Barb Hansen is projecting a major maritime backup from the Great Lakes straight down the Mississippi River in summer 2025.
“Our school has gone crazy,” she says, referring to bookings for sail and powerboat courses at Southwest Florida Yachts, which she runs near Fort Myers. “If everybody who says they’re going to do the Great Loop in the next three to five years actually does the Loop, it’s going to be a serious traffic jam.”
The ever-changing restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic all across the United States have boaters—and those who’ve always dreamed of becoming boaters—flocking to Florida. Hansen and others say that even despite the winter spike in cases, demand for everything from bareboat and crewed charters to learn-to-skipper courses shows no signs of slowing. It started this past summer and has continued unabated, no matter what Florida’s Covid-19 statistics say. Everyone, it seems, wants to escape from the pandemic doldrums by stepping aboard a boat, especially in a place like the Sunshine State, where the shoreline is full of waterfront outdoor dining and great snorkeling spots.
Beth Oliver, director of marketing for Steve and Doris Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School, says requests for fast-track courses are surging among people who have always wanted to try living aboard or bareboating through a company like The Moorings. The school has boats in St. Petersburg, Cape Coral, Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach, and people are signing up because they have decided that the pandemic is actually the ideal time to live the dream.
“There’s interest from people who have always wanted to do this, and it’s the safest way they can be on the water, be with their own party, be only in safe places,” Oliver says. “Now is a good time to do it. It’s rewarding and fulfilling, and right now, it’s the great safe escape.”
Hansen says that for her company’s bare boats and classes, she’s now seeing people driving to Southwest Florida from as far away as the Carolinas and Texas. These clients are still hesitant about mass transit, but they are beyond ready to scratch the boating itch that has become increasingly hard to ignore as the pandemic wears on.
“From Texas, that’s a two-day drive, maybe 14 or 15 hours, but they were doing it,” she says. “You wouldn’t think that in nine months, people would decide to change their whole world and turn it upside down, but I guess they’ve just had enough.”
Even among larger charter boats with crew, the pattern of behavior is similar. Capt. Matthew Burns of the 103-foot Johnson Lorax found himself in the Florida Keys this past winter instead of in the Bahamas or Caribbean, where boats of that type would normally be based. While charter brokers struggled to deal with ever-changing regulations and testing requirements in the islands, Lorax’s management company, Superyacht Sales & Charter, was able to book three charters almost back-to-back with clients who were able to fly privately to South Florida and meet the boat.
“Pretty much each group that we’ve had, they’re just happy to have a break from the Covid chaos,” Burns says.
The groups of clients who booked Lorax in late December and January were each families and friends who had been quarantining together, and who had, like the crew, been tested for Covid-19 prior to arrival.
“Once they get on the boat, there are no masks, and we don’t do a lot of shore-based stuff. It’s mostly snorkeling, some fishing, and being on the boat,” Burns says. “On the boat, all your meals are cooked and prepared. Going out to eat isn’t always an option, so having that option to dine aboard with no masks required and a great view, that’s nice.”
That type of relaxation and break from the pandemic’s psychological toll is what clients are seeking from the learn-to-cruise and bareboating companies too, Oliver and Hansen say. Once clients realize that they actually can get aboard and have some fun, it’s almost as if nothing will stop them.
“People call and ask, ‘Is there any place to go?’” Hansen says. “Really, other than people in masks, you’d never know there was a pandemic. All the marinas are open. The restaurants are open. We have outdoor dining everywhere here. The best place you can be is out on the boat with your family. And if you don’t want to see another human being, you don’t have to.”
The biggest challenge Burns says he’s had so far in the Florida Keys is a guest whose number got called for a turn to get the Covid-19 vaccine in January, when securing an appointment felt like winning a golden ticket from Willy Wonka. The man was one among eight guests on the charter, and the appointment was take it or leave it that same week.
“We had to get him off the boat and back home in the middle of the trip,” Burns says, adding that the rest of the guests carried on with the vacation. “He didn’t want to miss the appointment and end up at the end of the list.”
Most people, it appears, are happy just to get out of their homes and do something different after months of being cooped up with pandemic restrictions. Oliver says that Offshore Sailing School’s clients arrive on a Friday, take a two-day course in learning how to sail aboard a Colgate 26 while spending nights at a resort, and then head off that Monday morning aboard a 40- to 50-foot monohull or catamaran. By the end of the week, they’ve almost forgotten the pandemic even exists, and they’re thinking about future vacations.
Hansen has been adding boats to the Southwest Florida Yachts fleet as one way to keep up with the demand. In the past year, she’s welcomed a Beneteau Swift Trawler 52, an Aquila 44 power catamaran and several sailing catamarans. And she says that calls for bookings have been coming faster and faster as people realize they’ll soon be able to get vaccinated and feel safer traveling again. This spring and summer, she says, are likely to see Florida yet again chockablock with visiting boaters beyond the norm, even in parts of the state that aren’t as well-known as the Florida Keys, and even during months that weren’t typically tourism high points in years past.
“We have a real hidden gem here in Southwest Florida,” Hansen says. “People get down here and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea this location was this good.’”
Burns says his biggest concern going forward is being able to find dockage. If more and more boaters keep turning to Florida, instead of to the Bahamas or Caribbean, the number of slips compared to the number of boats may be the biggest challenge of all, especially for larger boats.
“Everything is full,” he said of the Florida Keys marinas heading into early February. “As we’re sitting here now in Key West at Opal Key marina on the west end of downtown, this was the only space that I could get.”
However, he made sure to add one more point. “And it’s a great spot.”
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.