Florida Sailing and Cruising School

Crash Course
Story and photos by
Steve Rosenberg

Want to boost your boat-handling skills?
Take a confidence-building cruising course.

As the rub rail of the 36-foot Grand Banks trawler grabs the piling on the way into the slip, several things happen. The first, and most obvious, is the deafening screech of plastic and wood resisting each other. The second, and most regrettable, is a knee-jerk overcompensation of the port engine, which quickly sends the boat careening toward the opposite piling.

The third, and most memorable, is the enthusiastic reaction of the happy-hour patrons of an open-air tiki bar called Hurricane Harry's, who are just 50 feet away and clapping in appreciation for the afternoon's student entertainment. It's this particular detail of the Florida Sailing and Cruising School that really makes you earn your stripes - if you can dock it there, you can dock it anywhere.

So, with your forehead beading with perspiration, but with a feeling of accomplishment at finally parking the boat without serious damage to Blue Note or any of the neighboring vessels, the engines are shut down. But just when you think it's time to tie off for the evening and, perhaps, discreetly join the bar crowd in heavy disguise, Capt. Joe Cote tells you to fire up the diesels and try again. And this time, he says, how about docking with the wind instead of against it? Uh, right.

No matter what your level of boating experience, there's always something you can learn. That's where a cruising school might really benefit you. It's especially interesting if you spend most of your time on protected inland lakes or rivers, where the skills needed to safely pilot even a relatively big boat are somewhat limited. Learn the local water peculiarities, commit the applicable laws to memory, and check the gas gauge, and you're well on your way to some stress-free boating. But you can keep things fresh by getting to know the more demanding challenges of coastal boating. And don't you think it would be a good idea to brush up on your technique while driving someone else's boat?

So it's off to North Fort Myers, Florida, where Barb and Vic Hansen have been teaching powerboat-handling skills and sailing for the past 19 years. Safe and responsible boating is a passion for them, and they're spreading the word with every diploma they issue for either their captain or first-mate courses.

After signing in, gear is stowed in the forward cabin and a quick orientation is given. Ever piloted a boat this big? No. Ever handled a twin-screw? No. Ever docked a boat on a windy day in front of more than 20 people who have been drinking? No. OK, you're set. Just study this large stack of guides and the captain with join you at 7 a.m. Check.

Since the boat has two staterooms, there is another student assigned to this three-day live-aboard session. Tom Lawnsby is your fellow student. Tom's a former computer designer and RV enthusiast from Texas. He's interested in seeing if he can transfer his sailing skills to a cruiser from the expressed purpose of making the Great Loop trek around the northeastern quadrant of the United States. Talk about aiming high. At last count, there were 145 locks he'd need to negotiate over the course of more than nine months. You hit it off with your shipmate at dinner, and after a quick study session, you call it an early night.

You've forgotten how great it is to sleep aboard a boat. It's a deep, refreshing sleep that has you up well before the alarm with coffee in hand for a magnificent sunrise. It's a good day for boating. Capt. Joe shows up right on time lugging an armload of thick reference guides. You'll commit large sections to memory over the next two days. But despite the intimidating collection of required reading, Capt. Joe quickly puts you at ease. He's a captain for hire during parts of the year, moving boats from cool places to warm places when their owners want to enjoy the warm climate. During the summer, he's an assistant dockmaster on the Hudson River in New York. He's a boater's boater. He's also a serious, but understanding, teacher. You will be a better boater after your time with him, whether you realize it at the time or not.

The morning is spent with the basics-knot tying, gear location, equipment operation, boat nomenclature, navigation signage for the Intracoastal Waterway, and gaining a solid understanding of the various systems on Blue Note. Nothing is too difficult if you have even the most basic boating background, so the morning flies by. When you complete a walk-through on line handling, you see that you'll be casting off in no time.

This is the stuff you came for. Shore power is disconnected and stowed, and the generator is fired up. From the fly bridge helm, you hear the engines rumble to life, and it's time to shove off. There's very little traffic in the marina-apparently everyone knows when the students are about to be sent out. It's the confidence-building portion of the show, where you realize that a 36-footer can be turned within its own length. It's where you understand that you have the ability to maneuver even in tight situations, with oncoming traffic, and wind. At least you realize that in theory, given the fact that there are no present tight situations, no oncoming traffic, and very little wind.

Upon returning to the marina (see the aforementioned docking fiasco) you shut down for the evening, coiling deck lines and securing gear like a pro. You meet your neighbors, Jim and Margie of Greenfield, Indiana, who are taking the class to broaden their horizons after years of river boating. They're getting a serious kick out of the fact that their boat is named Patience. The local dinner joint is rocking, but exhaustion sets in as the evening's assignment draws inevitably closer - cram for your certification test, and plot tomorrow's course. Several after-dinner hours are committed to studying, and nobody argues when it's time to retire for the night.

The sky is clear and the water is reasonable calm as you exit the marina the next morning toward the main channel with several porpoises playfully chasing your wake. Since you're used to just tearing across your home lake in any direction, the narrow channels that surround this area take a little getting used to. In many spots, the channel is only slightly wider than two big boats, leaving you feeling a little crunched as oncoming vessels go by. This is one of the reasons the area is so perfect for training, you really get extreme examples to deal with. With Tom at the wheel, you sight the channel markers so you can anticipate turns and give Tom plenty of time to react. More than once, other boaters use a little more than their fair share of the dredged route.

On a particularly tricky run, the traffic gets ridiculously thick. Capt. Joe comments on the gathering "armada" and points to a thick black squall line offshore. Nothing gets past this guy. "Everyone's trying to get out to the water before the storm comes ashore. It'll be even worse when coming back," he says. But it's all part of the education as rights-of-way are yielded and all your newly learned on-the-water skills are put to the test. Find an anchorage for lunch, while navigating around a treacherous point and locating three unusual chart references along the way. It keeps you busy and interested. Especially when you're asked to triangulate your location using a distant charted landmark. Nobody warned you there would be math on this test.

Later that afternoon, back at the marina, Capt. Joe throws questions at you like, "What do you do - step by step - when certain warning light comes on?" Yep, shut down the engine, throw back the rug and climb down into the engine room. You suspect there's a clogged water intake and dismantle the filtering unit just like it said in the boat's equipment manual. Good thing you stayed up real late reading those extra few pages. Capt. Joe nods in approval.

When everything is said and done, and asked and answered, and tested and graded, you get the passing marks you hoped for. But more importantly, you know you've made yourself a better, more competent boater. And any time you can do that, it's time well spent.

Click here to visit Southwest Florida Yachts

Florida Sailing & Cruising School
3444 Marinatown Lane N.W. • North Fort Myers • Florida 33903
(239) 656-1339 (800) 262-7939 Fax (239) 656-2628

Marinatown Marina 26° 38.5'N 81° 53.0'W
Burnt Store Marina 26° 45.71' N 82° 04.20'W

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