For those who have completed the seamanship classes
at Florida Sailing & Cruising School, there comes
the time when students take the plunge into chartering
and captaining their own vessel-the first solo cruise.
For Tim and Sheri Mullarkey, it was nothing but
Residents of Cincinnati, the Mullarkeys
wanted to learn what it takes to do their own cruising
on vacations, rather than hiring a captain. And
since a hectic business schedule didn't seem to
mesh well with boat ownership, they contacted Vic
and Barb Hansen, the enthusiastic proprietors of
the school and Southwest Florida Yachts, Inc., who
have been preaching the glories of Southwest Florida's
coastline for 18 years to their customers.
"We had seen their ads in all the
national boating magazines and received a newsletter
from them," explains Tim. "Sheri and I had taken
the U.S. Coast Guard Power Squadron boating instruction
and safety courses in Ohio, but we wanted to take
it to the next level. We had vacationed around Lee
County before and we thought the waters around that
area looked like a good place for our first solo
cruise." Well, that and the descriptive prose about
the region he found in the Randy Wayne White books
that he likes to read.
So, armed with extensive training
from the school, including three different cruising
classes and a "chaperoned" eight-day cruise to Key
West and back, Tim and Sheri chartered sister company
Southwest Florida Yachts' Blue Note, 36-foot Grand
People from North and South America
and Europe come to North Ft.Myers to attend the
Hansens' school, where students can live aboard
a luxury vessel while they learn to operate and
navigate power and sailing yachts up to 42 feet
long. The trawlers and motor yachts are based at
Marinatown Marina on the Caloosahatchee. Most of
the sailing fleet is at Burnt Store Marina on Charlotte
Harbor in Punta Gorda.
Over the years, hundreds of boaters
have come for the school or to charter a vessel,
with or without a captain, and cruise a coastline
that Cruising World magazine has rated No. 1 in
the United States and No. 3 in the world.
Safety and Experience
Since buying Southwest Florida Yachts in 1984, the
Hansens have seen boating schools come and go. Why
did theirs succeed where others did not? Vic says
it in two short sentences. "Safety isn't boring.
Safety isn't mean."
Safety is the bottom line at FS&CS.
The Hansens and the instructors, Coast Guard-licensed
captains, deal with unpredictable Mother Nature,
vessels worth millions of dollars, and priceless
lives. More important, students who leave with an
FS&CS diploma also will assume those responsibilities
when they cruise and sail on their own.
Teaching safety, says Vic, shouldn't
mean stern faces or raised voices. "We believe that
people learn and remember when they are having fun,
and we believe they learn with their hands, hearts,
and their heads. This is the philosophy upon which
we design all courses."
The school offers 13 sailing courses
ranging in price from $395 per person for Basic
Sailing to $2,795 per person for an Offshore Adventure
combination course. Twelve power boat courses also
are available, from Basic Powerboating in a 32-foot,
single-engine boat for $795 per person to Offshore
Powerboat Cruising in a twin-engine, 36- to 46-foot
boat for $2,395 per person. Except for a few basic
courses, the fee includes staying aboard the vessel.
"You learn a lot when you spend all
day and all night on a boat," says Barb. "You learn
what the engine is supposed to sound like, and if
it doesn't, you know something's wrong. You learn
all the creaks and squeaks, what's normal and what's
not." Barb calls the live-aboard courses "real time,
real world" education, but relaxed.
Courses in powerboat safety, handling,
and cruising are held at company headquarters at
Marinatown Marina. The "classrooms" are single-
and twin-engine cruising boats from 32 to 42 feet
long. Sailing courses take place at Burnt Store
Marina, where the boats are in the water and ready
Many students are repeat customers
who understand that education is never complete.
"With boating, just like any subject, there's always
more to learn," says Barb. Others have little or
no boating experience but want to see if they like
Some just want to charter a boat without
a captain; passing courses at the school qualifies
them for bareboat chartering through sister company
Southwest Florida Yachts, Inc.
For those who want to combine learning
and adventure, the school offers an intensive 12-day
course that takes the student from basic sailing
through advanced cruising. For those who prefer
to leave the driving to a licensed captain, Southwest
Florida Yachts takes care of everything; its concierge
service books marina slips and resort rooms for
charter customers and boat owners.
Captain Gary Graham instructs the
Mullarkeys and crew during their offshore power
boat course to Key West.
Cruising Southwest Florida
"There is a hidden treasure of cruising opportunities
here in Southwest Florida," says Vic. "People who
live here or visit here and spend their time on
land or in autos are missing more than half the
"Those who have cruised with us over
the years tell us how inspired they are by the beauty
of the barrier islands of Southwest Florida."
The weather is balmy with just the
right amount of breeze to encourage power cruising
and sailing in the open waters of Gulf of Mexico,
Vic and Barb explain. Whether navigating north by
northwest toward Venice or south by southeast, they
say, boaters enjoy the easterly view of a fringed
lace of sugar-white shorelines spotted with palms
In winter, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer
than on the mainland; in summer, it's cooler. And
the water is rarely rough. Besides, there are dozens
of passes on Florida's West Coast that lead from
open water into the protected navigational channel
of the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway. Many prefer
the ICW to the gulf because the channel is sheltered
by a string of barrier islands; plus, there's more
Some barrier islands are long and
famous like Sanibel and Captiva. Some are tiny mangrove
islands with bird colonies. Some, accessible only
by boat, introduce you to a community of like-minded
mariners, such as Cabbage Key.
When civilization beckons, there are
dozens of marinas, ships stores, waterfront resorts,and
restaurants that will make you feel at home. And
when you want to be alone, Barb and Vic tell their
charters, you easily can, but expect to share your
solitude with nature.
Before the Mullarkeys launched their
voyage on the Blue Note, they drove around by car
for a landlubber's perspective of some of the spots
they intended to cruise to. Then off they went this
past December for an eight-day exploration of Lee
County waters. Destinations included South Seas
Plantation Resort and Yacht Harbor on Captiva, the
bays around "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge,
Useppa Island, Burnt Store Marina, and Boca Grande.
"Some nights we would dock at a marina,
and some we'd just drop anchor in a bay or cove;
it was about half and half," notes Tim. "We had
no problems at all. We really had a great time."
Bill AuCoin heads up Bill AuCoin
Public Communications Inc. of Tampa. Kelly Maden
is managing editor of Times of the Islands.