By Terry Tomalin
Ahh, to be a boater in Florida. In other areas of the country, water lovers must stow their skiffs and catamarans at the sign of the first frost. But here, folks go fishing, water skiing and cruising along both coasts all winter long.
With about 2,000 miles of coastline, more than 11,000 miles of rivers and streams and 7,700 named lakes, there is no shortage of places to go.
And with more registered vessels than any other state, Florida’s marinas and yacht clubs know how to cater to your needs. Want some inspiration? The Sunshine State hosts the world’s largest boat shows – Fort Lauderdale and Miami – each year.
So whether you tow your own or rent while you’re here, you’ll find Florida ready to meet your boating needs.
While Florida has no mandatory boater licensing for adults, anyone 21 years old or younger must have a Boating Safety Education I.D. card to legally operate a motorized vessel in state waters.
If you do not have a card from your home state, get a temporary certificate or take the “Boat Florida” correspondence course through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at www.MyFWC.com.
When you’re on the water, follow standard “rules of the road,” unless otherwise posted. And in areas where manatees are present, abide by the “Idle Speed – No Wake” and “Slow Down – Minimum Wake” signs.
Sea grass beds, which help filter water and provide a home to a wide variety of marine life, are shown in light green or with the notation “grs” on navigational charts. Help keep Florida’s natural environment alive, and avoid scarring these shallow grass beds. Order a free boating guide at research.myfwc.com/products/products.asp to learn more about the state’s ecosystems.
Florida law also requires boaters to carry Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices for every passenger on board. Children under 6 years of age must wear a PFD while underway on vessels up to 26 feet in length.
Boat with a Pro
If you don’t want to bring your own boat or rent while you are here, you can always charter a captain for everything from sunset cruises to snorkeling.
Most city marinas have an area where these boats for hire congregate. Party boats (vessels that can accommodate a dozen people or more) tend to be the most affordable.
Pass-a-Grille’s Shell Key Shuttle takes passengers out to a small barrier island near the mouth of Tampa Bay. Fort Lauderdale’s double-decker Jungle Queen Riverboat Dinner Cruise is famous for its barbecue and entertainment on the New River.
In St. Augustine, climb aboard the Victory III and watch the dolphins swim through this historic harbor, or travel to the “Southernmost Point” and experience Danger Charters’ “Wind and Wine” cruise in classic Key West.
Islamorada’s Bud N’ Mary’s Marina has flats skiffs ready to help you catch bonefish, tarpon and permit.
And July through mid-September, you can travel to Steinhatchee and snorkel for bay scallops.
With sheltered water and sunshine year ’round, visiting boaters may be tempted to extend their stay. Here are some reasons to do just that:
- The Florida Keys have the only coral reefs in the continental United States.
- Travel across Florida Bay, along the edge of the Everglades, and you will hit the upscale opulence of Marco Island and Naples.
- Sarasota is a mecca for performance race boaters.
- Up the coast, you will find the Old Florida charm of Cedar Key.
- Continue up along Big Bend, stop for seafood in Apalachicola.
- Then press on to the beautiful beaches Destin, Fort Walton, Panama City and Pensacola.
- Miami is home to some of the world’s most luxurious yachts, and Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach have been called “Sportfish Central.”
- The Indian River Lagoon is a veritable highway for boaters. Jacksonville is the gateway to the St. Johns River and the heart of Florida.
So take your time, watch your speed and enjoy the sights. Smooth sailing.