Ahoy Adventure!

A family on a boat goin under a bridge
Rollin’ on the river

You may not know any professional boat-builders, but if you had lived in the Pittsburgh area more than 200 years ago, you might have known a few—or at least, you wouldn’t have had to go too far to meet one. Not long after the conclusion of the French and Indian War, where the British and French battled for decades to gain control of the strategically significant area at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, Pittsburgh became known as “The Gateway to the West.”

By the early 1800s, pioneers were coming here by the thousands. Among the first of these were Lewis and Clark, who commissioned a 55-foot keel boat from a boat yard that was either near downtown or in Elizabeth  (which yard is up for debate). They departed from Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803, and embarked on what was one of the most significant expeditions in history.

By the 1830s, nearly 40 percent of all U.S. steamboats were being built in Pittsburgh, earning us a “Steamboat City” designation. During the latter half of the 1800s, commercial river traffic boomed, to help accommodate the growing steel industry.

The point is, boating is as Pittsburgh as a Terrible Towel.

“It is a fun way to get in touch with who we are,” said Lisa Borrelli Dorn, Bower Hill Road, the owner of a 16-foot jet boat and a small vintage sailboat. “We are three rivers. Our history is based on rivers. We are here because somebody felt the confluence of the rivers was strategic. So it’s a great way to just kind of be in touch with our history.”

Here in Mt. Lebanon, where Mt. Washington separates us from Pittsburgh’s rivers but we’re still just a 20-minute drive to downtown, we certainly have river boaters. But we also have people who are willing to travel to use their boats at faraway lakes—and even go as far as the ocean— to find some summer fun away from the city.

Take it to the lake

The Youghiogheny River Lake, less than a two-hour drive to the southeast in the Laurel Highlands, is a popular destination for local boaters.

Kristen Peckich, owner of La Pomponée on Washington Road, has a cottage on the lake with a dock, where she keeps her 24-foot Crownline deck boat during the summer.

Peckich learned how to boat at age 13. “My lake friends and I learned to drive our parents’ boats. It was completely legal for me to drive my friends around and even pull each other water skiing,” she said.

Today, her favorite thing to do on the lake is listen to music and look for bald eagles—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pennsylvania Bald Eagle Nesting Sites Map, there is at least one nest in the area, near the mouth of the Youghiogheny River.

Borrelli Dorn also enjoys boating on the Youghiogheny River Lake, where she and her husband, Dave, store and dock their jet boat at a marina year-round. Jet boats use the same propulsion system as jet skis, meaning they tend to be small and very fast. This has suited the Dorn family well, as water skiing is one of their favorite aquatic activities.

“Most people buy boats with outboard motors, but we had kids. I didn’t like the idea of them playing behind the back of a boat that had propellers, and I didn’t want an inboard, so we looked at jet boats,” said Borrelli Dorn, whose son and two daughters are now grown, but still enjoy coming to the lake to boat.

With a cabin at Hidden Valley, the Dorns often take day trips to their boat, sometimes stopping at Shepherd’s Farm Restaurant and Ice Cream Shoppe in Confluence, Pennsylvania, along the way for take-out lamb sandwiches and homemade ice cream. Then they spend the day skiing, entertaining, or just relaxing on the lake.

But the Dorns used to travel all over with their boats. The jet boat has even gone with them on vacation to the beach. They have driven it on the ocean and the Intercoastal Waterway. One of their favorite trips was along the coast of New Jersey, stopping in Avalon, Wildwood and Cape May, where they visited with Mt. Lebanon friends.

A woman wakeboarding in the air.
Lauren Kuntz wakeboarding on Lake Chautauqua in southern New York.

“If you can trailer your boat, you can put it on any different launch, anywhere!” said Borrelli Dorn. At 16 feet, her jet boat is easy to tow. But for anyone putting their boat in the ocean, she cautions, “Saltwater is hard on boats. You’ve got to run freshwater through afterward.”

Lori Benson and Jay Kuntz, Salem Drive, had a sailboat that they would take to Moraine State Park, but they did not start seriously boating until Kuntz inherited a cottage in Chautauqua, New York, in 1993, and they began spending their summers there. At the time, their children, Jessica and Lauren, were small, so they just bought a couple of kayaks, but they decided to add a powerboat to their fleet a few years later.

First, they bought a used Four Winns deck boat from someone on Greenhurst Drive and drove it to Chautauqua, where they used it to tube, water ski and cruise around with their daughters until it started to become unreliable. In 2009, they bought a new Bayliner Bowrider at the Pittsburgh Boat Show. Bowriders are similar to deck boats—they’re quick, they have space for passengers in the bow, they can accommodate towing for water sports—however their hulls have a Deeper V, making them slightly faster and more maneuverable than deck boats, but less stable on flat water.

