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Trawler School

Class is in session as Soundings signs on for three daysaboard a Grand Banks 36

Class is in session as Soundings signs on for three daysaboard a Grand Banks 36

The pilings are about 14 feet apart, and the trawler’s beam is 12-1/2 feet, leaving me with a little less than a foot on both sides. It is the first time I’ve ever docked a boat larger than 30 feet, and the slip suddenly looks a bit small.

“Split the clutches,” Capt. Greg Corsones advises. “That’s enough. Now put the port one in reverse, just for a second. Good. If the boat’s doing what you want it to do, let it do it.

“Remember,” he says, a piling groaning against the Grand Banks’ rubrail, “the pilings are your friends. Use them.”

Welcome to trawler class at Florida Sailing and Cruising School in North Fort Myers, Fla., where I spent three days learning how to operate a Grand Banks 36, from docking and line handling to understanding systems and navigating. The school is uncommon in that students live aboard while taking the course.

Schools like this likely will gain popularity given today’s population demographic. Baby boomers are starting to enjoy the fruits of their labors, which means some of them are buying larger cruising boats like trawlers. And if they’ve come to boating later in life, many don’t want to start with a small boat and work their way up. They can afford a larger boat and they want it now, which makes them perfect candidates for Corsones — who is 45 — and his colleagues at the school.

“We’re seeing a lot of baby boomers who’ve had this dream of learning to boat, or learning to charter, or buying a boat,” says Barbara Hansen, who with her husband, Capt. Vic, owns and manages Florida Sailing and Cruising School as well as brokerage firm Southwest Florida Yachts. “Now the kids are gone, and financially and time-wise they’re able to. And I think that’s only going to increase.”

The Hansens left behind corporate careers in the Midwest a little more than 20 years ago and headed to Florida, starting the brokerage in 1984 and the school in 1985. They offer three powerboat courses: P-101 (powerboat handling), P-102 (inland cruising) and P-103 (offshore cruising). Courses generally are taught on displacement trawlers from 32 to 42 feet.

The school has several Grand Banks trawlers, including 32-foot and 36-foot single-engine models, the twin-screw 36-footer, and a pair of twin-screw 42-footers. Occasionally a class will be taught on a motoryacht, such as a 39-foot Bayliner, if a student plans to purchase a similar boat, Hansen says.

Much of the fleet comprises private boats whose owners share them with the school to help defray costs and keep them in good working order. “These boats are not cheap to maintain, and the worst thing to do is to leave them untouched for eight months,” says Corsones, who also runs a tour boat out of his hometown of Naples, Fla.

About 80 percent of students are couples, Corsones says, and the hardest part of teaching is trying to keep the husband from interfering with the wife’s training.

“For the most part, if they do it right and they take the course together, it’ll be a success,” says Hansen. However, sometimes it becomes clear that the partners don’t share the liveaboard or cruising dream. “But better to find that out before investing in a $200,000 boat,” she says.

Getting started

The powerboat handling course starts with a walkthrough of the vessel and discussion of its equipment. Corsones, who holds a Coast Guard 100-gross-ton master license with towing endorsement, says the amount of time spent going over systems on the first day depends on the student. He is the instructor for me and my classmate, Soundings editor Bill Sisson, for our three-day trawler course.

Our orientation begins at the bow, and Corsones shares information as we continue aft. “If you didn’t eat it, it doesn’t go in there,” Corsones says of the marine head. And he offers advice for boaters who won’t spend the money on marine toilet tissue: “You’d better get some rubber gloves.”

Corsones then moves on to fire extinguishers and other emergency equipment. While the proper technique for putting out a fire is to aim short extinguisher blasts at the base of the blaze, Corsones says, the best defense just might be “a scared guy with a bucket.” Having said that, Corsones also tells me what class of fire not to throw water on.

There is a homework assignment each night, assigned from workbooks and student guides written and prepared by the Hansens. In the morning, the captain/instructor goes over the work and answers any questions.

