Hi-diddly-dee, the sailor's life for me...
Standing at the helm of the good ship Blue
Note, a 36-foot Grand Banks trawler, I certainly
look the quintessential image of a seafaring captain.
Boat shoes? Check. Cool captain's cap? Check.
A bit of salt spray on my brow? Check, check,
Ah, the life of the sea. A man,
his boat and...
"Now let's see you put her
in the slip," says Capt. Christopher Day, pointing
to a pair of tall pilings just off the seawall along
a canal leading to the Caloosahatchee River. The
pilings appear to be standing about 12 feet apart.
And, just guessing, I'd say the Blue Note
is about, oh, 152 feet wide. Actually, as we nautical
types say, it has a 10-foot beam. It's just that
at this particular moment, considering the task
at hand, the boat seems a whole lot wider.
"You mean put this big boat
in that tiny little slip right there?"
"Yeah," says Day. "Don't
forget to take the current into consideration. Looks
like the tide's outgoing right now. And the wind.
Got a pretty good wind from the south. Just back
'er on in."
I eye the slip again. The opening
between the pilings seems even narrower, the boat
"You gotta be kidding."
"If you want to be a captain,
you have to know how to dock your boat," says
Day. "Don't worry, it'll fit."
Yeah, it'll fit. But not with this
poser at the helm.
A few salient facts about boating
in Southwest Florida, the boat-lovingest region
in the entire state: Lee County, with some 42,000
registered vessels, has more boats per capita-about
one for every 12 people- than any Florida county.
And with about 19,000 registered boats, or one for
every 14 people, Collier County ranks just behind
it. By comparison, Dade County boats only one boat
for every 42 of its residents, Palm Beach one for
Now, here are the troubling statistics:
With seven boater deaths in 2001, not to mention
23 manatees killed by boats, Lee County's waters
were among the most dangerous in the state.
"There's no argument that Southwest
Florida with its barrier islands and its miles and
miles of waterways boasts some of the best cruising
grounds, not just in Florida, but in the world,"
says Barb Hansen. "Everyone who moves down
here wants to buy a boat and get out and enjoy it.
But not everyone knows what they're doing in a boat."
And that's being diplomatic. Truth
is, too many boat owners are outright hazards on
the waterway. Barb tells a story about being out
on Pine Island Sound one afternoon and coming across
a boat that had lost its way. The man and woman
in the boat were studying a map.
"But it was a AAA road map, not
a nautical chart," says Barb. "They didn't
have a clue."
So many boats, so many clueless boaters.
Which is one reason why Hansen and her husband,
Vic, started their North Fort Myers based Florida
Cruising and Sailing School more than 18 years ago.
Since then, hundreds of prospective captains from
all over the world have signed on to hone their
nautical skills. With 13 different courses run from
its sailing school at Burnt Store Marina on Charlotte
Harbor and a dozen powerboat courses offered at
its headquarters at Marinatown Marina on the Caloosahatchee,
the school aims not just to make the waterways safer,
but to help boat lovers get full enjoyment out of
"You can't enjoy your boat if
you can't relax on it," says Barb. "And
you can't relax if you don't have confidence. We
The types of courses range from basic
sailing and bareboat charter to coastal navigation,
inland powerboat cruising and offshore powerboat
cruising. An entry-level "Safe Boating 101"
course teaches boating terminology, chart reading
and seamanship. A "First Mate" course,
which offers instruction in the skills needed to
act as crew on a cruising boat, is popular with
spouses and children of boat owners.
The school is also a good starting
point for people who are deciding if the boating
life is really for them. Typical example: A couple
buys a home in Southwest Florida and decides they
want a big powerboat to go with it, something they
can take on trips to Key West or the Bahamas. They've
had smaller boats in the past, know their way around
the water and think they are ready to move up a
notch or two. So they sign on for the school's eight-day
"Offshore Powerboat Cruising Course,"
which includes preparing and provisioning for a
roundtrip voyage to the Florida Keys, along with
offshore navigation, night passagemaking, ship's
maintenance and dozens of other tasks, all under
the guidance of a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain/instructor.