Their daughter Lauren learned how to wakeboard on the Bayliner. Wakeboarding is a sport similar surfing and waterskiing, where a person strapped to a board is towed behind a boat and uses the boat’s wake to perform jumps and tricks.

Still, Benson prefers her kayaks. “I love the simplicity of the kayak. I can put it in the water in about two minutes and maintenance is simple … maintenance of power boats is a pain in the neck! It takes hours to clean and winterize it,” she said. “Every year we question if it’s worth all the work, but then spring comes and it goes right back in the water!”

a man and a woman with 3 kids on a boat on a river in Pittsburgh, hills, buildings, and a bridge in the distance.
Brittany Florijan and her husband, Bill, enjoy the bonding experience they have with their children during their time out on the water.

Take Me to The River

Brittany and Bill Florijan, Avon Drive, became first-time boat owners nine years ago, when they bought a 1992 Celebrity Bowrider. They discovered while they were dating that they both had overwhelmingly positive experiences with boats on vacations and with friends growing up, so they eventually decided to invest in this common interest.

“Little did I know, just because I’ve ridden on boats, driven jet skis and have my boater’s license, doesn’t mean I knew much about captaining a boat,” said Brittany. “Now, after nine years … I feel a lot more confident in the captain part.”

A young boy riding a ski trainger in a river with trees on a hill behind him
Nate Florijan, 5, Avon Drive, is all smiles as he rides the family’s ski trainer along the Allegheny River.

“Unless you grew up as a boater, you will have a lot to learn, but don’t be shy or embarrassed because most people have been in your same position when they started,” added Bill. “The boating community in Pittsburgh is very helpful, and if we didn’t know something, we would just ask other boaters and they were always willing to pass along some knowledge.”

The Florijans decided to dock their boat at the Millvale Marina, on the Allegheny River, during the summers. They haven’t done this in five years, as their three children—Billy, Nathan and Fiona—are still young, but at the time this was written, they were hoping they would be able to dock it again this summer. Since they’re both teachers, it is easy for them to enjoy cruising on the boat all summer long.

One of the greatest lessons Bill has learned as a boat owner is to “Always be prepared. We have had dead batteries, blown-out trailer tires, run out of gas during a rain storm and more,” he said. “There is work involved, but once you get a system down, it’s not that bad and the good outweighs the bad.

“There are so many aspects of Pittsburgh that go unnoticed, and I believe the Pittsburgh boating community is one of them,” Bill Florijan adds. “Many do not know that Pittsburgh has one of the best inland boating communities in the country. I love that we can hang out below Kennywood and watch the roller coaster, and in a few minutes, be in
front of PNC Park, listening to a game.”

What You Should Know

For Michael Johnson, Waterways Conservation Officer for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, there is a key piece of lifesaving equipment that people must remember before leaving their dock—a life jacket that is appropriately sized to each person aboard their boat.

Waterways Conservation Officers are certified police officers who also receive training in all aspects of watercraft safety to help protect Pennsylvania’s anglers and boaters. As such, they are responsible for investigating boating-related accidents, up to and including fatalities.

“We catch a lot of grief for issuing tickets for recreational activities. And we get it … People are out there, trying to have fun, and here comes Officer Johnson, to ruin their fun,” said Johnson. 

But in 2020, there were 11 boating-related deaths in Pennsylvania. “For all 11 fatalities, 100 percent of them were not wearing their life jacket,” said Johnson.

In addition to life jackets, state law also requires the presence of a sound-producing device on a boat, like a coach’s whistle for smaller boats, that can be used in case of emergency.

Here are some additional things Johnson would like boaters to keep in mind:

  • It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 
  • Maintain your boat. Ensuring that your boat is in good order, including working navigation lights if you are out at night, is important for safety. “You don’t want your boat to conk out and break down when you have a 300,000-ton barge bearing down on you. And that is a real possibility in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Johnson.
  • Be courteous. This includes having your boat ready when it’s your turn at a boat launch and being courteous around marinas. It is illegal to produce a wake within 100 feet of docks, launch ramps, swimmers, downed skiers, anchored, moored or drifting boats, but even if you are more than 100 feet away from one of these objects, if your wake should cause damages, you could be held civilly liable.
  • Don’t fish without a license. You can get a license in five minutes online at www.fishandboat.com.
  • Take a boater safety course. They’re required for people operating motorboats, and Johnson recommends the class for all boaters. The course covers the basics from power boat and non-powered craft instruction, water rescue, basic boat and trailer maintenance, and boat launching and retrieval. 

Visit www.fishandboat.com to register for an online or in-person course.