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SHIPPING OUT Annapolis Sailing School's Florida branch offers holidays at the helm for sea-minded families

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The problem with central Florida is what to do after you've done Orlando. You can see dozens of visitors lounging around the swimming pools, all Disney-ed out maybe, but with a nagging awareness that there must be ways to enjoy the daylong sunshine other than standing in line to go on rides.

My 14-year-old son, Russell, and I found one ideal answer. We spent five days sailing offshore on a boat from the St. Petersburg branch of the Annapolis Sailing School. Each evening we anchored at marinas that acquainted us with aspects of Florida that lay beyond the familiar tourist trail. It was a marvelous and instructive holiday, perfect for families.

The glory of it was that we had only to bring ourselves, a duffel bag of casual clothes, our suntan lotion and a good disposition. The fully equipped boat, a 37-foot O'Day, could sleep six. It had two forward cabins and one aft, two minuscule bathrooms and a generous cockpit. It had a mainsail, a jib and a backup diesel engine. The boat also came with a savvy instructor, Capt. Bob Errico, who had spent years navigating the shoals and coastal waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

We sailed as part of a flotilla. A couple of other Annapolis boats were usually somewhere on our horizon. After we tied up at night, and the instructors had left us to our own devices, we could share our new nautical wisdom with the other families, and maybe brag a little, too.

Captain Bob held his pre-trip briefing at the sailing school's marina south of St. Petersburg. Rule No. 1, he said, was never try to sail where the birds are walking. It was his way of saying do not run aground. He never mentioned any rule No. 2, but he did define his authority as skipper. "I'm not like Capt. Bligh," he said. "This is not a dictatorship, but it's not a democracy, either. If in doubt, ask. There are no dumb questions. Our aim is to have fun, enjoy a great holiday and get back safely."

The school requires that one or two members of flotilla families must have sufficient prior experience to at least have a clue about sailing. Some participants prepare by taking the courses for absolute beginners run over two and three days by the school in St. Petersburg or at its location in Annapolis. Flotilla cruises are not recommended for very young children, but for those 6 and up, the school offers adventure equivalent to a camping trip, only on water. After a hesitant start, Russell quickly grew enthusiastic, especially after he was given his turn at the helm.

On Day 1, we spent a couple of hours making the boat ready and shopping for groceries. We stocked up on bottled water as insurance against dehydration in the 85-degree heat. We bought enough food for breakfasts and sandwich lunches on the boat. We decided to eat out in the evenings, but later we envied those on other boats who showed more enterprise and cooked their own creative dinners.

We headed first for the Intracoastal Waterway, a unique channel dug by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Second World War. It stretches for 2,500 miles down the Atlantic coast from Maine, around Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. The waterway enabled barges to haul war cargo in the shallow waters close to land where German submarines could not penetrate. The strategic value was enormous. As we sailed between the waterway's markers, our gauge showed a depth of 8 to 12 feet, but off to the side, just as Captain Bob had warned, pelican were stalking around in water less than a foot deep.

To accomplish his dream of sailing full time, Captain Bob took early retirement from IBM at age 50, on full pension and with medical benefits. He swapped Big Blue for the ocean blue and is now so removed from office life that he even shrinks from answering a phone. Sporting a seafarer's beard, he is a stocky, bustling and reassuring figure.

He was a mine of Florida stories on the longer stretches of the cruise. He told us of an unfortunate dolphin at a water show in Orlando that became so heavy from swallowing coins thrown by visitors it sank to the bottom and drowned. To avoid any similar tragedies, the surviving dolphins were trained to bring coins, watches and other detritus to their trainers in exchange for fish.

A lightish wind carried us across the expanse of Tampa Bay, past the soaring arches of the St. Petersburg-Bradenton Skyway Bridge and brought us by late afternoon to a jetty in the village of Cortez. As at all our overnight stops, there were clean bathrooms and showers on shore at the marina. The locals said with pride that there was nothing to do but sample the catch at the Seafood Shack, a moderately priced restaurant, and to watch the sunset from the beach. Both were magnificent. We were fast asleep on our gently rocking boat not long afterward.

This became the pattern of our days. Our sailing skills were a bit rusty at first, but we soon fell into the mariner's routine of knots, lines, trimming sails, heaving-to, coming about, taking the helm and scuttling crabwise about the decks. Navigating was new to us. We learned how to plot a course and how to sail out to sea on a compass bearing. As Captain Bob put it, the secret was simple geometry, not rocket science.

We anchored at a deserted island, saw stingrays shimmer past our bow and caught sight of dolphins leaping in pairs. A couple of the marinas where we moored had whirlpool baths -- an exquisite remedy for working out the kinks in sore joints. You use a lot of muscles you don't know you have when messing about on a boat.

One day we sailed up the wide Manatee River past elegant homes to Palmetto, a small town that has long been a winter magnet for old money and still exudes an air of gentility.

Another afternoon, by contrast, we came upon the resort of Tierra Verde, with its excess of flashy wealth. We glided along a channel that was like a marine main street. Vast houses, jammed together, rose on either side in a clash of styles from pink haciendas to fake antebellum mansions and spacious, modern condos.

Lavish boats were parked outside each building. Most were the heavy-shouldered cruisers and sports fishing powerboats that have been associated with Florida since the time of Hemingway. There was a vintage Outer Banks fishing boat, restored to a high gloss in keeping with the fancy neighborhood, plus a few racing yachts with lean, fast hulls. Our 37-footer, perfectly adequate and comfortable for us, was like a minnow among sharks.

We eased into a slip beside a cruiser worth at least $300,000 and capable of burning fuel at 100 gallons an hour. The owner had a cellular phone permanently clamped to his ear and was too preoccupied to return our waves.

We had one minor collision. We were attempting a tricky maneuver in a tiny space at the municipal marina in St. Petersburg harbor when our engine lost reverse gear. We teetered helplessly toward a smaller boat. Captain Bob leaped to my side on the forward deck and together we staved off disaster by pushing the two boats apart.

"Just one of those things that happens in boating," said Captain Bob with a shrug. It had been a mechanical failure and he was blameless, but his voice betrayed a tinge of hurt pride. The cause of the broken gear was a loose nut that he mended on the spot. Among his many talents was diesel mechanics.

On our last day, with the wind blowing 10 knots across Tampa Bay, we had the boat scudding along and heeling nicely. It was a spectacular finale. St. Petersburg's skyline of tall banks, convention center and the Thunderdome stadium gradually receded as we tacked south to home port.

Back at the sailing school, Captain Bob held a "graduation ceremony." We each received a framable certificate that said we had completed the course. It seemed funny to be in a room where the floor was not moving.

Setting Sail

The Monday-to-Friday flotilla course costs $1,870 for the boat, including instructor and overnight dock fees. The boat sleeps six and is equipped with bed linen and towels, stove, oven, cookware, crockery, cutlery and a refrigerator. Families provide their own food and/or eat out. Write or call: Annapolis Sailing School, P.O. Box 3334, Annapolis, Md. 21403, (410) 267-7205.

The course is run all year from the sailing school's marina on the southern tip of the St. Petersburg peninsula. The marina has a convenient beach hotel with swimming pool, bar and restaurant. Rooms can be booked for the nights before and after the course. Rooms with two double beds start at $71. Write or call: Days Inn Marina Beach Resort, 6800 34th St. South, St. Petersburg, Fla. 33711, (813) 867-1151. Cabs from Tampa airport to the hotel cost around $35 for the 30-minute trip. Baltimore-Washington International Airport has direct flights to Tampa on USAir and connecting flights on American, Delta, Continental, Northwest and United airlines.

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