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This is a great place to float your boat

(ran GB edition)

Tampa Bay is Florida's largest open-water estuary. An estuary is the wide mouth of a river, where the tide flows to and from the sea. In Tampa Bay the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico is mixed with freshwater from rivers and lakes to provide boaters with 398 square miles (at high tide) of wonderful waterland to glide across.

Boating basics don't change radically, says Ken Phillips, from the communications office of the Marine Resources Division of Florida Marine Research, "but there is recent news in that, as of June 1, boaters have been asked to switch from station 13 to 9 on their marine radios to hail the bridge tenders."

Anyone who boats in Tampa Bay knows the importance of getting in touch with the person behind the bridge switch.

Phillips' office offers a free-of-charge map/information chart that covers a number of points those who spend time on the water should know. For example, this "Boater's Guide to Tampa Bay" contains a list of 54 public access boat ramps leading to Tampa Bay.

Phillips says that, when the new guide is issued in January 1997 (the current one was published in April 1993), fewer boat ramps will be listed, "but this doesn't mean the numbers have gone down _ we just decided to leave out the unpaved boat ramps."

Where to launch your boat? In Indian Rocks Beach, the answer is 15th Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard. The guide tells the reader that this boat ramp is open 24 hours, can be used at all tides and can accommodate boats over 15 feet. However, no gasoline or sewage pump-out is available there.

Down the coast, gasoline and sewage facilities are available at the boat ramp in the Madeira Beach Municipal Marina. Two public boat ramps can be found in St. Pete Beach, at E 33rd Avenue and at the Bay Winds Sports Motel, Corey Avenue and Bay Street.

The guide urges boaters to learn and observe the rules of the waterway. Two booklets can help with that: "Florida Boater's Guide" and "How To Boat Smart," both available from the Florida Marine Patrol. These can be picked up locally at no charge from the district office, at 5110 Gandy Blvd., Tampa, FL 34611, phone 272-2516. Also, a national toll-free number, (800) 336-BOAT, provides information on free boating courses given by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the United States Power Squadrons and state agencies.

Other tips for boaters include: Wear your life jacket, stay sober, know how to swim and respect the limits of your boat and your captain skills, keep your boat in good repair, tell others where you are going, be aware of changing weather conditions, respect the rights of others and check all your equipment before each trip.

And, most important, have fun. Phillips says that he moved away from the Tampa Bay area but found that he missed the boating here too much to stay away. "It's wonderful," he says, referring to the wide open space of shimmering blue.

For a free copy of the "Boater's Guide to Tampa Bay," write to the Florida Department of Natural Resources, E&I, Florida Marine Research Institute, 100 Eighth Ave. SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.