TREASURE ISLAND — Steve Wacker gathered up the youngsters, made sure the gates were zip-tied shut and then shoved off the dock.
"This is how we celebrate Christmas in Florida," the avid boater explained. "We decorate our boats and cruise the Intracoastal."
Wacker, whose Thunder Marine crew won last year's Treasure Island Boat Parade, takes the competition seriously.
"We have been decorating all day," Wacker said. "We live for this. We are a boating family. That is what we do."
Clad in flip flops and a loose, button-down shirt, Wacker didn't seem to mind the cool breeze drifting down the Intracoastal Waterway. There was plenty of popcorn, juice boxes and the kids were cranking up the karaoke.
Kicked back in a captain's chair, he honked the horn at a gang of boat parade groupies yelling his name from a nearby dock and then primed his crew for a big, loud holiday cheer.
"Here comes the judge boat," he whispered. "Now everybody yell 'Merry Christmas.' "
Party boat on salt
The 44-year-old St. Petersburg resident grew up on fishing boats, but in recent years the die-hard angler has turned his attention to a craft most don't associate with ocean use.
"I love my pontoon boat," said Wacker, who owns and operates a boat dealership on Tyrone Boulevard. "People used to think these were only for lakes and rivers, but today's pontoon boats are built for saltwater."
The advantage for families is the obvious room, comfort and stability a pontoon boat provides. These bulky boats are not known for their rough-water handling ability. But most parents don't want to take small children out on the water during a small craft advisory anyway.
On our boat parade adventure last Saturday, we had plenty of room for seven kids, six adults and assorted coolers, bags, boxes, and of course, toys.
"I think that is what makes these boats so popular," Wacker said. "They are just a great platform for the whole family."
Pontoons have always received a bad rap because they are sluggish and hard to handle. But the aluminum Sylvan has oversized tubes built with new Revolutionary Planing Technology. The tubes slice through the water with less resistance and greater speed. Wacker's boat, a 25-foot, 8-inch model in Sylvan's Mirage line, was able to cruise comfortably, fully-loaded, at 25 mph, and capable of hitting top speeds of 35 mph in ideal conditions.
Other saltwater features include vinyl flooring, anodized hardware and stainless steel fittings. But it is the command center, with adjustable helm chairs, sound system and full dash display that separates this pontoon boat from its freshwater brethren.
"At the end of the day you don't feel beat up," Wacker said. "And for something like this — a leisurely cruise down the Intracoastal — it can't be beat."
You don't need a fancy, saltwater pontoon boat to participate in this Sunday's boat parade in Tampa. The 12th annual Hillsborough River Holiday Boat Parade is one of a few events around the state that allows canoeists and kayakers to get in on the fun.
Decorate your boat, canoe, kayak or anything else that floats and put in at Lowry Park Boat Ramp at 5:30 p.m. and then ride the incoming tide upriver to the Sulphur Springs City Pool Park off Nebraska Avenue.
The nonmotorized craft will lead this parade. Spectators can enjoy the lights from 6 to 7 p.m. at Lowry Park, from private docks or Sulphur Springs City Pool Park, where there's plenty of parking.
For information, contact Friends of the River at (813) 237-8497.
Saturday's Tampa Bay area boat parades
Indian Rocks Beach
Starts at 7 p.m., 200 yards south of the southern end of the Holiday Inn Harbourside fuel docks. Heads north through the inner coastal canals and ends just south of the Belleair Causeway. Information: Call Randy Schwab at (727) 595-6889.
Starts at 6:30 p.m. on the north side of the Tom Stuart Causeway and travels through the Intracoastal Waterway and canals to the John's Pass Bridge. Parade features a special "Best Old Salt Boat Prize" for members of the Old Salt Fishing Club. Information: Call Dave Marsicano at (727) 409-6105.
Starts at 6 p.m. and runs through canals. Participants should stage behind the Hernando Beach yacht club, 4163 Shoal Line Blvd. Information: Call Bob Chandler at (352) 799-6068.
Cortez/Longboat Key/ Bradenton Beach
Starts at 6:30 p.m. at the north end of Longboat Key near Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant. Information: Call Laura Ritter at (941) 780-3547.