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By Susan J. Marks Summer is (almost) here, and the time is right to set sail. And the 17 million Americans who own a boat -- or the 70 million who go boating at least once in a year -- have questions to be answered, rules to learn, destinations to check out, and, of course, gear to buy. Especially for beginners, it can be a daunting task. can be a one-stop answer. Operated by the half-million-member Boat Owners Association of America, it's like an American Automobile Assn. site for the boat set -- a combination of commerce, information, and even boating-related crossword puzzles that should satisfy all but the truly insatiable.

Like the AAA, the BOAA is a combination of a nonprofit advocacy group working for boat owners' issues and a forthrightly commercial organization. In addition to its lobbying work, the association has an employee-owned company, Boat America, that sells all manner of boating-related services, from running a series of retail stores to an online boat-financing operation.

ANCHORS AWEIGH. This site is the portal for all those entities, and it's exhaustively thorough. If the association's company doesn't sell a particular boating service itself, its site links you to one that does. The problem -- and it can be a fairly large one -- is that isn't especially well organized, which makes it tougher to use than it ought to be. In particular, a poor search engine turned up lots of irrelevant results: A search for boat safety courses turned up a tutorial on how to install a boat's stereo.

Here's some of what you can do at the site: buy, sell, insure, tow, or finance a boat; buy sailing clothes or water gear; read product reviews; get the latest on boating laws, license requirements by state, recalls, and news; try a boating crossword puzzle; take a water-safety course; send free e-cards; or chat with nautical friends.

Some of what's available is esoteric to the verge of self-parody: Take the wedding registry for boating paraphernalia or the life-jacket loaner program. But real boaters will especially like the water-quality and stream-flow information from the U.S. Geological Survey, and up-to-date marine and inland weather forecasts, complete with satellite images from NASA's global hydrology and climate center. It's worth a visit just for that.

MARINE SHOPPING. gives you a wide range of ways to buy both new and used boats, and plenty of information to guide your decision. Behind the Boat Buying tab, entries include Boating Buying Services, Boat Buying Guide, (a partner site that includes product reviews), classified ads for used boats, and a price-comparison service similar to the guides familiar to car buyers. The classifieds go on and on.

Just as thorough is the Online Store, an option on the left side of the home page. Clicking on it brings up 27 different categories of stuff to buy, from books to electronics to boat furniture, most with dozens of listings. You'll usually have the choice of buying online or, depending on where you live, picking up the item at a local BoatUS store.

There's also a great Consumer Protection Bureau, under Boating Information/Consumer Affairs. It includes links to lists of boat manufacturers, with their contact information, and sample complaint letters. Click on New Recalls for current information, or USCG Recall Database to link directly to the U.S. Coast Guard's Web site. has scads of information and essentials. It's handy if you're going boating, learning to sail, or boat shopping. Just figure in some lead time, since it could take a while to find what you want amid the clutter. Nautical dreamer Marks writes about technology from Denver

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