March/April 2002

Cruising Southwest Florida
School and charter service take explorers
beyond the shoreline

For those who have completed the seamanship classes at Florida Sailing & Cruising School, there comes the time when students take the plunge into chartering and captaining their own vessel—the first solo cruise. For Tim and Sheri Mullarkey, it was nothing but smooth sailing.
    Residents of Cincinnati, the Mullarkeys wanted to learn what it takes to do their own cruising on vacations, rather than hiring a captain. And since a hectic business schedule didn’t seem to mesh well with boat ownership, they contacted Vic and Barb Hansen, the enthusiastic proprietors of the school and of Southwest Florida Yachts, Inc., who have been preaching the glories of Southwest Florida’s coastline for 18 years to their customers.
    “We had seen their ads in all the national boating magazines and received a newsletter from them,” explains Tim. “Sheri and I had taken the U.S. Coast Guard Power Squadron boating instruction and safety courses in Ohio, but we wanted to take it to the next level. We had vacationed around Lee County before and we thought the waters around that area looked like a good place for our first solo cruise.” Well, that and the descriptive prose about the region he found in the Randy Wayne White books that he likes to read.
    So, armed with extensive training from the school, including three different cruising classes and a “chaperoned” eight-day cruise to Key West and back, Tim and Sheri chartered sister company Southwest Florida Yachts’ Blue Note, a 36-foot Grand Banks trawler.
People from North and South America and Europe come to North Ft. Myers to attend the Hansens’ school, where students can live aboard a luxury vessel while they learn to operate and navigate power and sailing yachts up to 42 feet long. The trawlers and motor yachts are based at Marinatown Marina on the Caloosahatchee. Most of the sailing fleet is at Burnt Store Marina on Charlotte Harbor in Punta Gorda.
    Over the years, hundreds of boaters have come for the school or to charter a vessel, with or without a captain, and cruise a coastline that Cruising World magazine has rated No. 1 in the United States and No. 3 in the world.

Safety and Experience
Since buying Southwest Florida Yachts in 1984, the Hansens have seen boating schools come and go. Why did theirs succeed where others did not? Vic says it in two short sentences. “Safety isn’t boring. Safety isn’t mean.”
    Safety is the bottom line at FS&CS. The Hansens and the instructors, Coast Guard-licensed captains, deal with unpredictable Mother Nature, vessels worth millions of dollars, and priceless lives. More important, students who leave with an FS&CS diploma also will assume those responsibilities when they cruise and sail on their own.
    Teaching safety, says Vic, shouldn’t mean stern faces or raised voices. “We believe that people learn and remember when they are having fun, and we believe they learn with their hands, hearts, and their heads. This is the philosophy upon which we design all courses.”
The school offers 13 sailing courses ranging in price from $395 per person for Basic Sailing to $2,795 per person for an Offshore Adventure combination course. Twelve power boat courses also are available, from Basic Powerboating in a 32-foot, single-engine boat for $795 per person to Offshore Powerboat Cruising in a twin-engine, 36- to 46-foot boat for $2,395 per person. Except for a few basic courses, the fee includes staying aboard the vessel.
    “You learn a lot when you spend all day and all night on a boat,” says Barb. “You learn what the engine is supposed to sound like, and if it doesn’t, you know something’s wrong. You learn all the creaks and squeaks, what’s normal and what’s not.” Barb calls the live-aboard courses “real time, real world” education, but relaxed.
    Courses in powerboat safety, handling, and cruising are held at company headquarters at Marinatown Marina. The “classrooms” are single- and twin-engine cruising boats from 32 to 42 feet long. Sailing courses take place at Burnt Store Marina, where the boats are in the water and ready to sail.
    Many students are repeat customers who understand that education is never complete. “With boating, just like any subject, there’s always more to learn,” says Barb. Others have little or no boating experience but want to see if they like it.
    Some just want to charter a boat without a captain; passing courses at the school qualifies them for bareboat chartering through sister company Southwest Florida Yachts, Inc. For those who want to combine learning and adventure, the school offers an intensive 12-day course that takes the student from basic sailing through advanced cruising.
    For those who prefer to leave the driving to a licensed captain, Southwest Florida Yachts takes care of everything; its concierge service books marina slips and resort rooms for charter customers and boat owners.

Cruising Southwest Florida
“There is a hidden treasure of cruising opportunities here in Southwest Florida,” says Vic. “People who live here or visit here and spend their time on land or in autos are missing more than half the fun.
    “Those who have cruised with us over the years tell us how inspired they are by the beauty of the barrier islands of Southwest Florida.”
    The weather is balmy with just the right amount of breeze to encourage power cruising and sailing in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Vic and Barb explain. Whether navigating north by northwest toward Venice or south by southeast, they say, boaters enjoy the easterly view of a fringed lace of sugar-white shorelines spotted with palms and pines.
    In winter, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer than on the mainland; in summer, it’s cooler. And the water is rarely rough. Besides, there are dozens of passes on Florida’s West Coast that lead from open water into the protected navigational channel of the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway. Many prefer the ICW to the gulf because the channel is sheltered by a string of barrier islands; plus, there’s more to see.
    Some barrier islands are long and famous like Sanibel and Captiva. Some are tiny mangrove islands with bird colonies. Some, accessible only by boat, introduce you to a community of like-minded mariners, such as Cabbage Key.
    When civilization beckons, there are dozens of marinas, ships stores, waterfront resorts, and restaurants that will make you feel at home. And when you want to be alone, Barb and Vic tell their charters, you easily can, but expect to share your solitude with nature.
    Before the Mullarkeys launched their voyage on the Blue Note, they drove around by car for a landlubber’s perspective of some of the spots they intended to cruise to. Then off they went this past December for an eight-day exploration of Lee County waters. Destinations included South Seas Plantation Resort and Yacht Harbor on Captiva, the bays around “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Useppa Island, Burnt Store Marina, and Boca Grande.
    “Some nights we would dock at a marina, and some we’d just drop anchor in a bay or cove; it was about half and half,” notes Tim. “We had no problems at all. We really had a great time.”

Setting Sail
Web sites: and
Phone: 941/656-1339 or 800/262-7939.
Mail: 3444 Marinatown Lane N.W., North Ft. Myers, FL 33903.

Bill AuCoin heads up Bill AuCoin Public Communications Inc. of Tampa. Kelly Madden is managing editor of Times of the Islands.