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Inland awash with boaters

Anchors Aweigh is not a tune you'd expect to hear many people whistling in Valrico. Dominated by State Road 60 and filled with old orange groves and new houses, it's miles from Tampa Bay. Valrico Lake, a blue blot on the map that is its only claim to a waterfront, is less than inspiring to your average mariner.

Nevertheless, this suburb of a suburb will be the place to be this week, which happens to be National Safe Boating Week.

On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary begins a seven-week boating safety course at the Shrine Club on Skywood Drive in Valrico.

Even the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce _ which claims the area from the Alafia River north to Interstate 4, thus marginally qualifying as a waterfront community _ got into the act by issuing a proclamation declaring this week to be safe boating week in Brandon, too.

Despite East Hillsborough's inland location, there are many people here who want to learn more about boating safety, said Solomon Sacks, the public affairs officer for the Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla in Ruskin.

He said 56 people recently finished a course held in Valrico. "That's more than we get in Ruskin. Evidently there are a lot of boaters in Valrico who don't want to come to Ruskin."

Solomon, 74, lives in Apollo Beach and has been an avid boater since he moved to Florida 10 years ago. He owns a 19-foot Bayliner and devotes much of his spare time to the flotilla.

He and the other members of his flotilla perform free safety inspections for boat owners and do weekend patrols of Tampa Bay to search for stranded boaters.

Sacks said he was pleased with the turnout to the previous course, but said he's not surprised people in the area are interested.

All boaters need to have proper safety equipment and to learn the rules of the sea, he said. Even if people never take their boat into the ocean, they should know the rules of safe boating, he said.

"More people drown on small fishing boats in inland waters than they do on the bay," he said.

Small boats tip easily, and just because land all around doesn't mean boaters will be able to swim to safety, particularly if the water is cold, he said.

The classes _ all held on land _ teach everything from boating terminology and weather-watching to the function of a boat's lines and marine engines.

Students must pass a test on the final day and will receive a certificate that entitles them to a 10 percent discount on boat insurance with some companies, Sacks said. Students pay only for study materials, which cost about $10.

"It's the best way to learn what you have to do," said Sacks, who teaches the lesson on how to pull boats properly with a trailer.

Sacks said boat owners can ask members of any of the Tampa Bay area's six flotillas to inspect their boats for proper safety equipment.

Any boat with a motor must have an array of such equipment, including life jackets, an oar, lights and a fire extinguisher, he said. Each boat that passes the inspection gets a sticker that tells Florida Marine Patrol officers that it has been inspected that year.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary is waiting to see the turnout for Monday's meeting. If it's good, it is considering further inroads to the landlocked community: A flotilla for Valrico to call its own.

For more information about the boating class and inspections, call Sacks at 645-9528.

Sally Hicks is bureau chief in the Times' Brandon office.