By Steve Morrell
During the Great Recession that started in 2008, chartering in the Caribbean declined and the owner of a Florida charter company told me business was doing well—in spite of the slow economy—and that many boaters were giving up on a charter in the Caribbean, or some other far-off spot, and instead chartering in Florida to save money. I thought: This is a great opportunity to turn Florida into a cruising dream destination. After all, it is the only subtropical area in the continental United States, and the state has some great cruising grounds.
Strike while the iron is hot, as they say. Florida also just passed a law which forbids local communities from restricting cruisers’ anchoring rights.
In those slow economic times, I have thought that charter companies would benefit. After all, there can be big savings in chartering over boat ownership—and today many cannot afford boat ownership. On top of that, many just go chartering annually. With fractional sailing and sailing clubs, there are even more opportunities today to save money and still go sailing. So why not target charterers from all over the country to come to Florida, cruise down the ICW and visit all the various chartering grounds in the state, including the tropical Florida Keys?
So, I thought: What would it take to make Florida a major cruising/charter dream destination?
First of all, it must be boater-friendly. Cruisers must find Florida at least as friendly as cruising in other popular places in the world. Yes—we do not have the tropical waters like the Caribbean, but if we can’t be at least as friendly as places like that, then why come to Florida? Are the savings in these slow times worth it for someone to come to a spot that isn’t as cruiser- friendly as some tropical island?
Where do we start? Here are some ideas to make it more friendly. Although not a complete list for sure, it could be a start.
Create a Boater-Friendly Atmosphere. No more police raids at night just to inspect people. Let’s face it: the Florida Keys, the most tropical destination in the state, is where the police have been known to come up to your boat late at night shining floodlights in your eyes, asking to inspect your boat. If we can’t end this practice, then give up on the whole idea of a dream cruising destination. This is a necessary, although not a sufficient, condition to create a cruiser-friendly atmosphere. Stop the practice of stopping boats without probable cause just to inspect them. Get the water police to hire some sailors and cruisers.
Let’s get the police to become friendly and helpful instead of inspecting everyone. If they see cruisers, how about if the police sometimes go up to them and ask if they have any questions, or can they help them—maybe even reminding them to put their anchor light on at night in all anchorages. But no asking for papers and an inspection unless they see a law being broken. (You know—the same laws police face when stopping automobiles.) How about making a real effort to help and welcome cruisers and not make the main effort inspection. Keep the policing function aimed at where the real problems are statistically—like drunken powerboaters speeding. While we’re at it, let’s eliminate victimless law enforcement. And let’s get the police to jump on those officers who get a little out of hand and give the rest of them a bad reputation. Don’t just work on the image, change the reality.
Make Pump-outs Commonplace. Although everyone in government likes to think that getting a pump-out is easy and convenient, cruisers know different. Although there are many exceptions, pump-outs are few and far between, and many of them don’t even work. This needs to be fixed.
To ensure that boaters do dispose of their waste properly, how about an alternative to waste inspections, like a law requiring an annual inspection to register the boat each year. Use the inspection to remind boaters of the law and proper waste disposal, maybe even hand out a list of local pump-outs. Be more lenient with alternatives like Wag Bags, perhaps suggesting that they be used when their tanks are full and they can’t get a pump-out. In other words, help the situation to improve. Educate boaters more on waste disposal and educate the landlubbers (and the water police) that they are the real source of pollution of our waters, not boaters. It will hopefully humble them a little.
Dinghy Access. Why do many boaters find no place to bring their dinghy ashore, never mind a convenient, friendly spot? Then they often get charged as much as $10/day, as though some huge concrete parking garage had to be built to park them for a few hours. For $10, you should get at least some assurance that it won’t get stolen. Make it as easy as it is for a car to come into town and park and shop, although the automobile’s strain on the environment and economy is about a thousand times greater. These people aren’t coming ashore to take money, but to give someone some. If they came to get a boat part, remember this: They’ll probably spend more money locally on one boat part than a meal in a fancy restaurant.
Create a Welcoming Atmosphere Around the State. Start a campaign on what cruisers bring to the state, with an emphasis on how charterers bring money into the economy, not just in paying for the boat charter (which is the biggest expense), but they drive or fly in, stay in hotels before and after the charter and then spend lots of money buying food and other services and items they need. Publicize how much money a couple or family would spend on a typical charter, showing the public how much money boaters really do bring in. This could be coupled with friendly mooring and anchorage services. Allow services at shoreside facilities for those anchoring, like bathrooms, water, pump-outs, supplies, etc. Don’t treat them like leeches who are trying to get something for nothing but as fellow citizens who are enjoying their lives and trying to be prudent and thrifty, just like those on shore. The more people get to know cruisers, the more they will realize how many are really good, honest, hard-working people who just want to spend their time dealing with the adventure, fun and challenge that comes with cruising around.
Just think of it—a cruiser-friendly Florida. It’s possible.