By TERRY TOMALIN
Times Outdoors/Fitness Editor
Boat owner Steve Wacker likes to end his workweek with an evening cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway.
"We grab the kids and head out for some dinner," said the veteran boater. "There's nothing like a trip on the water to wear 'em out."
Wacker, owner of St. Petersburg-based Thunder Marine, loves to fish, scuba dive and hang out on the sand bar with friends and family.
"It's a lifestyle," Wacker said. "Why else would you live here if not for the water?"
The greater Tampa-St. Petersburg area is one of the top boating markets in Florida. The sheltered waters of Tampa Bay and the open ocean of the Gulf of Mexico offer unlimited opportunities to explore.
Boat sales are on the upswing. After several years of dismal sales figures, Florida's marine industry is looking better.
"People are looking for something fun to do," said Wacker, who will unveil a new line of sport boats at this weekend's Tampa Boat Show. "There's been a lot of interest from first-time boat buyers."
But purchasing a boat is a big decision.
Here are some things to keep in mind whether you're going to the boat show or out on the water this weekend.
Ready to test the water?
Before you go to the boat show this weekend, ask yourself if you want to fish or just run around. Boat sales are roughly split between the two markets, fishing and pleasure boats.
If you want to fish, consider a center-console boat. The "bay" boat is the best seller in the Tampa Bay market. These small, light and affordable multipurpose crafts can run in fairly shallow water yet still handle a chop if the seas kick up on the inland waterways.
But if it is a pleasure boat you are looking for, the key features you might want include a cuddy cabin and bathroom. Then again, if you have kids who want to wakeboard, you might be more interested in a tow boat.
Next, set a budget. How much do you want to spend? Do you plan to pay for the boat in one lump sum or through monthly payments?
When you settle on a specific model, check the used boat ads for resale value. If you buy the boat now, what will it sell for in two or three years?
Another factor to consider is storage. Do you plan to trailer your boat? If so, will you keep it in your garage? On the side of your house? In a boatyard? If you store your boat away from home, that will add to your monthly expense.
Don't forget about insurance. You will pay more to insure a performance, or "go-fast," boat than a fishing boat.
Now that you've bought a boat, where do you go? Here are Times outdoors/fitness editor Terry Tomalin's top picks:
This has always been one of my favorite places in Florida. You can only get there by boat, so that ensures a certain degree of privacy. To keep human impact to a minimum, the state has built pavilions in the middle of the island on the gulf side and one at the north end at the designated primitive campground. The picnic areas have composting toilet facilities, and tables and grills are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no electricity or running water, and visitors must dispose of their own garbage.
THREE ROOKER BAR
It doesn't have much vegetation, but it is popular with boaters, especially on the weekends. It is not uncommon on a fall day to see 100 boats rafting up, so get there early and use proper etiquette.
CALADESI ISLAND STATE PARK
Heading south along the coast, you'll find Caladesi Island State Park. Boaters have a choice to approach Caladesi from the gulf side or drop anchor on the beach outside the marked swimming area. Visitors who enter via the beach should stop at the concession area and pay the day usage fee. Overnight docking with electricity and water hookups is available at the 108-slip marina.
St. Petersburg has its own great family boating destinations at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Egmont Key, a state park rich in history, provides a crucial nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles and numerous threatened and endangered migratory shorebirds. The leeward side of this 400-acre island has a mooring area for private boats.
Another great spot is Shell Key, a 180-acre island that also serves as a sanctuary for thousands of protected migrating shorebirds, including the American oystercatcher, least tern, snowy plover and black skimmer.