaport. Rates and schedules are at potomacriverboatco.com.
Take the Driver’s Seat
On Spotsylvania’s Lake Anna, Virginia’s largest lake, several companies rent pontoon boats. The flat-bottomed boats—essentially floating rafts with engines, cushy seats, and a sunshade—are easy to operate and take you for swimming beyond the roped-in area off the lake’s beach, which gets crowded on sunny weekends.
Rental rates vary, but a full day generally costs between $150 and $350, depending on the size of the boat. Contact Dukes’ Creek Marina (3831 Breaknock Rd., Bumpass; 540-895-5065; dukescreekmarina.com), First Mates Watercraft Rentals (Anna Point Marina, 13721 Anna Point La., Mineral; 540-895-0083; annapoint.com or firstmatesrentals.com), Lake Anna Beach Marina (349 Pleasants Landing Rd., Bumpass; 540-872-0611), or Sturgeon Creek Marina (5107 Courthouse Rd., Spotsylvania; 540-895-5095; sturgeoncreekmarina.com). Make reservations about two weeks in advance.
If speed is your thing, take out a powerboat. Just south of Annapolis in Edgewater, South River Boat Rentals (2802 Solomons Island Rd., Edgewater; 410-956-9729; southriverboatrentals.com) has 21- to 50-foot motorboats for rent, starting at $400 for half a day. A captain is required on the larger boats and with inexperienced boaters, for $100 per half-day.
Annapolis Small Boat Rentals (808 Boucher Ave., Annapolis; 410-268-2628; asmallboatrental.com) also has powerboats for rent, from 17 to 21 feet. A half-day rental costs $350; a full day is $650. A captain is available for $60 per hour. Reserve at least a week in advance. From either location, it’s an easy ride to the Chesapeake.
If occasional outings aren’t enough, check out the Carefree Boat Club (866-262-8322; carefreeboats.com). Membership is pricey—from approximately $7,500 to $10,000 per year, depending on the length of membership—but it includes unlimited use of the sailboats, powerboats, pontoons, and other vessels at four locations: Southwest DC, Woodbridge, Annapolis, and Pasadena. The club takes care of all maintenance—including swabbing the decks—and keeps a member-to-boat ratio of 10 to 1.
Have a Natural Adventure
Learn how to windsurf in a six-hour course on the Gunpowder River at Gunpowder Falls State Park, on the Chesapeake north of Baltimore. Ultimate Watersports (410-335-5352; ultimatewatersports.com) $145 classes two weekends a month. There’s a sandy beach and reliable winds, even during late summer when other parts of the bay are calm. Book about three weeks in advance. After the intro course, you can rent windsurfers for $20 to $25 per hour.
Paddling a canoe or kayak is probably the easiest way to get onto the water. There’s no shortage of outfitters on the Potomac, including Fletchers Boathouse (4940 Canal Rd., NW; 202-244-0461; fletchersboathouse.com), Jack’s Boathouse (3500 K St., NW; 202-337-9642; jacksboathouse.com), and Thompson’s Boat Center (2900 Virginia Ave., NW; 202-333-9543; thompsonboatcenter.com).
During summer, avoid the heat on a quiet sunset or moonlit tour ($54 to $65) of the Potomac or Piscataway Creek—one of the river’s tributaries—with Atlantic Kayak Company (Fort Washington Marina, 13600 King Charles Terrace, Fort Washington; 301-292-6455; atlantickayak.com). You’ll get a different view of the Potomac’s bridges and the monuments, or the chance to see bald eagles, osprey, beavers, and other wildlife on the Piscataway.
Or try a three-hour “Night Sounds” kayak trip on the C&O Canal with Potomac Paddle Sports (potomacpaddlesports.com). Guide Sunny Pitcher calls to the barred owls, and they hoot back. Tours run once a month—when the moon is full—from May to October and cost $98.