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FLYING BOATS MINUS WINGS

Airboats skim the water, taking you into places other boats can't.

There has to be a good way to describe airboats.

Perhaps Andy Padova, airboating enthusiast and president of the West Coast Airboat Club, can.

"They're like the Harleys of the water," Padova said. "You can build and specialize your own, drive it anywhere and just cruise and everyone that has one, compares and knows each other. Similar to being bikers, but you know, on the water."

Not bad. Not bad at all, but Padova and other local airboaters, not only in his club, but up and down the North Suncoast, are avid about cruising along the marshes. They're searching for new and obscure areas, most of which are barely in a foot of water.

But, of course, that doesn't stop them. They, after all, have a way to get there.

"What I'd say is that it's a freedom, sort of like flying," club member and spokesman Greg Abbott said. "And there's an entire world right here that you can explore and that world, the only way you can get to it, through the lily pads and the bogs and the shallow water, is on an airboat.

"But its just peaceful because you can just cruise and be out there."

Padova and Abbott agree that designing an airboat yourself is one of the major sells for someone starting out. Boaters can choose what type of engine powers the propeller, how many seats, what specifically they'd like to use the boat for - fishing, crabbing, cruising with the family, etc. - and boats, in the end, are generally the same. They glide with the ease of pushing a lever and pushing a pedal.

"Driving the thing is fun," Padova said. "If you see it, the boats slide all over the place, so it's like drifting a car."

Added Abbott: "Anyone does it, but most are the average guy out from the street, but the best part is being able to go wherever you want. It isn't so much the boats, it's the places you can go. Regular boats, they just can't. When you put this airboat in the water, you just drive. You're not looking at channel markers or where you can and can't go."

And the airboating club comes in handy, according to Abbott. Obviously, it's a social club to meet new people, but it's also good for safety and help when out on the water. Say an airboater gets stranded, Abbott says, due to running out of gas or getting lost. Well, who's going to save said airboater? Another airboater because an airboat will be the only one to reach him or her.

"Its nice because we have a nice social circle," Abbott. "It's almost like a subculture, but originally the club was for us to go out riding. We'd find new places to go amongst us and we go, but there aren't many airboaters that we don't know about.

"We all know each other in our circle."

But members of this subculture have to get used to one thing: the average onlooker. Supposedly, airboats can still be a sight to be seen, and even a conversation starter. Abbott says those seem to be a broken record, but also be thought of as different, though that's okay.

Airboats just take some getting used to.

"You do get gawkers, but they give you the same 100 questions," Abbott said. "'Can it go here or there or need water? How fast does it go?' All of them. But people also stare because it's thought that we're stuck up, that we can't use regular outboard boats.

"That's all right, because that all changes once they see what they can do."

Mike Camunas can be reached at mcamunas@sptimes.com or (352) 544-1771.

FAST FACTS

West Coast Airboat Club

The club meets at Meadow Oaks Golf and Country Club in Hudson, which is owned by club president Andy Padova.

The club will schedule rides and go on coastal cleanups together, with members from all over the Nature Coast and as far away as Orlando.

For more information, visit www.westcoastairboatclub.net

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