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    Categories: Destinations

So much of Florida to Sea-Doo

Doing some real estate speculation

The brand new Sea-Doo RXT-X 300 may just be the perfect watercraft to explore St. Petersburg

 By Steven Bull

In the height – and heat – of summer, thinking about Florida may seem like a stretch, but it’s now that winter vacation planning often starts and have I got an idea for you!

As an admitted Florida-lover, I aim to travel there on vacation annually. Thanks to my job, I get a couple of other short trips for shoots and boat shows to get my fill of the sunshine state.

One thing that has changed for me is my realization that having access to a boat makes a world of difference. I have a boat on Lake Ontario that I spend most of the summer on, but historically, the water-based integration of any of my personal trips to Florida are summed up as time on the beach.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved boats and being on the water but I always thought being adjacent to water was just as good for a southern vacation. When in Florida I could enjoy myself sans boat, but two years ago, on a vacation with my wife’s family, that all changed.

My father-in-law towed a 12-foot long tender from a friend’s cruiser just to have something to boot around on and maybe do some fishing. It was a game changer.

I’m sure reading this, many of you are thinking, “Of course you enjoyed it. You’re a boater. Why wouldn’t you like it?” But it’s more than just liking it, it changed my view of the vacation altogether.

Sure you can drive to a myriad of beaches, could dine exclusively at on-the-water restaurants and stay at hotels or rentals overlooking the Gulf or Atlantic all by car, but nothing compares to being able to get out on the water.

We took things up a notch in late October and, thanks to our friends at Sea-Doo, were able to tow a pair of brand-new machines to St. Petersburg for a few days of exploration.

Like the tender, PWCs are easy to tow and lightweight which keeps the fuel bill reasonable. The big difference is there’s no sacrifice in performance, especially with the 300 horsepower output of the powerful new Rotax 1630 ACE engine in the RXT-X 300s. With the longest hull in the line-up, these seemed like the perfect choice for fast fun, stable cruising through big water and creature comforts for an extended day of riding.

We launched in Maximo Park. It’s just about the southern tip of the St. Petersburg peninsula that sticks out separating Tampa Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. There was a well-maintained ramp and plenty of parking so we splashed the Sea-Doos and then cruised slowly along Frenchman Creek, past the perfectly situated Eckerd College and into the Sunshine Skyway Channel.

Running south, parallel to Interstate 275 and the massive bridge, we were sheltered at first which was nice given it was a very windy day. When we got out to where Tampa Bay opened up giving way to bigger water, the big rollers made a dramatic entrance and I was able to launch my Sea-Doo clear out of the water when I squeezed the throttle. However, that was by choice as the hull design allowed me to cruise at a peppy 40 miles per hour and splash through the waves without getting airborne or loosing any sense of control. Still, I find that fun from time to time.

We overshot the channel to the west a little bit to explore what looked like a shipwreck partially exposed above the water. It was just past the Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge, a tiny 1.6-square kilometre island and bird breeding ground.

Being able to cruise close to and over top of things like a shipwreck is another benefit of PWCs. There is no propeller to snag anything, the draft is miniscule, and you can stand up to get a full 360-degree view without losing balance.

From here my guide, Kevin Wassum, led me westward at a good clip. The only time we really slowed down was for him to point out the Fort De Soto boat ramp, which is, by far, the largest boat launch facility I’ve ever seen. It stretches more than two football fields long and has dozens of ramps and docks so no one has to wait to get going.

Wassum, originally from Ohio, moved to Florida years ago and fell in love with Sea-Doos, now racing them on the circuit when not spending time with his family or at his day job.

We beached our machines – mine red and black, and his white with yellow and black graphics – on a sandy island just across from Fort De Soto Park. Here, only a few feet above sea level in the Gulf, he told me why he loved riding the small watercraft on big water so much.

“It’s just an awesome way to be down low and connected with the water. When you’re on a boat I don’t feel you’re as connected with the water. Riding over you can go into shallow areas with a Sea-Doo,” he said as we stood ankle deep in the rising tide while, a few metres away, sandpipers patrolled the shore. “It’s safer for marine life. You’re not at risk of causing harm to anything that’s swimming around under you. Especially out in this area there’s so much marine life: sting rays, manatees, dolphins, sharks, everything! And taking these out here just makes it a more fun experience.”

