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Feel like cottage neighbours are encroaching on your space? (You’re not alone)

Q: “I have the misfortune of living on a gorgeous little lake. Neighbours crowd their swim rafts around our dock, making it unpleasant and challenging to swim. They don’t care. Are there any rules about where you can put a raft? How close can it be to a neighbour’s dock?”

A: Let me get this straight: you own a cottage on a gorgeous little lake—one that many people would give up some bone marrow to rent for a few weeks, especially during COVID-19. But your entire waterfront experience has been ruined by encroaching swim rafts? As in, adults and children splashing about and having fun? I’m having trouble imagining how swim rafts could be “crowded” around your dock. Is the water too shallow everywhere else? I also can’t figure out how having swim rafts nearby could make it “unpleasant and challenging” to swim. Wouldn’t they have the exact opposite effect? Or maybe I’m missing something here. Are the swim rafts stacked with hives of murder hornets? Have snipers infiltrated the rafts, camouflaged with pool noodles and flutter boards?

Unfortunately, your boo-hoo episode won’t be solved by some esoteric bit of marine law. With very few exceptions, bodies of water in Canada are designated as Crown land, public property owned by all. So the water in front of your dock is my water too, and if I choose to anchor my swim raft there, or fish for bass right beside your floating trampoline, it is my legal right to do so. I can also park my pontoon boat in your cove and have a cocoa-butter swim and sunburn party with Kid Rock cranked, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There are exceptions, of course, such as on federal waterways such as the Trent-Severn, where swim rafts require government approval and must not block access between a dock and a navigation channel. They must also be located directly in front of the owner’s property. But I don’t think your cottage is on a federal shipping channel, so it looks like you are stuck.

Lending tools to your cottage neighbours

Sharing the water has been a source of irritation in cottage country for donkey’s years, from asshat anglers who bounce crankbaits off your dock to idiots on jet-propelled crotch rockets doing endless hot laps around the bay. It goes both ways, of course, because certain cottagers truly believe they own everything they can see. These are the Lord and Master types (usually men of a certain age) who wave their arms and scream profanities at every passing boat and call the cops when the neighbour’s kid plays music at a campfire.

I recently heard from a cottager who was anchored in a bay with her family when a male cottager (of a certain age) got aggressive when they wouldn’t obey his commands to pack up and leave. He then came out in a boat, driving in circles to intimidate or swamp the “trespassers”—who eventually did flee. It’s a control thing, I guess, but a pathology that seems amplified at the cottage, with the addition of precious waterfront and maybe three-fingers of Grey Goose. I have personally known cottagers to install false shoal markers to encourage boats to stay away from their personal space. I have also seen cottagers remove legitimate shoal markers just because they didn’t like looking at them, without any concern for the unwitting boaters who could now strike the hidden hazard.

Some waterfront behaviours, of course, are actually illegal. Like operating a vessel at more than 10 km/h within 30 m of shore or wakesurfing in a posted no-wake zone. But they are easy to resolve precisely because they are defined under law. Take a video, call the cops, and Bob’s your auntie. (The cops may do nothing, of course, but you can at least say you attempted to promote nautical justice.) But disputes over public waters when no actual laws have been broken can be crazy making.

How do we silence loud lake neighbours?

It is creditable that you have not tackled your swim raft dilemma like that archetypal alpha male we all despise, with fingers pointing and lips flapping. Because the only thing in this life that is more enjoyable than ignoring alpha males is to drive them batcrap crazy with repeated provocation. At my family cottage, there was a man who thought he owned the water in his channel. He would yell at us and shake his fist, which only motivated my father to cap off every boat ride with a run through Mr. Angry’s channel. After my father died, my brothers and I kept the ritual alive. Like, for a decade.

Yes we were intentionally breaking the law by driving close to shore at speed, but that’s not the point. The moral is that you shouldn’t get into a pissing match with people who might be more childish and stubborn than you are. For instance, when some cottager starts throwing gestures because I’m trolling close to his dock, it virtually guarantees that I will troll past his dock as often as I can manage. It’s a totally juvenile action and so very satisfying.

Six ways to make peace with your lake neighbours

So while you have not poisoned the well with your neighbours, it also doesn’t look like you have done much to initiate a conversation. You say your neighbours don’t care, but I have to wonder if they even have a clue that the rafts are such a major problem for you. Why not approach them for a chat? As in a jovial, non-confrontational dialogue, ostensibly concerning fine weather and the beauty of the day.

It seems to me that if the lake is so small and neighbours so close, then you are all in this together. If good spots for swimming are limited, why don’t you suggest a more communal approach and literally raft up the rafts, making one extra-large super-duper swim raft anchored in just one swim-friendly spot? And since this would be to your benefit, why not sweeten the pot—and become a lake legend—by springing for a water slide or a diving board for the new Aquatic Fun Centre? After all, who doesn’t love a giant swim raft with a water slide? Might be just the tonic to help you get your cottage groove back.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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