On the second day of our three-day course, we also go over the various navigation aids we would encounter during our first day outside the marina, as well as on the Intracoastal Waterway. Next, we check engine fluid levels — part of our daily maintenance regimen — and slip the lines for a day on the water. We head up the Caloosahatchee River, eventually stopping to anchor and eat lunch.

The experience

Although Corsones has been with the Florida Sailing and Cruising School for a relatively short time, he has more than 25 years of experience boating in southwest Florida. The other captains working as instructors have an average of 15 years with the school, he says, and most teach both sail- and powerboat courses.

Corsones says the Hansens are good to their people, so employees tend to stay a long time. He describes the work environment as professional from the top down. “If you’re going to work for them, you’re going to be the same way or you’re not going to work for them,” he says. “There’s no ham-and-egging it.”

Barbara Hansen says a good school captain isn’t just a good “boat jockey,” but someone who is able to teach what he or she knows. “That’s sometimes a challenge without jumping in and taking the wheel,” she says. “It’s like [learning to drive] a car — you can’t just sit next to somebody and watch how they drive.”

David Jossi of nearby Estero, Fla., had Corsones for an instructor. “Not only was he an incredibly good teacher,” Jossi says, “he was fun.”

Corsones says that element of fun is essential for a beneficial experience. “If you’re not having a good time, you’re not going to learn it,” he says.

Jossi is 53 and took the six-day powerboat handling and inland cruising course on the 36-foot twin-engine Grand Banks. He says Corsones helped him master docking, something he didn’t accomplish enrolled in a similar course in the past.

“I was blown away, and I know that it was his teaching style that made all the difference,” says Jossi. “It was obvious that they enjoy working there. Plus, you have a wealth of experience. And it sure doesn’t hurt that we’re in southwest Florida, with such beautiful places to cruise.”

Jossi recently retired from a job in customer service, managing a team that trains Internet technical support workers. He plans to return for the school’s offshore cruising course.

Jossi says it was clear from the course materials and his “unflappable” captain that the Hansens had worked hard fine-tuning the course. “I know nobody can guarantee success,” he says. “[But] they’ve got a formula where they’ve upped the odds in your favor as much as possible.”

Adden Wagner of Lexington, Ky., is contemplating retiring to southwest Florida and recently took the same six-day handling and cruising course after a two-year hiatus from boating. Wagner, who says he is “over 50,” has run small boats and chartered captained vessels. Now he wants to buy a powerboat in the 45-foot range.

“I’ve been planning to do this for years, but I’ve been putting it off for work,” says Wagner. When some vacation time came up he decided to enroll.

Wagner describes himself as “pretty mechanical” and with a boating background, so he chose not to spend a lot of time on the walkthrough. When he completed the course with Capt. Chris Day, his wife, Jerry, joined him for a charter cruise. “It was good I got my wife to take that next step,” he says. “She’s excited, and that alone was worth taking the course.”

Like Jossi, Wagner plans to later enroll in the offshore cruising course.

Sherry and David Gray of Brazoria, Texas, attended the school under the tutelage of Capt. Gary Graham, who Corsones says has been with the school for more than 15 years.

“He had the patience of Job,” says Sherry Gray, 46, of Graham. “He just loves what he’s doing, and it transferred over to us.”

The Grays’ classroom was a Grand Banks 42, and though Sherry Gray says she was intimidated at first, she soon found herself backing the trawler into a narrow slip with boats on both sides. The couple, who previously had taken a Coast Guard boating course together, found the hands-on approach at the Florida Sailing and Cruising School especially helpful, according to David Gray.

“Learning it firsthand instills it in your mind,” says Gray, a 44-year-old engineer. “We would study each night but then during the day, to actually go out and see it and do it really made a difference.”

The Grays recently purchased a 31-foot twin-engine Chris-Craft and plan to charter a larger boat with the Hansens’ brokerage firm this summer. They want to continue stepping up in boat size in the coming years. “Our dream is to retire and live on a boat,” says Sherry Gray, a clerical professional. “So we thought it would be wise to take the powerboating 101 and 102 courses.”