Everyone has his or her own personal bias and preferences but on this topic I consider Wassum an expert. He has a garage full of Sea-Doos, races them and has spent more time on them than most of us will ever spend on our boats combined. And it’s not just short day trips and racing, he uses them in ways few would consider.

“I’ve ridden these things all the way to the Exhuma Island Chain, so about 350 miles away from Miami, without any trouble.”

Add that to my bucket list.

He wanted to show me Egmont Key – about five kilometres from where we were – but with the chop from the eastern wind blowing the rollers out of Tampa Bay, it would be a bit of a haul. Still, he said it was worth it so off we went.

Egmont Key can be seen from Anna Maria Island, as it’s only four-and-a-half kilometres away. During the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s, the island was home to 300 people. Fort Dade was deactivated in the early 1920s after last serving as a training facility in World War I. Today it’s a wildlife refuge and state park only accessible by boat. There is also a small ferry to get you to and from. Though, on this day that didn’t look like an enjoyable ride.

After I snapped a few photos of the ruins and had my camera stowed back away it was time to head north. We left the sheltered west side of the island to go back into the choppy waters of the shipping channel. We had to wait for a giant freighter to plow through towards Tampa Bay and then we cut well behind it and raced back past Fort De Soto Park.

Ripping along the Gulf of Mexico on a 300-hp Sea-Doo is something I’m not sure I would have done but what an experience! After zipping past Shell Key, another nature preserve, we tucked in around the Pass-A-Grille district and stopped at one of the many restaurants for a seafood inspired lunch and reprieve from the sun.

Even having spent a few hours on the water I kept looking out at the big fishing boats along the Pass-A-Grille channel and made a mental note: a fishing charter has to be next on my “must do” list.

After lunch we let things settle as we slowly cruised past the houses that dot the shoreline: some big, some bigger. Any one of them I’d be happy to have!

A lot of areas in-shore have speed limits and while PWCs of old would be uncomfortable and, in some cases, incapable of long slow cruises, the modern iterations are as comfortable in no wake zones as they are out in the rollers. Admittedly, it’s a nice change to putt along from time to time, especially when you have stuff to look at.

When we got into Boca Ciega Bay we were able to get back on the throttle. We raced along side Treasure Island just as a perfectly timed pirate-ship came into view. It’s a tour boat that plays on the name and was full of families, but anyone and any reason to get out on the water is okay with me!

John’s Pass would prove to be the northerly extreme of our 75-kilometre route. It’s the waterway that connects Boca Ciega Bay with the Gulf of Mexico and serves as the boundary between Treasure Island to the south and Madeira Beach to the north.

The Pass is technically the waterway but for many people it’s synonymous with the tourist boardwalk and village on the Madeira Beach side. There are multiple restaurants, shops, fishing charters, PWC and boat rentals and that pirate ship. The one thing that didn’t seem immediately obvious was transient docking. If it is there it wasn’t apparent or as large as I would expect and, based on later investigating online my concern seems common.

However it is a funky and eclectic spot that is worth a visit if you’re in the area and, full disclosure, I returned here by car the day before I flew home to wander around and explore. Sure it’s touristy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The food choices were good and it was a happening and busy spot.

Before we continued to the big water we stopped at the John’s Pass Marina on the Treasure Island side for a splash of gas. Here’s another benefit of exploring via Sea-Doo: it sips gas, so this wasn’t a budget-busting stop.

As we slid past the pelicans standing sentry along the main channel under the drawbridge we went from the choppy Boca Ciega Bay to the sheltered Gulf of Mexico and busy beaches.

With the sun beating down on us we headed offshore a little ways and whipped our Sea-Doos in tight circles, flipping them in and out of turns until we got the bows to bite into the water and splash saltwater all over – a welcome relief.

