'Sea Screamer' tour boat kicks up waves in Clearwater

CLEARWATER BEACH

The Sea Screamer should come with a warning: Passengers on this boat might experience sea spray and occasional gale force winds that could result in salty skin, untamed '80s hairstyles and sunny smiles.

The Sea Screamer is a 73-foot, 82-ton vessel marketed as the "world's largest speedboat." While that might be an exaggeration, it is big — licensed to seat up to 149 passengers — and at about 30 mph, it's fast, for the water anyway.

It's also fair to say it's a dolphin magnet, attracting the playful creatures, which like to jump over its wake.

"It's the only boat in the area that gives you both speed and dolphin sightings," said Eric Spaulding, co-owner of Queen Fleet Deep Sea Fishing.

His family has operated fishing charters from the Clearwater Municipal Marina since the 1950s.

Last week, Spaulding bought the Sea Screamer from Doug Foster, a North Carolina businessman, who had three of the vessels built in the early '90s. The two other excursions operate out of Panama City, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., under different ownership.

"We wanted to diversify a little bit," said Spaulding, 38, of Clearwater. "It may help us when the fishing is slow."

He said he plans to offer fishing/Screamer combo packages and private charters in the future. For now, the Sea Screamer departs three times a day from the marina.

He credits a deep V-shaped hull that slices through waves for the smooth ride and 700-horsepower twin turbo engines for the speed.

Under overcast skies Sunday, the excursion boat left the marina, headed south down the Intracoastal Waterway and then out to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Secure your personal possessions, including hats, sunglasses, backpacks and small children," said first mate Bill Warda of Clearwater Beach, who narrated the tour.

The boat passed by small islands and millionaires' homes, including professional wrestler Hulk Hogan's massive abode and another that Warda called "the largest house in Pinellas County" with 23,000 square feet, 55 rooms and a 25-car garage.

A pod of dolphins was spotted near the Sand Key Bridge, so Capt. Jim Brown slowed down as passengers whipped out their camera phones.

"Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins can hold their breath for up to 10 minutes and dive to depths of 1,000 feet," Warda told the 60-some passengers.

"We came for the fun fast ride, but these dolphins are a bonus," said Jonathan Disbury, an anesthesiologist from Odessa.

Nolen Jarl, a redheaded 2-year-old from Dunedin, was thrilled.

"I saw big dolphins, and I saw a baby dolphin," he said, marking their sizes with his hands.

As the boat headed out to the Gulf of Mexico, it pierced through gently rolling swells churned up by the tropical system miles off the coast.

The waves may have been too much for small craft to handle, but this boat had no problem managing the rock 'n' rollers at a hearty 30 mph.

In fact, it was so smooth, one man and a preschooler fell asleep and missed most of the fun.

One woman, who expressed trepidation from the beginning, closed her eyes and looked nauseated.

But judging from their faces, the vast majority seemed to enjoy the windy ride.

"That was wonderful, I had a ball," said Norma Brown, 58, of Jacksonville.

Lynette Plath, 35, of York, Pa., said it was like being on a roller coaster.

"It was terrifying," she said, "but thrilling at the same time."

If you go

'Sea Screamer'

What: The Sea Screamer is a yellow sightseeing speedboat that travels down the Intracoastal Waterway and into the Gulf of Mexico. Tours last an hour or more.

Where: The boat docks at the Clearwater Municipal Marina, 25 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater Beach.

When: Departures are three times a day: noon, 2 and 4 p.m.

Tickets: $22 for adults; $17 for children ages 12 and under. Children under 5 ride free.

Bring: Cameras and sunscreen; wear rubber-soled shoes. Refreshments, including beer, are available for purchase.

Parking: Metered parking at the Pier or buy a $2 parking permit at the Screamer's ticket booth for unlimited marina parking.

'Sea Screamer' tour boat kicks up waves in Clearwater 08/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 20, 2009 5:19pm]

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