Richard Merriam of Edina, Minn., also wants to move up to a larger boat. Merriam, 44, and his brother Bob, 41, took the six-day combination handling and cruising course. Merriam has cruised aboard a 29-footer but wants to charter something that can accommodate both his and his brother’s families. They both are married with three kids.

“Basically all of our experience has been on smaller boats and inland lakes,” says Merriam, an investment professional. He says they now have the confidence to charter a bigger boat. At that point, he says he would consider taking the offshore cruising course, with the ultimate goal of exploring the Caribbean.

The final exam

On our third and final day aboard our 36-footer, Blue Note, Corsones has us stretch our legs as helmsmen. We go over our homework, complete our daily maintenance checklist, and receive further navigation instruction.

It is a sunny Saturday morning. Traffic is up, and we see several boats stopped for violations as the day wears on. Sisson and I take turns as skipper and navigator; Corsones hasn’t touched the wheel since the first 20 minutes of our first day.

We practice lining up ranges on the ICW and guiding Blue Note down the narrow, busy channels. Corsones is looking forward to one spot in particular.

“Marker 101 is an instructor’s dream,” Corsones says of the spot between Shell Island and Punta Rassa, where we find ourselves rounding sandbars and skirting islands in a narrow channel. Traffic is heavy and running at full speed. Navigation aids become a tad confusing as different conventions are in use, with the ICW heading southwest into San Carlos Bay and traffic toward Estero Bay turning south.

“I get a lot of mileage out of that intersection,” says Corsones. “And it’s one of my favorite places to mess with [students], and mess with them in a good way.”

It is clear Corsones delights in the educational process, not just because he gets to spend the day on the flybridge and eat student-prepared sandwiches. “Of anything I’ve ever done on a boat, the teaching is my favorite thing,” he says.

As is expected of all Florida Sailing and Cruising School students, we hail the Fort Myers Yacht Basin on the VHF radio, dock, fuel and pump out Blue Note. After backing into the Marinatown slip one final time, we complete a written exam and say goodbye to Corsones. Then it is off to the airport and bound for Connecticut, leaving sunny Florida behind for winter in New England.

“Everyone comes at it with a different goal,” Barbara Hansen says. “A lot of people just want to be able to charter a boat; some plan to buy a boat. Other people have made the mistake of already having bought the boat.”

I had achieved my goals: handling a larger, twin-engine boat; practicing navigation; and getting a feel for living aboard. New goals now have taken root, such as anchoring overnight and cruising offshore. The hands-on boating school experience is a good way to gauge your personal level of interest and ability, and will help you make that next move with confidence.

Other powerboat schools

There are numerous options for on-board powerboat training at all levels of instruction. Here’s a look at four schools whose offerings range from two-day basic courses to weeklong cruises.

Colgate School

Steve and Doris Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School has graduated more than 100,000 students in its 41-year history. The venerable sailing institution is now in its third year of offering powerboat cruising courses aboard a Mainship Pilot 30 II Rum Runner, a single-engine express cruiser.

“A lot of people who are buying powerboats are thinking, There’s a lot of people out there who don’t know what they’re doing and are dangerous,” says Diana Smith, director of sales and marketing at the school. “And they don’t want to be a part of that group.” She says the school is discussing adding a twin-screw training boat.

Courses involve both hands-on and classroom training. Students are on board about 3-1/2 hours each day, covering Rules of the Road, docking, engine troubleshooting, crew overboard recovery, coastal navigation and more.

“In these waters in particular, we find that people are intimidated by all the shallows,” says Smith. “You have to learn how to read a chart; you have to be able to handle the boat against the currents.”

The powerboat school currently is based at the Pink Shell Resort in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., while renovations to the South Seas Resort location on Captiva Island are completed. The school says it may add another boat after the Captiva base reopens later this year. Prices are seasonal, ranging from $1,265 to $1,665 per person for a two-day course and $1,445 to $1,960 per person for a four-day course, including accommodations. Course materials are included, as is US Sailing powerboat certification upon completion.

