Annapolis Sailing School's Florida branch offers holidays at the helm for sea-minded families


October 15, 1995|By Ian Brodie

The problem with central Florida is what to do after you've done Orlando. You can see dozens of visitors lounging around the swimming pools, all Disney-ed out maybe, but with a nagging awareness that there must be ways to enjoy the daylong sunshine other than standing in line to go on rides.

My 14-year-old son, Russell, and I found one ideal answer. We spent five days sailing offshore on a boat from the St. Petersburg branch of the Annapolis Sailing School. Each evening we anchored at marinas that acquainted us with aspects of Florida that lay beyond the familiar tourist trail. It was a marvelous and instructive holiday, perfect for families.

The glory of it was that we had only to bring ourselves, a duffel bag of casual clothes, our suntan lotion and a good disposition. The fully equipped boat, a 37-foot O'Day, could sleep six. It had two forward cabins and one aft, two minuscule bathrooms and a generous cockpit. It had a mainsail, a jib and a backup diesel engine. The boat also came with a savvy instructor, Capt. Bob Errico, who had spent years navigating the shoals and coastal waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

We sailed as part of a flotilla. A couple of other Annapolis boats were usually somewhere on our horizon. After we tied up at night, and the instructors had left us to our own devices, we could share our new nautical wisdom with the other families, and maybe brag a little, too.

Captain Bob held his pre-trip briefing at the sailing school's marina south of St. Petersburg. Rule No. 1, he said, was never try to sail where the birds are walking. It was his way of saying do not run aground. He never mentioned any rule No. 2, but he did define his authority as skipper. "I'm not like Capt. Bligh," he said. "This is not a dictatorship, but it's not a democracy, either. If in doubt, ask. There are no dumb questions. Our aim is to have fun, enjoy a great holiday and get back safely."

The school requires that one or two members of flotilla families must have sufficient prior experience to at least have a clue about sailing. Some participants prepare by taking the courses for absolute beginners run over two and three days by the school in St. Petersburg or at its location in Annapolis. Flotilla cruises are not recommended for very young children, but for those 6 and up, the school offers adventure equivalent to a camping trip, only on water. After a hesitant start, Russell quickly grew enthusiastic, especially after he was given his turn at the helm.

On Day 1, we spent a couple of hours making the boat ready and shopping for groceries. We stocked up on bottled water as insurance against dehydration in the 85-degree heat. We bought enough food for breakfasts and sandwich lunches on the boat. We decided to eat out in the evenings, but later we envied those on other boats who showed more enterprise and cooked their own creative dinners.

We headed first for the Intracoastal Waterway, a unique channel dug by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Second World War. It stretches for 2,500 miles down the Atlantic coast from Maine, around Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. The waterway enabled barges to haul war cargo in the shallow waters close to land where German submarines could not penetrate. The strategic value was enormous. As we sailed between the waterway's markers, our gauge showed a depth of 8 to 12 feet, but off to the side, just as Captain Bob had warned, pelican were stalking around in water less than a foot deep.

To accomplish his dream of sailing full time, Captain Bob took early retirement from IBM at age 50, on full pension and with medical benefits. He swapped Big Blue for the ocean blue and is now so removed from office life that he even shrinks from answering a phone. Sporting a seafarer's beard, he is a stocky, bustling and reassuring figure.

He was a mine of Florida stories on the longer stretches of the cruise. He told us of an unfortunate dolphin at a water show in Orlando that became so heavy from swallowing coins thrown by visitors it sank to the bottom and drowned. To avoid any similar tragedies, the surviving dolphins were trained to bring coins, watches and other detritus to their trainers in exchange for fish.

A lightish wind carried us across the expanse of Tampa Bay, past the soaring arches of the St. Petersburg-Bradenton Skyway Bridge and brought us by late afternoon to a jetty in the village of Cortez. As at all our overnight stops, there were clean bathrooms and showers on shore at the marina. The locals said with pride that there was nothing to do but sample the catch at the Seafood Shack, a moderately priced restaurant, and to watch the sunset from the beach. Both were magnificent. We were fast asleep on our gently rocking boat not long afterward.

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