By Diane Daniel
It’s not quite walking on water, but close. Water bikes have arrived in Florida, with several rental outlets surfacing over the past few years.
Unlike the low and boxy paddle boats popular in tourist areas, water bikes operate more like standard bicycles, giving one the feeling of cycling atop the water.
The rider sits upright on a bike frame set atop pontoons, which keeps the ride buoyant and stable. The handlebars control a front rudder, while pedaling turns a small rear propeller. The bikes travel about 5 to 10 miles per hour, depending on whether you want to kick back or kick it up a notch.
One of the state’s largest and long-running outfitters – and its most urban -- is Tampa Bay Water Bike Company, which opened in 2014 just behind the Tampa Convention Center. Owners Dan and Amanda Fleischbein maintain a fleet of single and tandem bikes that can be rented anytime during their daily operating hours. Customers typically explore the Hillsborough River, the Garrison and Seddon channels and around Davis Islands, and tool along the vibrant 2.4-mile Riverwalk.
On a warm day, I tried out one of the bright yellow bikes for a couple hours, first pedaling out the mouth of the Hillsborough River toward Seddon Channel. Pelicans flew overhead as I headed for a wall of mangroves on Davis Islands, a mostly residential area near downtown.
The pedaling motion was smooth and relatively easy, and being above the water meant I could look down to see swimming fish and swaying water plants. I leisurely explored the shoreline, also taking in Tampa’s busy industrial port before returning alongside Harbour Island, packed with million-dollar waterfront houses and condos. As I returned, the view of the Tampa skyline from the water was breathtaking, like none I’d seen.
Customers include locals and tourists, some who come specifically to water bike, said Dan Fleischbein. He’s even had flight attendants on layovers who come straight from the airport to ride water bikes.
“We get a lot of interest because the activity is so unique,” he said. “A lot of people have never seen it before.”
The tandem bikes, two bikes that clip together side by side, are particularly welcome by families.
“They’re especially great if parents want to bring children,” said Fleischbein. “You can actually have two adults pedaling and two children sitting in the middle.”
Fleischbein also has attracted groups with a scavenger hunt, which can be generic or personalized.
“People get points for different things they might see and then they have to take a photo of it,” Fleischbein said. “So it might be things like flags, a certain building, wildlife like dolphins, stingrays, or birds, or even a helicopter landing at Tampa General Hospital.”
Fleischbein said one unexpected incident, which ended up in the local news, proved another use for the bikes.
“We had a lady visiting from out of state who rented a bike and she happened to be nearby when a cat fell off a bridge and landed in the water,” he said. “She jumped into the water to rescue the cat and was able to hand off the cat to a guy on a boat, who ended up adopting it.”
Peaceful pedaling in the Panhandle
Tami Reinhart, owner of Emerald Coast Hydrobikes, calls water bike riding a “zen” activity. “It’s so quiet and the bikes are easy to operate and very stable. Even people who aren’t physical can get out and see things they want to see and have a peaceful day. It’s the opposite of being a weekend warrior.”
Reinhart, who since 2014 has rented and sold the Hydrobike brand of water bike, says all types of people enjoy the bikes.
“If you want to get down and do hardcore, you can go about 10 m.p.h.,” she said. “But what I call cruising speed is 5 m.p.h., which is what we do with group trips. I’ve had people with MS, prostheses and an 80-year-old who uses a walker.”
“The bay is one of my favorite places because there’s a lot of open space. The Gulf is also a great place, as long as the swells aren’t higher than two feet.”
Reinhart also likes taking people to coastal dune lakes, a geographical feature unique to Walton County and a handful of other places worldwide where lake water mixes with sea water.
“It’s a unique ecosystem, where you can see both fresh water and saltwater species,” she said. “So for an eco-minded person, it’s a really special experience.”
Along with hourly rentals, Reinhart offers a full slate of tours, including a weekly trip to Morrison Springs, which is crystal clear and has a large spring pool. “Most people don’t know about it – but that’s where the locals go.”
Where Space Coast rivers join
Space Coast Hydrobikes, started by Carrie Thomas and Chris Wilson in 2016, typically meets customers at the Eau Gallie Causeway in Melbourne. “We go where the Indian River and Banana River connects, and there are a lot of birds, dolphins and other wildlife,” Thomas said. “Manatees have come right up to the hydrobikes, I think because they like the bright yellow. It’s really cool.”
Seeing the natural side of Naples
When Florida Hydrobike customers take off on water bikes from the usual launching spot at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, they see the backwaters of north Naples and the canals of Vanderbilt Beach Lagoon. “They can even go to the Gulf of Mexico if they really want to, but the back waters of the park are so much smoother and easier to get around,” said Steve Riccio, who co-founded the service in 2014. Riccio reports that riders often see dolphins, manatees, bald eagles, ospreys and egrets.
Make room for manatees
Along with her Apollo Beach sailboat charter business, started in 2017, Captain Pat Freeman offers water bike rentals. She always points customers to the nearby Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric. “People often see dolphins and manatees from the bikes,” she said. Other popular destinations include Apollo Beach Preserve and Pine Island. “I love going back through all the lush mangroves.” Freeman said humans aren’t the only ones to notice the uniqueness of water bikes. “I had a manatee pop its head out and look at me as if to say, ‘what are you riding on?’ ”
Head for the sponge docks
Visitors who launch water bikes from Belle Harbour Marina, which started renting the bikes in 2017, delight in tooling up the Anclote River and visiting the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs. The watery route gives them a totally different view of this popular tourist attraction.
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