Vacation Report: Houseboating in Florida…in August!

You all know my penchant for going on vacations that stretch my fairly meager spirit of adventure.  Well, this was one of those.  My sister somehow convinced us to rent a houseboat and cruise the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida with her and her family (who rented their own houseboat—I don’t like my sister THAT much).

Mind you, none of us had ever captained a vessel larger than a canoe before.  None of us had experience reading nautical charts or coaxing diesel generators into running.  None of us had a clue what we were getting into.

 both boatsHowever, we traipsed down to Fort Myers, Florida, to meet Roy and our transportation, two 41-foot Gibson houseboats.  Roy gave us a tutorial on how all the systems in the boat work (mostly involving the septic and electrical systems, two hugely important components of one’s life at sea).  Then Kirk from Connecticut gave us a two-hour hands-on lesson in how to steer a Gibson houseboat and how to read a chart.  I use the word “steer” loosely; the boats are about as nimble as garbage barges.

We spent the night docked and arose the next morning, ready to cast off for the high seas.  One glitch: getting a houseboat out of a narrow marina without smashing any of the multi-million dollar yachts parked around us proved to be a major challenge.  With the help of Roy and a couple of dockhands, we avoided the boats and only hit a few wooden pilings—gently, since Kirk and Roy advised our intrepid captains to proceed very, very slowly when maneuvering in tight quarters.

houseboat leaving harbor

 My husband took the helm.  I was elected navigator because I like maps.  However, a nautical chart is the reverse of a map.  The land is just a greenish blob while the water has all sorts of numbers, swirly lines, and squares and triangles.  You have to re-orient your thinking. 

navigators station

This is my navigator’s station.  Note the tools of the trade: waterproof chart, binoculars (to spot teeny-tiny channel markers miles away), and cell phone (to call harbormasters for directions to their marinas, something Captain Ahab didn’t have the benefit of).  The television was used by teenaged crew members to play PS2.

My father, a Navy man, always told me that when looking at buoys, remember “red, right, returning” which translates to: keep the red markers on your right when you’re coming back to port.  The question is: which port are you returning to?

 red marker

Not all went smoothly.  We nearly lost our anchor due to an overconfident crew member (that would be me) uncleating the rope before the anchor was fully stowed.  My husband raced onto the deck and dove into the murky water, seizing the rope before it sank out of sight.  My hero!

We discovered that nautical folks are not very precise in giving directions to their marinas so we had to wing it several times as far as where we should park the boat when we arrived after the dockhands had gone home.  One harbormaster came in the next morning, surveyed our neatly tied boats, and said, “Wow, I never knew a boat that big could fit into those slips.”

 tight slip

Here we are: crammed into our itty-bitty slips.

We didn’t tell him that it had taken us 30 minutes to maneuver into the slip, and that we had cheated by putting part of our crew (that would be me and two kids) onto the dock and using ropes to pull us in, while we cursed like, well, sailors (under our breath, so the children couldn’t hear).

 And, of course, the septic system clogged up…but we won’t discuss that issue in polite company.

 Whatever disasters we faced, the ONE humiliation I did NOT wish to suffer was calling for “Sea-Tow”.  Our maritime radio was constantly buzzing with distress signals from boaters who’d run aground and needed to be towed off a sandbar.  As the navigator, it was a point of pride with me that we never suffer that ignominious fate.

 Sea Tow

I took this photo of the dreaded tow-boat only as we came back into our final dock at Fort Myers, knowing that I could hold my binoculars high in triumph.  No matter how many pilings we’d dented, no matter how much entertainment we’d provided laughing dockhands with our inept boat-handling, no matter how many times we’d called Roy to explain to us how get the generator started again, we’d never, ever spoken the terrible words “Sea-Tow”.

Check back soon for more “Adventures in Houseboating”.  There might even be a prize for a lucky reader.

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13 responses to “Vacation Report: Houseboating in Florida…in August!

  1. I grew up boating on the intracoastal waterway in Jacksonville beach southward. I know you had a great time.

    Glad you beat the tropical storms and hurricanes.

  2. Ellen, that is so cool that you’ve had the same experience! Yes, the storms missed us, probably because God protects fools and children…and we had both on board. LOL!

  3. We lIved on a canal and had a 32 ft. boat (cabin cruiser) that slept 8 people. My Mom hated boats or we probably would have spent more time on the waterway. When I was a teenager my parents let me have sleep overs on the boat docked at our house. What fun that was! I used to go on the boat and read in the summer, loved the peace and quiet. I hope you get to cruise again.

  4. OMG, I’ve always wanted to live on a canal so I could watch the boats go by. In fact, the heroine of my second book SHOWER OF STARS does exactly that, a bit of wish fulfillment I indulged myself in.

    Sleepovers on a boat would have been majorly cool. Lucky you!

  5. That is why I loved reading about your winter vacation last year so much. Snow and more snow. The grass is always greener.

    I have read all your books.

  6. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm about my books! That’s so wonderful for an author to hear.

    As for vacations, I like to switch things up: go to cooler climes in the summer and warmer climes in the winter. Variety is the spice of life….

  7. There’s nothing like waterfront living. Houseboat vacations are as good as it gets – even better than getting a Florida coast hotel?

  8. Fantastic story! Sounds like a blast. Jim is envious, too! He has fond houseboat vacation memories from Lake Mead.

  9. I got a couple of chuckles reading this section. I’d say it was mighty brave of you to go boating, and for that long. Your photos are great, and it sounds like you had some great adventures.
    I started sailing when Chris and I were dating over 30 years ago. This year we had a two weeks sailing vacation.
    I can’t imagine going out without knowing how to read a chart. I’m happy for you that you didn’t run aground or worse.
    Problems with the head are such a drag! Chris has some repair work to do on ours!
    My schedule is such that I haven’t read “From the Garrett” regularly, but whenever I do read it, it is terrific.
    Pretty cool that your daughter is writing as well.
    Hope the rest of your summer is good. Laura

  10. So you’re a sailor? It IS fun. Once I got the hang of the fact that the water is the detailed part of the chart, I was okay with chart-reading. I love maps in general so that part I enjoyed.

    I’m so glad you enjoy reading “From the Garret”. It’s always great to see your comments here! Brings back Shipley memories….

    Cheers, Nancy

  11. Trying to talk my hubby into doing this! Where did you rent the oat from?

    • My apologies, Gail, but I don’t remember where we rented the boat. My brother-in-law handled that and he doesn’t have the paperwork anymore. I strongly recommend that you NOT do it in August. LOL! Otherwise, it would be great.

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