Rent, ride and relax on Madison’s lakes

Get out on the water without owning a boat
Rent, ride and relax on Madison’s lakes
Courtesy of Betty Lou Cruises
Betty Lou Cruises

Gaze dreamily out over the water of Lake Mendota while seated in one of the iconic sunburst-pattern chairs on the Memorial Union Terrace or take a chance at getting wet by going sailing, waterskiing, kayaking or board a cruise on Madison’s lakes.

Fortunately, you don’t need to own a vessel to get out on the water in the Madison area, and the offerings are expanding this summer.

For the first time, as of Memorial Day Weekend, a fleet of kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and 15-seat pontoon boats are available for rent at Madison’s Marshall Park on the west side of Lake Mendota.

Tyler Leeper said his new family-run rental business Marshall Boats will benefit the city of Madison by sprucing up the old boathouse there and adding a rooftop cafe and having staff look after the park and keep it clean. The park, along Allen Boulevard just outside the Middleton city limits, already has a small playground, a 40-foot-long beach, piers and a mooring dock.

“Our entire goal is to provide access to the lakes, to build intimacy between people and nature,” says Leeper, who was 14 when he started working summers at Wingra Park. Leeper bought the business in 2005 when he was 22 and expanded it to Brittingham Park on Monona Bay in 2013.

Another set of lake lovers, Jack von Rutenberg and his brother Bill Jr., started researching what it would take to run a financially sustainable boat cruise business on Lake Mendota 14 years before they finally launched theirs in 1998. That was two years after the death of their mother, after whom they named their first boat and the business Betty Lou Cruises. Their brother Robert came aboard in 2000.

In 1966, his parents established Mariner’s Inn, where the Yahara River flows into Lake Mendota. The von Rutenbergs came to own two more waterfront restaurants–the Nau-Ti-Gal a little farther up the Yahara, and Captain Bill’s in Middleton–which attract people for boat tours. The Lake Monona tours, started in 2002, depart from and return to the dock at Machinery Row.

Betty Lou Cruises operates four boats–two on Lake Mendota, two on Lake Monona. The lakes offer significantly different cruises. Natural areas–from Picnic Point to Governor’s Island and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus–are standout landmarks on the Lake Mendota tours. The more tightly packed lakefront estates and few remaining cottages on Lake Monona are fun to gape at, and the Monona Terrace is a sensational sight. Both lake tours offer unique vantage points for seeing the state Capitol and downtown Madison skyline.

“Our crews have heard so many passengers–people who have lived for many years in Madison–say they’ve never had a better view of the Capitol than on the water,” von Rutenberg says.

Want to pilot a speedboat or pontoon without having to own one or be responsible for its maintenance? That’s the deal offered by the new Capitol Boat Club starting this summer on Lake Mendota.

For $150 to $350 a month for an individual membership or shared by up to three people, you get access “to a private fleet of members-only boats.” The club idea comes to the lake via Justin Sisley, born and raised in the Milwaukee area, and a Madison resident for 10 years. Sisley lives most of the year in Austin, Texas, where he has helped run one of many boat clubs there.

Sisley says he intends to cap membership in the Madison club at 28 to 30 people and four boats. As of early April, he had four vessels lined up–two pontoons and two speedboats–after starting to promote the club in February.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the membership cap target for the Capitol Boat Club.

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