the sailor's life for me...
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, check.
Ah, the life of the sea. A man, his boat and...
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
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.
mean put this big boat in that tiny little slip
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."
eye the slip again. The opening between the pilings
seems even narrower, the boat even beamier.
gotta be kidding."
you want to be a captain, you have to know how to
dock your boat," says Day. "Don't worry,
it'll fit. But not with this poser at the helm.
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 every 32.
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.
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
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 teach confidence."
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 the wheel.
"Let's try that again from the top,"
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
"First," he tells me, "we will acquaint
ourselves with all the holes in the boat,"
Holes in the boat? Not the sort of thing that breeds
"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 in it."
"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 the slip.
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.
"Congratulations, captain," he says.
"Because there's nothing more embarrassing
than sinking your boat at the slip."