LAKE SEMINOLE — Like many boaters, Dom Forte got into the sport to spend more time with his family.
"When you are out on a boat, it is like being on an island," said the 59-year-old water-skier. "You are stuck there together with no place to go."
Forte, his wife, Clide (pronounced Clee-day), and sons Chris and Tony, spent so much time tubing, water-skiing and wakeboarding, they eventually opened their own water-sports business.
That was in 2003. Since then, Forte has watched his business steadily expand, thanks in part to the growing popularity of a variety of boat-based water sports and technological advances that make today's "tow" boats more family-friendly.
"The timing was just right," said the owner of the Largo-based Forte's Inboard Connection. "While ski boats only amount to 2 or 3 percent of all the boats sold, the market seems to keep growing."
Some of Forte's lines, such as Malibu and Tige, have become so popular that he often has a hard time keeping them in stock. But consumers won't have a problem seeing one at this weekend's Tampa Bay Boat Show at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Organizers will have everything from the latest fishing skiffs and pontoon boats to family cruisers and the ski boats that have been attracting so much attention.
The tow boat option
There was a time when ski boats were relegated to Florida's freshwater lakes. Forte began water-skiing at age 7 on St. Petersburg's Lake Maggiore. His sons, now ages 20 and 23, learned the ropes on Lake Seminole.
"But in the past few years, the sport has really changed," Forte said. "Now, more than 60 percent of my customers use their boats in saltwater."
Ski, or tow boats, came of age in the 1960s. Built with powerful inboard motors and a deck-mounted pole that allowed the rider to cut hard without affecting the attitude of the boat, this style of watercraft was not built to perform in rough conditions.
"When people started wakeboarding, all of the manufacturers had to go back and rewrite the book," Forte said. "They went from building boats that left no wake to ones that threw off as much wake as possible."
Riders could still slalom, trick ski and jump, but now they also had the option of wakeboarding, wakeskating, wakesurfing or just good, old-fashioned tubing, barefooting or family cruising.
"They became multisport boats with all the creature comforts," Forte said. "But they also had deeper vees and more freeboard, which made them suited for saltwater use as well."
Ski boats range from 20 to 24 feet in length and $39,000 to $90,000 in price. While they are well-suited for most water sports, they are not recommended for hard-core anglers.
So before you head out to the boat show, make a list of what you are looking for in your watercraft. Do you want a cuddy cabin and bathroom? Or do you feel the need for speed?
Once you have decided what you want, 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?
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 boat yard?
If you store your boat away from home, that will add to your monthly expense. Dry-dock storage at a marina is expensive and hard to come by. Keep this in mind when setting your budget.
Insurance is another factor. You will pay more in insurance for a performance, or "go-fast," boat than a fishing boat.
Once you have answered these questions, you will be ready to take the plunge.