The Fourth of July holiday is the granddaddy of summer boating weekends in the United States, are if there’s one occasion an owner uses his boat during the year it’s going to be for the long July 4th weekend. There are some good reasons for that. Water temperatures are usually just about the warmest of the year—as are air temperatures—and the general weather pattern is about as docile as it gets, save for afternoon thunderstorms. But the real reason folks enjoy getting out on the water on July Fourth is to enjoy pyrotechnics in the form of a good old-fashioned fireworks display. And there’s no better place to view one than from a scenic spot on the water.
But before you load up your boat with food, beverages, family, friends, and a healthy supply of sunscreen, you should prepare yourself with some handy tips from our seasoned pros that will allow you to maximize the relaxation and fun factor… and reduce potentially stressful encounters with other boaters.
- Pack and provision wisely. The likelihood is that at a minimum you’ll be out on the water for at least a few hours and possibly a full day. This means you’ll want to pack everything you’ll need, such as food, beverages, ice, towels, sunscreen, insect repellant, a change of clothes for each person, and, ahem, toilet paper and other personal items. You’ll never regret bringing along too much; you’ll always regret forgetting something critical that can ruin your enjoyment of the day.
- Scope out the area ahead of time. Before you head out, take the time to glance at a nautical chart of the area (we’ve listed the ones you’ll need below, if available) to get an idea of where you’ll potentially anchor up or beach your boat. Look for an area that’s got good protection if storms are a possibility, and one that isn’t in the way of shipping or commercial vessels that may transit the area. You’ll also want to identify any charted security areas that are closed to vessel traffic.
- Arrive early and claim your spot. Fireworks displays with a watery theme are notoriously popular, which means the best spots get swallowed up fairly early in the day. To guarantee a good position in the fleet, consider arriving before noon and making a full day of it. And also make sure you heed any security exclusion zones by keeping an eye out for U.S. Coast Guard or marine police patrol vessels. Another option is to scout out marinas near the fireworks venue and enjoy the show from a comfy, secure slip. Early reservations are generally a must, however.
- Be prepared for potential anchoring and rafting drama. If you do decide to anchor out and enjoy a fireworks show make sure you keep a vigilant watch on other boaters who anchor around you. We’ve seen our fair share of dragging anchors and had to make plenty of gelcoat repairs, thanks to inexperienced boaters who carelessly anchor too close or don’t know how to safely and properly form a raft of boats. Being prepared to fend off or start the engine when someone pulls your anchor loose with theirs can prevent a lot of disasters.
- If you opt for rafting up with friends, deploy plenty of fenders and tie the boats as tightly as possible. A loose-knit raft of boats tends to shift and bang much more than one that’s cinched down tightly, minimizing the space between the boats.
- Pick a designated skipper. Lots of folks like to enjoy an adult beverage or two—especially on holidays—but you’ll want to ensure that your crew has at least one qualified person who agrees to abstain from consuming alcoholic beverages. If the potential for a hefty citation and possible jail time doesn’t deter you from operating under the influence, a collision or accident that could harm your friends or family should.
With those tips in mind, here’s our list of 10 top locations around the United States to view a July Fourth fireworks show from the water. And yes, there are plenty of smaller shows that can be equally excellent. Enjoy the show!
NOAA Chart Number: 13272
Where: Fireworks climb into the air from barges anchored in the Charles River. Vantage points by boat are available outside the barge exclusion zones in the Charles River, or outside shipping lanes in Boston Harbor. Slips are available on the north side of the Charles River in Charlestown, but definitely phone ahead for reservations and availability.
New York City, NY
NOAA Chart Number: 12335
Where: The show launches from barges stationed in the East River, which has a healthy tidal current. That means the best places to anchor up and watch are in the harbor proper and from the Hudson River, where you can view the fireworks gracefully exploding above the iconic New York City skyline.
NOAA Chart Number: 12289
Where: Fireworks are launched from the National Mall but are highly visible from the Potomac River between Gravely Point and Theodore Roosevelt Island. The best views are from the Potomac River between the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Security is tight here, so be sure to keep an eye out for patrol vessels and heed their warnings.
NOAA Chart Number: 11524
Where: Though Charleston has a number of fireworks displays that kick off all around the city on July Fourth; the Patriot’s Point display on the Cooper River is one of the largest and most stunning. It also offers the easiest access by water. Simply anchor off the USS Yorktown in the Cooper River or grab a slip at Charleston Harbor Marina (check for availability and reservations). Fireworks are launched just off the bow of the USS Yorktown, a historic Essex-class aircraft carrier.
NOAA Chart Numbers: 11465, 11466, 11467, 11468
Where: You’ll face a lot of choices when deciding which fireworks display to view by boat this July Fourth in Miami. Definitely a town with a heartbeat driven by its vicinity to the water, Miami has a number of different displays every July Fourth. But our favorites are the ones at Bayfront Park (Downtown), Miami Beach, and Key Biscayne. And all are easily viewable from the water. Whether you anchor up in the ocean or closer in on the Intracoastal Waterway, each of these shows has a big wow factor.
Where: Hosted by the H-E-B Symphony Orchestra and launched from the shores of Lady Bird Lake (aka the Colorado River) at Vic Mathias Shores, this pyrotechnics show is a favorite of Austin boaters. While you’ll certainly find more folks ashore than afloat, the calm, protected waters of Lady Bird Lake and the surrounding scenery of the Austin hill country provide an incredible venue for this massive show.
NOAA Chart Number: 14927
Where: Chicago’s annual July Fourth fireworks show blasts off from Navy Pier in the beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan. Its location makes it visible from many marinas in the area, as well as from Lake Michigan itself, a vantage point that provides the Chicago skyline as a backdrop.
San Francisco, CA
NOAA Chart Number: 18650
Where: Like many big cities San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area provide many opportunities for fireworks watching. But it’s the downtown Pier 39 location that has some of the best views form the water. Get a reservation early from one of the Pier 39 marinas, or drift around in San Francisco Bay for the best views. Also consider some of the other area shows, such as those in Oakland, Marin, and Berkeley.
NOAA Chart Number: 18526
Where: The capping event for Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival, fireworks kick off on the Willamette River from Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which is just to the north and south of the Hawthorne Bridge on the west bank of the Willamette River. The good news is there’s plenty of river real estate for hundreds of boats to pack in and enjoy the show.
NOAA Chart Number: 18447
Where: Though the Seattle area is peppered with numerous waterways and waterside towns with all sorts of different fireworks displays, the one at Lake Union Park, as part of the wider Seafair Summer Fourth event, is by far the best. Pull up a piece of water in Lake Union, sit back, relax and enjoy the fire on high.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on boats.com in June 2016 and was updated in June 2018.