Offshore Sailing School has nine locations along the East Coast and Caribbean. Phone: (888) 851-0381.

Annapolis Powerboat School

Annapolis Sailing and Powerboat School offers powerboat instruction on Chesapeake Bay out of Annapolis, Md., aboard a twin-engine Canyon 30 sportfishing boat. A new Luhrs 32 — also a twin-diesel sportfishing boat — is to join the 30-footer. The school says the sportfishing layout, with its large cockpit and plenty of room around the helm station, suits its classes, which generally comprise three or four students and an instructor.

The school offers a two-day powerboat handling course, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, that provides instruction and practice in the basics of boat handling, in addition to experience in cruising, coastal navigation, the Rules of the Road and more. Cost is $525 per person.

An intensive five-day powerboat cruising course lets students practice the basics of navigation while exploring the Chesapeake. Price is $1,595 per person, including accommodations and meals. Private instruction is also available.

Annapolis Sailing and Powerboat School has locations in Annapolis; Marathon and St. Petersburg, Fla.; and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Phone: (410) 267-7205.

Chapman School

The Chapman School of Seamanship offers recreational and commercial training programs using its “Learn at the Helm” teaching method. In January the Stuart, Fla.-based non-profit school launched the Chapman Powerboat Certification programs.

Though Chapman has been training students in sailing and powerboating since 1971, the new powerboat certification curriculum has brought increased registrations. The large number of sailors getting into powerboats has been a driving force behind these changes, says Tom Knighten, primary developer of the curriculum. “The need definitely seems to be there,” he says.

Courses range from Boating Essentials to the forthcoming Ocean Passage bluewater training course. Boating Essentials (CPC-100, $350) is a two-day course split between the classroom and hands-on training. In Power Boat Handling (CPC-200, $595), students spend two days working on close-quarters maneuvering. Basic Power Boating (CPC-1000, $995) is a five-day program covering seamanship, navigation, boat handling, maintenance and electronics. The next step up is Inland Cruising (CPC-2000, $1,595). Students in this five-day program use their skills to plan, provision for and execute an overnight cruise.

Two advanced courses are being finalized. Coastal Cruising (CPC-3000) kicks off in May, and Ocean Passage (CPC-4000) should be under way in July or August, Knighten says. These programs will cover standing watch, 24-hour watch-standing rotations, nighttime crew overboard rescue, heavy weather handling, and transiting inlets, among other topics. “We try to cover all the bases,” says Knighten.

The school’s 30-boat fleet consists entirely of donated boats. The three cruising courses take place on twin-screw semidisplacement boats 40 feet and larger.

The Chapman School provides students with an updateable “Passport” that serves as a student’s proof of certification, which some outfits require to charter a boat. Phone: (772) 283-8130.

Sea Sense

Sea Sense offers all-women sail- and powerboat liveaboard courses in the United States and internationally. Though the group classes are for women only, private and custom courses are available for men, too.

“We’ve been getting more and more calls from men, for themselves,” says office manager Penny Heffelfinger, a sailor and liveaboard. “They’re not just calling to sign up their wives.”

Group powerboating courses are offered in New England, Chesapeake Bay, Florida and the Pacific Northwest. Classes generally take place on chartered boats. In a custom course a student offers to host a class on his or her boat in exchange for tuition. School captains also will teach a class while delivering a student’s boat, Heffelfinger says.

This summer’s courses include Powerboating 101, a five-day beginner to intermediate cruising course (Essex, Conn., June 6 to 10, $2,295); Powerboating 102, a basic seven-day coastal cruising course involving island hopping (Mystic, Conn., July 10 to 16, $2,595; Anacortes, Wash., and the San Juan Islands, July 31 to Aug. 6, $2,495); and Powerboating 201, a seven-day advanced course (Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, Aug. 7 to 13, $2,595). Class fees include most expenses but not transportation to and from cruise locations.

A schedule for the next round of courses in the Chesapeake, Florida and Caribbean will be available soon, according to Heffelfinger. Phone: (727) 865-1404. www.