Once you've reached the beach, air and sea tours deliver big picture


August 15, 1993|By Audrey Haar | Audrey Haar,Staff Writer

Beachgoers who've only seen Ocean City from land are missing something -- a broader view of the resort's beauty that can only be found when floating through the clouds or skimming across the waves.

Thrill-seekers can tour the waters aboard a roaring speedboat or beneath billowing sails. For something in between, there are large cruising vessels.

Whatever their adrenalin factor, most tours include pony-spotting missions off the coast of Assateague Island and ample opportunity to view the area's wildlife. Boats that venture out into the ocean usually cruise parallel to the beach, offering a different take on familiar scenes.

Although plane rides cover some of the same area as the water tours, they deliver the added attraction of spectacular vistas of the peninsula. From on high, the vibrancy and vastness of Ocean City are readily apparent.

Some tours simply take passengers out for a ride, while others provide guides whose running commentary may combine folklore, history and discussion of the environment. If it's a sailing excursion, it may last two to three hours; a plane tour can pack an afternoon's sightseeing into 30 minutes.

Those who've only experienced flight in an airliner cabin while clutching a drink and a packet of salted peanuts will be surprised after they climb into Greg von Rigler's four-seater plane or the helicopter of pilot Jerry Reynolds.

Flying in a small aircraft is an up-close and personal experience that helps demystify the scenery -- whether it involves dolphins, schools of fish moving through the waters or Assateague's ponies. ("There are three ponies that should be on salary for us, because they are always on call," says Mr. Reynolds.)

While the pilots are busy identifying scenery for adult passengers, younger riders often use the opportunity to plot the coordinates of something quite different. "Kids point out all the amusement parks for their parents," says Mr. Reynolds.

Mr. von Rigler delights in showing passengers the contrasts where land meets the ocean. On the shorter, 15-minute rides, most people get a bird's-eye view of just Ocean City; other tours can range up to Fenwick Island and down to the far end of Assateague Island in Virginia.

"With the longer rides, they learn more about the environment," says Mr. von Rigler.

There is some interest in early morning rides, but Mr. von Rigler particularly enjoys the sunset trips. "When the moon's going up and the sun's going down, that's the best," he says. "The moon comes up, and it just reaches out to you."

Aboard the Vivacious, a 35-foot sailing yacht, Capt. Monty Lewis stays busy showing passengers around, explaining the sails, wind direction and tides. While the ship plies the gentle bay waters, Captain Lewis points out the area's sights and wildlife. Passengers can feel the changing water currents as the boat nears the inlet and enters the ocean.

Daily pressures recede in the peace and quiet of being on the water without a motor, says Sara Lewis, who hosts tours on the Vivacious with her husband. "It takes you to another century," she says.

But the tranquillity lasts until a Jet Ski or Waverunner buzzes past, jolting passengers back to the present. "All you need is two of those things to destroy the mood," says Sue Valenza, who conducts tours with her husband, Joe, aboard Therapy, a 38-foot sailboat.

In roaring contrast to the lulling sailboat trips are the Sea Rocket and Patriot speedboat rides. During a recent ride on the Sea Rocket, the guide began pointing out the sights, but that wasn't what some very vocal passengers wanted. "Full throttle!" came the cheer from the rear of the boat.

Out in the ocean the boat reaches speeds of about 25 knots, according to mate Rob Hagerman. But the impression of great speed is heightened by the buffeting as the boat bounces from wave to wave, the deafening roar of its engines and the spray that pelts and soaks passengers.

"Every time we come here we ride [the Sea Rocket]," says Candy Pownall, 20, of Romney, W.Va. "Last year we got soaked."

Those looking for a more moderate ride can board the Bay Queen, which departs on hourlong bay cruises several times a day from Shantytown. Beneath a canopy, passengers receive a fully narrated tour that also takes in Assateague and the West Ocean City commercial fishing area for a close look at the large fishing boats.

For ocean tours, the OC Princess, which also departs from Shantytown, takes passengers for three-hour early evening cruises. A guide points out dolphins, whales, pelicans and whatever other wildlife surfaces. The tour also locates the sites of shipwrecks around Assateague.

The Judith M, another large tour boat, sails nightly out of Bahia Marina on 21st Street at 7:30. Its 90-minute cruise of the bay and ocean is perfect for families that like to eat dinner early. Passengers can stroll around the boat during the ride, but the tour is short on narration and long on blasting music from a local radio station.

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