Suitably soaked Wassum led the way southbound and said simply, “Head to the pink hotel for now.” From there he would need to show me the way back to Maximo Park as I had taken full advantage of having a local guide. I wasn’t worried about charting the course myself. I know, I know… it’s never wise to not know exactly where you are. I could have gotten myself back but he knew the ins and outs and shortcuts and, to be honest, not having to be the primary driver or navigator was a very relaxing change.

As we set out I was leery that I would not know to which hotel he was referring – there are a lot of colourful buildings – but he assured me I would know when I saw it.

He was right.

The Don CeSar was built in 1928 to be a grand hotel and it allegedly was in its heyday in the Jazz Age but remains popular today. Now, on the National Register of Historic Places the “pink castle” is a can’t-miss landmark from land or water. And, amazingly, the colourful behemoth looks perfectly situated, grandly overlooking the Gulf. I imagine at sunset the orange beams from the sun reflecting off the unique colour would be something else but that’s a goal for another trip.

Thanks to the sheltered wind we were able to push the RXT-X 300s full throttle for extended runs and test Sea-Doo’s top speed claims of 72 mph. I ran at a consistent 71 mph and decided that was Sea-Doo’s way of telling me I needed a diet.

Even still, 71 mph (114 kph) is expletive-spewingly fast on any watercraft let alone something as small as a PWC. The ErgoLock system allows comfortable hip placement and natural seating while “locking” knees into curved overhangs of the seat and angled foot wells. I felt like I was sitting in the Sea-Doo rather than on it and felt comfortable doing short bursts at top speed.

Kevin – this is no big deal to a racer – Wassum on the other hand was happy ripping along and executing tight turns at near top-speed all day long. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years on various PWCs but until now, I’ve never had a full appreciation of the levels of skill in riding. Watching Wassum was awesome and reviewing GoPro footage from his ride for our PowerBoat Television feature was even more impressive. Racers throw their weight around, literally, and get the Sea-Doo to really bite into turns. This makes already tight turns ridiculous. All his talk about the toll it takes on the body and the amount of training required for long races was immediately evident. For the run back to Frenchman Creek we kept it at a very comfortable 50 mph.

The sun started sinking below the palm trees and the birds were returning to their homes in the mangroves while we slid back into the no-wake zone by Eckerd College and the ramp. As we pulled the pair of RXT-Xs out of the water I told Wassum that he had won me over.

Sea-Doos are always fun but I wasn’t sure it would be my preferred choice for a full day of exploring and cruising. I thought big water or slow runs would be better by boat but I was pleasantly surprised.

The fact that we were able to float above a shipwreck, confidently cut through the same water a full size freighter was plowing through, cruise though residential areas and rip along the Gulf at get-a-ticket-on-the-highway speeds was about as good as it gets.

Getting out to Egmont Key was something I had wanted to do since someone told me about it on Anna Maria Island years ago. I was able to do that.

Boating in the Gulf of Mexico is something I had wanted to do. I was able to do that.

Visiting waterfront restaurants is something I always like doing if possible, especially by boat. I was able to do that.

The only downside is that now that I’ve done this once, I don’t know if I’ll be able to go

back to Florida and not get out on the water. I used to be able to convince myself being next to it and walking in it was enough. Not anymore.

This destination is featured in the Summer issue of Boats&Places and the 2016 season of PowerBoat Television.

Steven Bull: Steven Bull is an Associate Producer and Host of PowerBoat Television. He grew up boating on runabouts and PWCs on the lakes around Huntsville, while his wife grew up on cruisers. It only took months after getting married for Steve to adopt that lifestyle. Together, they purchased a Sea Ray 380 Sundancer they keep at the Toronto Islands. A graduate of the University of Windsor’s business school, Steve worked in the front office of OHL and CFL teams before moving to Europe and working as a Ski Guide in the French Alps. He returned to Canada get a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University (formerly UWO). Steve’s broadcast experience ranges from the BBC World Service in England, to business reporter with NTV in Kenya, and from 2010-2014 as a multi-platform reporter and host with CBC News. In 2014, Steve combined his passion for boating with his skills as a broadcaster by joining Lifestyle Integrated where he contributes to Boats&Places Magazine, BoatTest.ca, BoaterNews.ca, and of course, PowerBoat Television.

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