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Fit for Cruising
A Power Cat in SW Florida provides the perfect introduction to bareboat chartering
By: Dan Armitage
Jul. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
A low-key, low-cost chartering option for a family who wanted to check out how they would fare spending time on the water together proves positive and leaves them planning an upgrade.
People stopped what they were doing and stared. I'm certain some thought we were aground - or about to be - while others looked on with open envy as the catamaran skated across the sandy shallows like a water strider, scant yards from the beach.
When we located a deserted stretch of sand that suited us, I gave my wife a nod and Maria grinned from the foredeck as she pushed the bright yellow "down" button on the corded box that controlled the power windlass. The plow anchor splashed into two feet of water as clear as that in the Aquafina bottle she clutched in her free hand.
Once the bane of boating for my better half, Maria positively reveled in the process when she discovered that our bareboat's anchor system was automated, meaning she could avoid the messy hands-on, hand-over-hand task she had come to dread during previous boating vacations.
"I think I'm going to like this boat!" she exclaimed as a faint offshore breeze helped dig the anchor into the fine, cream-colored sand and secure the boat within wading distance of the palm-fringed beach.
Seven days of carefree Gulf Coast cruising through Southwest Florida's scenic Charlotte Harbor, Fort Myers, and Sanibel Island area gave Maria ample opportunity to enjoy the roomy power catamaran and its handy electronic windlass. There, the shallow draft craft allowed us access to bays, beachfront, and overnight anchorages that occupants of single-hull boats our size could only eye from the depths of a channel or the deep blue sea.
Frankly, I didn't know what to expect. The only other time the three of us had spent multiple nights aboard a boat was during the previous Christmas break, when we cruised the Bahamas aboard a ship named Wonder whose popular theme characters, theme dining rooms, and calendar of choreographed events often conspired to make us forget we were actually afloat. A Disney cruise was hardly a valid sea trial for a family considering future vacations aboard chartered bareboats.
What we did know from experience with day cruising aboard our own and friends' power craft is that all three of us enjoy boats, boating, and being on the water, and that we value our privacy when spending leisure time together. Both my wife and I have experience sailing small craft and have talked about vacationing aboard a chartered sailboat, but have shied away from crewed charters because we wanted the privacy of captaining our own vessel.
Adding a preschooler to the crew list meant that whatever type of boat we used to test the bareboat chartering waters had to be safe and convenient to operate. And speaking of waters, they needed to fit those same requirements: we wanted to take our test trip in an area where the cruising was equally safe and easy and the weather comfortable. After all, we were testing our own interpersonal skills as much as we were out to prove our boating aptitude.
Falling into Place
The boat itself would come fully equipped with everything but food and fishing tackle. Even snorkeling gear - including sizes for Ethan - was aboard when we arrived at Burnt Store Marina. What's more, Sunsail's company rep was at the dock to greet us the evening we arrived. He helped us unpack, gave us a tour of the PDQ, and let us pick the time for our orientation and test drive the next morning.
Seeing the galley and related amenities like coffee maker, blender, and four-burner stove helped us determine what meals to prepare and groceries to buy, a task we undertook that night on the way back from dinner at nearby Fishermen's Village in Punta Gorda. After spending our first night aboard the PDQ at the dock we went over all the boat's functions with the rep, including operation of the boat's generator and electrical system, water system, marine radio, GPS and sonar, and the location of all the safety equipment. Only after we were comfortable with our knowledge of each did we head up top to take a turn at the upper helm station on the PDQ's roomy flybridge.
It was there we learned just how nimble - and simple to operate - the Power Cat was. Because the engines are on the transoms of twin hulls that are a full 14 feet apart, the boat can spin within its 34 foot length, simply by putting one engine in reverse and the other in forward. In fact, turning the boat in tight quarters is accomplished by manipulating the throttles alone, and we were instructed not to touch the wheel until we were underway out in open water. After practicing dock approaches and pulling alongside the piers at Burnt Store Marina, we were sent off on our own.
Those days passed in a blur of beachcombing, basking in the sun, picnics in the sand, sightseeing, and swaying at anchor in coves where we were often the only craft in sight. We cruised the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) by day and made a game out of picking an anchorage for the night. Some days we visited three or four beaches or deserted lagoons between sunrise and sunset, looking for shells and sharks' teeth, tossing the Frisbee, or seeking out the best sand for castle building.
Our home base turned out to be Pelican Bay, a popular, protected anchorage off Cayo Costa State Park on 2,000-acre La Costa Island. The barrier island is a straight shot eight miles nearly due west of the Burnt Store Marina, and flanks the south side of famous Boca Grande Pass. La Costa's isolated, boat-accessible-only state park offers a dozen rustic cabins and 27 primitive camping sites for overnight visitors, and a landing for dinghies from boats anchored in the bay. The flip side of La Costa Island is a stunning, seven-mile stretch of sand facing the Gulf of Mexico that has been called one of the best beaches in America, where visitors can arrive only by boat and even on busy spring weekends there is never what you would call a crowd ashore.
From Pelican Bay, where we spent our first and last nights on the hook, we cruised north past Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island to Stump Pass, at the northern tip of Palm Island. On the way, we picked up a scrumptious seafood-picnic-to-go at the Fishery Restaurant and bought fresh-off-the-boat shellfish next door at the dockside Placida Fish Market at the tiny waterfront village of Placida, located at the mainland-side base of the Boca Grande causeway.
Motoring south from Pelican Bay we caught redfish and trout around Pine Island, splurged on an excellent dinner at the Collier Inn restaurant on Useppa Island, and enjoyed a famous cheeseburger-and-fries lunch at funky Cabbage Key. We gunk-holed our way down to Captiva Island, where the three of us tarried over a lazy peel-and-eat lunch at the beachfront Mucky Duck restaurant, then on to Sanibel Island, where we anchored, paddled ashore, and rented bikes at the concession area and toured the famous "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
It quickly became obvious that we were able to take easy advantage of all these waterfront amenities and adventures because of the Power Cat's shallow draft. We could pull up to many beaches, negotiate smaller channels, turn in tight quarters, and go across a myriad of shallow areas that single-hulled boats and their minimum-depth requirements simply could not access. When we anchored close off a beach, people would walk over and ask about the boat and how we were able to get to such places in such a large craft. Ashore at restaurants, fellow boaters would make similar inquiries and do everything but invite themselves aboard the boat for a first-hand look at the vessel that appeared to be able to go anywhere - and looked good doing so.
Of course, people traveling in mono-hulled boats that are forced to anchor farther away from some of the sights could use their dinghies to get around, but often only after long runs across busy, open water. The PDQ turned out to be not only the perfect boat for exploring Southwest Florida's famous cruising grounds, but the ideal craft for finding out if my family was fit for cruising together.
Information: Prices for chartering Sunsail power catamarans range between $1,600 for a weekend charter to $3,600 for a week-long charter, depending on locations and seasons.
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