The beach has got to be one of the top travel destinations for summer getaways, but have you ever really considered just what there is to do? Once you’ve played in the waves and gotten a nice crispy sunburn, then what?
One of my mantras for going outdoors–no matter where we may be going–is “something for everyone.” If we go camping in the mountains, for example, there’s plenty of time for hiking and bird watching (yes, that’s my thing), but there are also trips into the local town for my teenager to look at the shops. So a beach camping trip will be somewhat secluded and outdoorsy but will still involve at least one meal in a good restaurant, a visit to the ricky-ticky souvenir shop for t-shirts, and maybe a round of mini golf or two in town.
One of the highlights of every beach trip for us is to rent a pontoon boat and head out to sea. It gives us the chance to have that sand-and-sun crashing waves experience, while also giving us a place to eat our lunch, sit in the shade, and (best of all) get off the beaten path. There’s an added benefit to renting a boat, too, and that’s the ability to see some serious wildlife. Of course, renting the boat when you get there means it’s already in the water without you having to tow it, and it’s already flushed out for saltwater use.
During our recent camping trip to the Florida Gulf coast beaches, we rented our boat from Adventures at Sea, located just before you get into the serious beach traffic. They have a huge parking lot and a massive fleet of these boats, and with their website constantly running specials and coupons, there’s no reason why you won’t find a $30-or-more discount. Even better, you can rent your boat for half a day, and then if you’re just having such an awesome time that you don’t want to head back, you can literally call them from your boat and see if it’s available to keep all day and just pay the difference when you get back. The rental office is located right at the pier, so you sign your papers and walk right up the dock.
Pontoon boats are very easy to use. Basically, you have forward and reverse, with neutral for idling. You also have a trim button, which lifts and lowers your engine’s prop in the water. The higher your trim, the less effective your engine is, but it’s a must if you’re going to be in shallow water. Now, don’t let the deposit and the paperwork you signed scare you… you’d have to drive that thing at full speed directly aimed at the beach to damage it in shallow water. That’s the beauty of a pontoon… it floats high up in the water, meaning you can anchor your boat in knee-deep water and let the kids jump off and play.
Seriously, that’s it. Forwards, backwards, trim up or down. The one we rented recently didn’t even have gauges like a fuel gauge or speedometer because it just wasn’t necessary. It couldn’t have been easier, and with padded upholstered bench seats to hold twelve people as well as a fully-carpeted deck with plenty of room for jumping off the boat, it was a dream.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
1. Don’t jump off the boat without putting the ladder in place. You’re not getting back on your boat without that ladder, but you can’t drive around with it in the water. You have to take it up and put it down every time you stop.
2. There’s shade, but no potty. Do NOT forget your sunscreen! I’ve found that many rental places have pretty cheap, well-worn life jackets, so we always bring our own from home. There are different laws in different places about what ages have to wear it as opposed to have it available, so find those out before you leave home if you’re bringing any kids who might fall in that age range.
3. Your coolers are welcome, but don’t let anything (like your life jackets or picnic garbage) fly off the boat as you drive.
4. PAY ATTENTION to the nice man at the dock when he shows you the map of where you can go and how fast. There are typically signs, and no, you don’t have to be a mariner to understand them. You just have to remember to look for them and obey them. In many places there are surprise pockets of protected water, such as a manatee breeding ground or an oyster bed. It’s your job to look for the signs and do what you’re expected to do.
5. Ignorance of the law is no excuse when it comes to harming wildlife. In fact, being an obnoxious tourist who just drove a wave runner over a protected kelp bed could mean you get an even heftier fine because the locals are tired of outsiders coming in and destroying their ecosystems. If you’re not sure of the local laws where you’ll be vacationing, it’s your job to look ’em up online. For example, if a dolphin approaches your boat where we were staying, you’re welcome to get in the water and see if it approaches you. If you try to chase it, feed it, lure it, ride it, slap it, kiss it, etc., you are risking the wrath of the water patrol. Yes, there are police officers who patrol the water ways, and in many locations they’re actually under the Department of Fish & Wildlife. That means you just attempted to ride on a dolphin’s back in front of a game warden, and he can make your life far more miserable than a typical street cop can. Find out the laws, and behave yourself!
6. Think really hard about what you’re going to want on this four- to eight-hour boat ride. One fateful year I left our snorkeling gear in the car, and didn’t realize it until we were a good two miles out to sea. There’s no turning around for it when you’re traveling at those speeds over rough waves, so we just had to do without.
As for operating a boat like this, you will most likely be required to have a temporary boating license. Adventures at Sea handles that for you, as do most of their competitors in the area. If you’re going somewhere besides the Gulf, check with the local rental locations to make sure the license is available through them. If you have a boating license in your home state, many of the larger tourist destinations will have reciprocity to accept it.
The most important thing is to remember to bring a waterproof case for your phone/camera. You’re going to spend a significant amount of money and have the chance to get some great shots, and you don’t want to ruin it by leaving the camera in the car for safety or dropping your phone in the ocean. Take a look at the company’s website to see their other offers, too, such as parasail rides, dolphin tours, and more.
Forgot to make mention of this fact: the dock workers who help you load and unload your stuff, who park the boats all day, who gas them up for the tourists…they work for tips! The only sign to that effect was facing you as you headed BACK into the dock. I hadn’t brought my wallet on purpose since I didn’t know that, and ended up stiffing the guy on our first trip.