"It's crowded out there,"
said Cotes, 65. "It's crowded and still shallow."
Southwest Florida's waterways are the same size
they always have been; it's just the numbers of
people flocking to use them have increased.
The number of registered vessels in Lee, Collier
and Charlotte counties grew from 52,000 in 1996-97
to more than 74,000 today.
National research shows 10 percent of boat owners
are new, having owned a boat less than two years.
Eight percent of non-boat owners said they'll buy
a boat in the next year, according to National Marine
Freshman boaters find Southwest Florida attractive
because its abundance of barrier islands create
Staffers at agencies that handle calls from Lee
boaters aren't complaining about the numerous questions
first mates and skippers are asking. They don't
track the number of calls, and they haven't added
extra staff to handle them.
"We get a lot of calls," said Jamey Mazur,
a petty officer at the U.S. Coast Guard Station
at Fort Myers Beach.
Providing answers helps boaters be more courteous,
People want answers to make their time on the water
more pleasurable, said Bob Schmid, general manager
of Travis Boating Center in south Fort Myers.
Schmid and other marine dealers who sell Wellcraft
boats are promoting the company's new FirstMate
hotline for people who buy 2001 models. They're
able to register and receive access to a toll-free,
24-hour number at which a person - not a voice mail
- answers and fields any question.
"We have more boaters out there, and your boating
time - because of increased workloads and longer
hours - is less time," he said. "The hotline
is to help boating become easier."
Boaters aren't shy when they pick up their cellular
phones and VHF marine radios.
"What are the tides doing today?"
"This guy cut me off and ran me out of the
channel. What can I do about it?"
"Do I need a license to drive a boat?"
Such questions recently arrived at the Coast Guard
Phones ring at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Association office with more questions.
"I had this one guy who had a snook on his
hook, and he called," said Rhonda Gamboa, who
picks up phones at the downtown Fort Myers office.
"He knew what it was, but didn't know the limit.
He wanted to keep it if it was legal."
Coworker Sherry Hamp hears wind and gulls in the
background of dozens of calls a week as cell-phone
boaters ask about manatee speed zones, boat registration
papers and fishing regulations.
"I don't know if people are getting more aggressive
about getting information or if there are more unaware
boaters," Hamp said. "I guess it's that
inquiring minds want to know."
A combination of a need for local knowledge coupled
with boating basics keep SeaTow- Fort Myers' phones
Dispatcher John Noren relives this scenario often:
Boater: "I need a tow."
Noren: "Where are you?"
Boater: "I'm right here by this mangrove island
next to this pole."
Noren: "Which mangrove island?"
Boater: "I'm the only boat out here by it."
"Local knowledge and a chart are important,"
Noren said. "If they don't know how to read
the chart, though, or don't know where they are,
it's no good."
The people at the end of Southwest Florida's "help"
lines don't mind fielding the calls.
Information such as shifting shoals is difficult
to gather and boaters are smart to make such calls,
said David Moore, owner of TowBOAT/U.S. Cape Coral.
Participants in Florida Sailing and Cruising School's
new First Mates Course want that kind of information
along with the basics of docking, chart reading,
using the marine radio and bringing a boat to port
if the skipper were unable to drive.
Phyllis Pigage of Cape Coral didn't know aft from
stern two years ago when she married her husband
Frank, who has a 30-foot high-performance powerboat.
The 64-year-old dreaded their weekly outings, her
stomach in knots with nervousness.
After taking the two-day, $195 First Mates Course,
she'd a different person.
"I can help out a bit, and it eliminates a
little bit of tension," Pigage said. "It's
more fun now. I'm not dreading it."
-Contact Betsy Clayton at email@example.com