On a picture-perfect Saturday morning in April, several dozen million-dollar boats crowded the docks at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in downtown St. Petersburg.
But these weren't your typical cruisers, sport fishermen and luxury yachts. They were high-performance crafts — so-called "go-fast boats" — some capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph.
There were V-bottoms and catamarans, twin-engine beasts, better suited for the race course than the tranquil waters of Tampa Bay.
Indeed, many of these boats had made their mark in offshore racing and were now retired and retrofitted to accommodate passengers in addition to the traditional driver and throttleman.
"Isn't this great?" asked Michael Allweiss, a St. Petersburg attorney and former powerboat racer, as he climbed behind the wheel of his 38-foot Donzi to participate in the Florida Powerboat Club's first Tampa Bay Poker Run. "It makes me wish I was racing again."
Allweiss and his former racing partner, Adib Mastry, were among the more than 40 crews that turned out Saturday for what organizers hope will become a regular event in Tampa Bay. Each boat paid an entry fee of $695 for a shot at winning $2,500 in cash and prizes.
In a typical poker run, participants start off with a playing card and a map that shows the locations of stops where additional cards can be obtained. At the end of the day, the boat with the best poker hand wins.
Saturday's poker run began at the Vinoy and headed to Egmont Key, where boaters picked up their second card.
Best of the best
Stew Jones, who founded the Florida Powerboat Club in 1993 to promote events such as this, calls the Sunshine State the "Boating Capital of the World."
"You won't find a better place to boat," said Jones, who has about 500 members in his Pompano Beach-based club. "We have thousands of miles of coastline, the Intracoastal Waterway, great bays, rivers and lakes … but the best part is that we can boat year-round. We don't have to wait till the ice clears."
Florida has more registered boats (974,553 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics) than any other state in the country. But there is no way to count the thousands of out-of-state boaters who visit Florida on a seasonal basis.
Ask any hard-core boater, and Saturday had its share of die-hard enthusiasts, to name their favorite Florida boating destination and you get a variety of answers. Some like Miami's turquoise-blue waters, others the Florida Keys, and then there are those who prefer the Panhandle with its sugar-sand beaches.
But Allweiss and Mastry will tell you that Tampa Bay is the best place to boat in a state without any bad places to boat.
"If it is rough in the gulf, you can boat in the bay," said Mastry, a St. Petersburg native who co-owns the Mastry Engine Center. "When it is nice and calm in the gulf you can go pretty much anywhere you want. But over on the East Coast, when it gets rough, forget it. You'll never even make it outside."
The key to the bay
Passing beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge with Egmont Key straight ahead, I have to agree with my companions. There is no prettier place to boat, sail or paddle than this stretch of water at the mouth of Tampa Bay.
Egmont Key, an island fortress that was once a Union naval base during the Civil War, is one of the most popular boating destinations on the west coast of Florida. Since 1974, the key has served as a national wildlife sanctuary, providing a crucial nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles and numerous threatened and endangered migratory shorebirds.
But the leeward side of this 400-acre island has a mooring area, and on a beautiful spring afternoon, it is not unusual to find dozens of pleasure boaters.
One by one, the poker runners pulled up behind the key and circled the "card boat," where boaters were handed their second card. From there it would be a run of more than 30 miles up the bay to downtown Tampa.
A typical fishing boat might take an hour to make that journey, but the fastest of the poker run boats covered the distance in 20 minutes. The watercraft, many of which cost more than $1 million, are built for one thing: speed. That's why go-fast boats stick to the shipping channel, where larger, big-wake vessels tend to travel.
The other rules for poker runs are simple. No alcohol allowed, or as they say, "Water on water, beer on the pier," and life jackets must be worn at all times.
If you have a performance boat and like to go fast, then this might be the sport for you.