Florida Sailing and Cruising School
Press Coverage of Florida Sail and Cruise School

Powerboat 101

The following article is reprinted with
permission of Motorboating & Sailing,
October 2000.

Climb aboard as we cruise, with a few bumps, through Southwest Florida Yachts' seamanship school of higher learning.

There I sat on July 4th aboard a Grand Banks 36 Classic as fireworks blazed across the night sky, casting a kaleidoscope of colors on the glassy water. I slid deeper into the cushioned deck chair, sipped my frosty drink and marveled at the view.

It was my second night at Marinatown Marina, just north of Ft.Myers, Fla., aboard a "floating classroom" owned and operated by Florida Sailing & Cruising School (FSCS). I was there as a participant in one of the school's most popular courses, Basic Powerboating. According to co-owners Barbara and Vic Hansen, this three-day class was conceived to teach nitty-gritty boating skills in a relaxed environment, without stern faces or raised voices. "We believe that people learn and remember when they're having fun," said Vic. "This is a philosophy upon which we've designed all of our courses." As I student, I experienced that philosophy firsthand.

Since founding FSCS 16 years ago, the Hansens- who also run the charter business Southwest Florida Yachts- have stressed "the personal responsibility and attitudes necessary to be a successful boat operator, charterer or owner." The school offers 12 powerboat courses, ranging from one-day safety seminars to 12-day intensive cruises. Each class has received the National Association of State Boarding Law Administrators' seal of approval, which means that upon completion students may qualify for a marine insurance discount.

Upon my arrival in balm Ft.Myers, I found Blue Note, my home for the duration of the course, at the dock and along with my companion, Kristen Gilligan, stepped aboard her weathered teak deck. In the bright salon, our two classmates, Scott Stone, a businessman from Dallas, and Jim White, a trial court judge from Brent, Ala., discussed their expectations for the class.

Stone co-owns a 27-foot Mako in Ft.Lauderdale but his goal was to learn the skills necessary for chartering larger boats so that he could take more remote trips with friends. White, on the other hand, said he plans to retire in a few years and buy a cruising boat with his wife, Kay. He hoped to learn more about the character of trawlers and how it felt to live aboard one for a few days. (The cost of the this course-$995 for three days aboard a twin-engine vessel- included overnight accommodations on board.)

White began his research that evening. He and Stone were assigned to the aft cabin and its two single berths. Kristen and I shared the forward cabin with a double V-berth. Two heads, each with a shower, enhanced our privacy. Before we headed off to sleep, we stowed groceries to the galley, located on the salon level to port. (Students must provide food for themselves and the instructor.)

The course officially kicked off the next morning. My classmates and I slid into the L-shaped dinette and munched on muffins as we awaited our instructor, Capt. Gary Graham, who soon requested permission to come aboard. Like all of the school's instructors, our skipper was a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain. He also had 11 years of experience with FSCS; in fact, he wrote the course curriculum and student guides.

Graham walked us through the vessel, stem to stern. "You get to wear many hats as a charterer or boat owner: electrician, plumber, mechanic," he said from the engine room, normally concealed beneath pull-up teak panels in the salon floor. "It's not often that you get to wear the captain's hat."

Next, we tossed off the lines and headed out to practice docking. Circling in the protected waters of the marina, Graham demonstrated how to "walk" the twin-screw trawler by deftly shifting the dual throttles back and forth "Every few seconds, take a step back and look," he said. "If it's doing what you want it to do, leave it alone, or you'll just screw it up."

When it was my turn at the wheel, I found the twin 135-hp Ford Lehman diesels responsive to short thrusts to throttle. The lofty flybridge offered excellent visibility. Afterwards, my classmates each took the helm as Graham coolly coached.

In typical Florida summer fashion, a thunderstorm prevented an afternoon dip from the swim platform. Instead, Kristen and I drove by car to nearby Sanibel Island, the 45-minutes jaunt taking us along the curvature of white beach. After dining off Periwinkle Way, the island's main strip, we toured back roads lined with lush cypress and banyan trees. Treasure hunting for conch and cockle shells near the water's edge entertained us for a time, and then we returned to the mainland just a fiery golden sunset dipped beneath the western horizon.

Day two began with more docking, with increasingly narrow slips and a few harsh brushes against the pilings. Thank goodness for rubrails. Graham spoke in one-word sentences and then not at all, letting us figure out for ourselves how to maneuver the boat on its pivot point.

Tiring of the bump and grind, we decided the time was right to venture out of the marina. We cruised at a leisurely six knots into the Caloosahatchee River, navigating the markers of the Intracoastal Waterway and keeping a close eye on our Furuno depthsounder. "Make this piece of equipment your best friend," said Graham, warning us of Southwest Florida's notoriously shallow water.

As we wound our way upstream, Mediterranean-style mansions gave way to mangrove-lined shores. A bald eagle flew across our bow, and two women fished from a beach with seven-foot cake stalks. Again, we each took the wheel in turn. Those not at the helm relaxed under the bimini top or snapped photos from the walkaround deck. By the time we returned to Marinatown that evening, Graham had taught us how (and where) to anchor, how to negotiate a lock and how to cruise safely using the nautical "Rules of the Road."

The night, Kristen and I enjoyed the Ft.Myers fireworks and an Independence Day festival at Tarpon Point Marina, across the river from Marinatown. I finished my homework and went to bed early, looking forward to another day of the on-the-water activity.

We began the final day of class with a heavy-duty navigating session. Sitting at the dinette with a compass, parallel rulers, dividers and Southwest Florida chartbook, we calculated variation, deviation, dead reckoning, line of position and every point in between. Afterward, Graham surprised us with a written test covering what we had learned in the previous two and a half days.

After the quiz, Stone took us out of the slip as we prepared to bear west toward the Gulf of Mexico. Along with more general cruising along the ICW, the float plan called for dropping dual anchors and launching aboard.

"Dolphins," Graham yelled from the flybridge. I grabbed my camera and rushed to the bow in time to see two gray bodies leaping alongside the boat. They were so close I could nearly reach out and touch their smooth skin as they emerged, then disappeared into the depths.

The Grand Banks cut smoothly through the wind chop on its simidisplacemnt hull for a few hours. Then, we prepared to drop anchor. However, gray storm clouds looming behind us demanded that we eat and run. I'd have to try my hand at dual-anchoring another day.

Back at the slip, Kristen and I prepared to disembark as the others discussed ideas for their Basic Powerboating II course, set to begin the next day. In it, the instructor and students would enjoy a three-day voyage away from Marinatown, putting their knowledge to a real-life sea test. I was sad to depart, especially after overhearing their plan to anchor off of nearby Useppa Island the next night.

A few weeks later, I called White to get his reaction to the course. "All in all, I thought the course was well worth it," he said. In fact, he and his wife are more serious than ever about plans to buy a trawler. "Except that I think we need something a little bigger than a 36- maybe 42-footer." The couple hopes to take another FSCS course (an eight-day, round trip voyage from Fort Myers to the Florida Keys) in the next year. "The main thing I learned was how much more I need to study and practice," White said.

According to the Hansens, there's always more to learn about boating. "But there is also immense satisfaction in learning to do things the right way," said Barbara. Like virtue, education is its own reward.

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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