Southwest Florida Yachts

The following article is taken from the special section "Charter 98"
 in the October 1997 Issue of Motorboating & Sailing.

Smarter Charters
Story and Photos

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Southwest Florida Yachts teaches you how to run a boat - then lets you cruise the scenic Gulf Coast.

If your idea of a dream vacation is chartering a bareboat in an easy-to-get tropical paradise, but you're not too sure of your LOPs, STDs or CMGs, Southwest Florida Yachts of North Fort Myers has a unique solution. Through its Florida Sailing and Cruising School, the power of sail and sail charter operator, owned and run for almost 15 years by Vic and Barbara Hansen, offers a series of livaboard "Learn-To-Cruise" courses that help you develop your boat-handling and cruising skills during an enjoyable vacation afloat. Once you pass muster, you can charter one of SFY's boats on your own.

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For a firsthand look, I recently went along for a powerboat course recap aboard a Grand Banks 36 out of SFY's main base at the Marinatown resort off the scenic Caloosahatchee River, which separates North Fort Myers and Cape Coral from Fort Myers. (The sailboat base is in nearby Charlotte Harbor.) SFY's location is at the heart of Southwest Florida's cruising grounds, which have been rated "the number-one chartering area in the U.S.," says Barbara Hansen. Compared to the state's Atlantic coast, it's less congested and more laid-back, with more wide-open and wilderness areas, as well as a vast variety of places to go and things to see and do, from water sports to fine waterfront dining. You have the choice of dropping the hook at one of the many scenic, palm- and mangrove-lined anchorages near pristine, gleaming-white beaches, or docking at one of the numerous sophisticated marinas and resorts; and you have the option of running in the open Gulf or in the protected waters of the various sounds or the ICW.

SFY's cruising parameters extend north to Venice, taking in the lovely beach-fringed barrier islands of Sanibel, Captiva, Cabbage Key, Useppa, Cayo Costa and Gasparilla; east across Okeechobee Waterway to Stuart on the Atlantic; and south to elegant Naples and Marco Island, northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands bordering Everglades National Park. The coastal stretch spans about 100 miles, encompassing hundreds more when you add in the many indentations and islands. "You can cruise this area again and again and never cross your own wake," says Barbara.

The idea for the education program struck one day when the Hansens saw someone on a boat "looking at an AAA map trying to figure out where they were," says Barbara. "We find there are many beginners who'd like to charter but don't even know port from starboard, as well as lifelong boaters who can't tie a bowline." She says about 50 percent of their students take the course to qualify for barefoot chartering, while another 40 percent take it because they've just bought or plan to buy their first boat or first big boat. The rapidly growing power division gets close to half the bookings.

I found our Grand Banks 36 Classic Trawler Blue Note sturdy, seaworthy, spotlessly clean, beautifully maintained, and well-equipped, with everything from air conditioning to electronics. Powered by twin 135-hp Ford Lehman diesels, it has a top speed of around 8 knots and a cruise of about 6 to 7 ­ ideal for exploring. Also great for cruising is the dual-helm arrangement with roomy bridge and spacious window-encircled salon; while the fore-and-aft double-stateroom layout is ideal for accomodating a family or two couples.

No worries

Our "recap" group included Capt. Gary Graham as instructor, crewman Wade Stephan, and John and Phyllis O'Sullivan, recent course graduates who had just retired and moved to Cape Coral from New York, where he was an executive with AT&T and she was a high school teacher. Lifelong "workaholics" who knew "nothing at all about boats," says Phyllis, they "decided to try boating because it's something we can do together in our retirement." Now they say they feel "far more confident" operating a boat, and indeed seemed quite adept. They've thoroughly enjoyed the learning process as well, "just being out on the water, admiring the scenery," says Phyllis. Adds John, "When you're on a boat you shed your worries, the 'to do' lists, the phone, the mail, the TV, the stock market, the IRS, the Clintons."

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SFY's teaching method is mainly hands-on, following one of Capt. Graham's favorite Chinese proverbs, "Tell me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand." Our morning at the marina included a rundown of the basics, including Graham's "First rule of seamanship, don't hit anything." He stresses that one of the keys is "to get the boat to do what you want it to do rather than what it wants to do." And, he cautions, "Make the depthfinder your best friend." Armed with these cardinal rules and a whole lot more, we headed out the channel into the wide Caloosahatchee, where we anchored for lunch, then ran up and down the river, with the students taking turns as helmsman and navigator. In the full course, the class works up to taking overnight cruises to marinas and anchorages.

Bon voyage

Among the subjects the courses cover are the ship's systems and equipment; knots and lines; helmsmanship, close-quarters maneuvering, docking and anchoring; compass and chart reading; plotting a course; dead reckoning; rules of the road; tides, currents and weather; electronics and communications; and handling emergencies such as engine failure, running aground and man overboard.

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SFY's instructors are all Coast Guard-licensed captains. The fleet includes 10 diesel-powered trawlers and motor-yachts ranging from 32 to 46 feet, available for three- and six-day power-boat courses, and 12 sailboats from 24 to 42 feet, available for a series or combination of five two-day courses. There's also a one-day Safe Boating course. The three-day powerboat course is designed to prepare students to skipper or crew a boat up to 40 feet in length and to cruise safely in local waters in moderate conditions, while the six-day course extends the parameters to skippering a 50-foot boat, operating day or night in coastal or offshore waters. That certainly makes for a bon voyage.

Per-person course rates, depending on the boat and season, are $595-795 for three-day power courses, $1095-1395 for six-day courses, and $295-395 for two-day sailing courses. Bare-boat charters run about $1,000-2,200 per week for sail and $1,500-3,200 per week for power, with captains available for an additional fee.

Southwest Florida Yachts, Dept. MB&S, 3444 Marinatown Lane, N.W., North Fort Myers, FL 33903. (800) 262-7939; (239) 656-1339; fax (239) 656-2628.

Click here to visit out Sailing School website!

Southwest Florida Yachts
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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