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 smooth sailing.
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 Banks
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 to sail.
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 it.
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 fun.
"Those who have cruised
with us over the years tell us how inspired they
are by the beauty of the barrier islands of Southwest
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 and pines.
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 to see.
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
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.