"Most people find they love it.
But every now and then we get a couple who completes
the trip, gets off the boat and says: 'Nope, that's
not for us.' They hadn't anticipated what it's like
spending a week on a boat with other people, which
not everyone is cut out for," says Barb. "But
it's better that people learn that up front than
after they've spent several hundred thousand dollars
on the boat of their dreams."
"Easy now, easy," says
Day as I maneuver Blue Note toward its berth.
"The secret it to always go slow."
Gee, thanks for that hint, Christopher.
But what's the secret when the boat won't go in
the direction I want it to go? Blue Note
has twin screws-fancy nautical talk for propellers-and
I'm having a heck of a time figuring out which prop
turns the boat which way. And it's complicated by
the fact that the boat is going backward into its
"You're coming up close on
that starboard piling. Easy, easy," says Day.
"Swing the stern to port."
I push the port-engine throttle
forward. Bad move. The Blue Note's stern
swings starboard and grazes the piling. Day grabs
"Let's try that again from
the top," he says.
To get a taste of what the Florida
Sailing and Cruising School has to offer, I signed
on for an outing with Day, a sort of crash course
as it were. A former history teacher and a native
of Great Britain, Day has been knocking about on
boats for most of his life, and started teaching
at the school after his arrival in Southwest Florida
about five years ago.
"First," he tells me, "we
will acquaint ourselves with all the holes in the
Holes in the boat? Not the sort of
thing that breeds confidence.
"I always like to start off with
the holes because what's the worst thing that can
happen if you're on a boat?" he asks.
"It sinks," I say,
"And why does the boat sink?"
"Because it has too much water
"Exactly," says Day. "So
we begin with checking out all the ways in which
water can get in and out of this boat."
As it turns out, there are one heckuva
lot of holes in Blue Note-holes that control
the flow from the bilge, holes that regulate the
air conditioner's runoff, holes from the head and
holes from the galley. After we're done checking
out the holes, we head for the control panel and
ID all the switches and gauges. Day taps the glass
face of one of the gauges.
"Very important instrument, particularly
here in Southwest Florida," he says. "It's
the depth sounder. Number one problem with new boaters
in the area-running aground. Even a problem with
boaters who think they know the water. There are
only about a million places to run aground around
here. Always keep an eye on the depth sounder."
After opening a hatch in the cabin
floor and examining the engine room-a spic n' span
cavern that houses twin 135 horsepower Ford Lehman
diesels- we finally cast off and head along a narrow
channel to the Caloosahatchee. Once in the main
channel, Blue Note chugs along between six
and eight knots, heading for the mouth of the river
and a small island where we'll have lunch.
It's a 90-minute haul, which gives
Day plenty of time to expound upon such topics as
rules of right-of-way, how to read channel markers,
and how to read nautical charts so you don't run
aground and have to pay the Sea Tow several hundred
dollars to pull you free. And when we get ready
to drop anchor off the island, well, that's a whole
'nother lesson in seamanship.
But there's also plenty of time to
just kick back, relax and remember why you're on
the boat in the first place-to get the heck away
from it all, to soak up the great wide open. A mother
dolphin and her baby draft the bow.. A giant stingray
sails out of the water ahead. Ospreys plunge from
their roosts to grab fish.
I take the wheel of Blue Note
as we head back to the marina, feeling cocky, feeling
good. Yeah, I've got this captain thing under control.
Piece of cake. Yo-ho-ho and all that. No problem.
Until I pull into the narrow channel.
And Day tells me I have to dock the damn thing.
It's the third try and I think
I've finally got the hang of this docking thing.
The secret is to "walk" the boat backwards,
jockeying the port and starboard engine throttles
so that Blue Note sorta crabs its way into
I squeeze her past the pilings
with inches to spare. Day and the crew cast off
lines and snug the boat to the pilings and cleats
on the seawall.
Yes, my work here is done. Day
offers his hand.
he says. "Because there's nothing more embarrassing
than sinking your boat at the slip."