Rocket Tour

A 900-mile PWC vacation from Georgia to Key West inspires awe (and advice for anyone who might want to try it).

With a twitch of the throttle, our vacation roars to a start. In seconds, we are moving faster than a mile a minute atop our near-12-foot-long water rocket. Wind blows our hair, pine-scented oxygen rushes into our sinuses and stress falls far behind.

The first leg of our vacation trip begins in southern Georgia. We navigate the Flint and Apalachicola rivers, on which lush greenery is set atop cookie dough–colored banks and occasional tin shanties fly by in our peripheral vision. My girlfriend, Barbie, has both arms wrapped tightly around me and yells, “This is so cool!”

A pristine island beach in the Florida Keys is a perfect place to stop for a private lunch.

We have 900 miles to go before we reach our goal in Key West — and 11 glorious days to have fun getting there. Exhilarating watercraft vacations such as this can be compared to motorcycle getaways on the highway, but we carry a lot more baggage on our luxurious Yamaha WaveRunner FX Cruiser SVHO and the world looks incredibly different on the aquatic roadways we traverse.

In sharp, twisty bends, Barb and I lean in unison, way out over the side with only our smiles greeting the wind and water head-on. On long straightaways, we recline back in the comfy saddle seats, set the cruise control and take time to spot alligators, ospreys, great blue herons and other wildlife.

Day one takes us 135 miles to Apalachicola, an old-school Florida town dotted with rustic mom-and-pop motels, oyster-based restaurants and roadhouse bars such as the Bowery where musicians still commonly play the washboard. We had to stop once to top off the main fuel tank with the auxiliary cans we brought along. Just two extra five-gallon cans are all we need to travel the whole route to the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. (Actually, they are all we have needed on any of the other PWC vacations we have taken, from North Carolina to Montreal, Canada.)

We check into the Apalachicola River Inn and stealthily enter the room without disturbing the moths and mosquitoes attached to the door. The carpets are inexplicably damp, but we’re tired and the sheets are clean. In minutes, we’re asleep; our trusty steed is docked right outside, ready for action.

The dry bags are strapped in with parachute cord and snaps.

 

Weather Wary

The next leg of the trip, over the open Gulf of Mexico to the Clearwater area, threatens to end our vacation. The 6 a.m. NOAA forecast is terrible: 25 mph east winds, 3- to 5-foot seas offshore and building. The temperature is predicted to drop into the 40s and small craft warnings are on the way. We must make it to St. Marks, at the Big Bend in the Florida coast, if we are going to get protection from the east wind.

On our comparatively tiny WaveRunner FX Cruiser SVHO, we are the only boaters to chance the inlet, and upon turning northeast, we are smacked in the face by the frothy, wind-blown three-foot chop. Leaping and splashing back down is never comfortable, but in waves this close together there’s no choice. We stand to absorb the landings and slog our way to St. Marks, feeling like we traveled via pogo stick.

The Doubletree Hilton in Tallahassee — a $30 Uber ride away — brings divine comfort and nourishment over the next 38 hours as we wait out the wind.

 

Key Fisheries is an open-air fishhouse in Marathon that specializes in stone crab claws, one of Barbie’s favorite dishes.

Back at It

What a difference a day makes. With the sun peeking over the horizon, nearly calm seas and no land in sight, it feels like we are sprinting across the planet on a Star Wars speeder bike! No one is faster than we are out here. Wide-eyed fisherman swivel their neck at the sight of our gear-laden meteor that streaks by at 75 mph, barely skimming the surface of the water.

We make one stop — Steinhatchee for fuel and a salad at Roy’s Restaurant, which overlooks the gulf — and then hug the coast until we arrive at Cedar Key, population 690 locals. This remote island city, the second oldest in Florida, has a laidback vibe, few traffic lights and a police force that patrols in tricked-out golf carts. The Island Hotel and Restaurant is believed to have been used as a Confederate barracks during the Civil War, but today the folks here are serving us Yankees locally farmed Sunray Venus clams with artichokes, mushrooms and tomatoes over capellini pasta.

We have just one more half-day of running outside, and we plan our fuel consumption carefully, because on the lonely Nature’s Coast, gas stations are scarce and far inland. After passing Tampa, we pull into the Holiday Inn & Suites Harbourside in Indian Rocks Beach, where a bellman intercepts our WaveRunner in waist-high water to take our bags. We tip him well. This proves to be one of our favorite stops, since it boasts a marina, resort and waterpark, all in one place.

The next leg to Fort Myers is cruising heaven. The few no-wake zones inside are a small price to pay for the endless, pristine beaches we cruise past under bright sunshine. After stopping to enjoy lunch on a tropical shoreline, we rip along the coast in a freshening breeze atop a short chop that our speeding bullet easily spans.

On day seven we reach the entrance to Lake Okeechobee and fly home to work for a few weeks. It’s a familiar tactic for us on these long trips with such a small watercraft. We prepay Sweetwater Landing Marina in Fort Myers $120 for one month of rack storage.

A Spot satellite messenger is a must-have on a trip like this.

Using a quarter-inch holes on both sides of the rear seat handle, Cacciutti ties 4-inch-diameter lops of parachute cord and snaps the froth of dry bags together through them.

 

Change of Coasts

To fast forward the trip a bit, at a cost of $250, a UShip driver reunites us with our WaveRunner three weeks later at a boat ramp just outside the West Palm Beach airport, and we are off again. Glistening yachts, go-fast speedboats and mega-mansions line the Intracoastal Waterway all the way to Miami and are incredible to take in from our tiny perspective.

Larger seas spaced far apart are actually easier on a PWC because drivers can set the trim down, tack into the face and turn the opposite way to stay in contact with the back side. Keeping the hull in the water is always the secret to the softest, driest ride.

The next day we enter Biscayne Bay, which is a bit choppy, but we make it to the Keys by noon and are rewarded by countless beautiful beaches to ease onto, stretch our legs and enjoy a snack. From Key Largo onward, the water turns Caribbean and the vistas etch a permanent place in our memory bank.

We’re in no hurry to cruise this final 100 miles and stop at the Playa Largo Resort & Spa Autograph Collection in Key Largo for some pampering and fine dining. That theme continues at our next stop in Marathon at the trendy Tranquility BayBeach House Resort in Marathon.

As we finally idle into Key West Harbor, a tiki bar boat comes out to greet us — a fitting start to our victory celebration. Within 30 minutes, a UShip driver departs with our WaveRunner while we toast champagne on our private balcony at the swanky Ocean Key Resort and reflect on the highlights of our amazing journey.

The best memories of the trip — and all our PWC vacations — are the people we meet along the way. We become instant celebrities and everyone wants to know our story. Most onlookers are in a state of disbelief, but today’s best cruising models, including our Yamaha, are more than capable of slip-sliding away on adventurous vacations that can be safe, comfortable and lifelong memory makers.

 

Our Chariot

The Yamaha FX Cruiser SVHO is ideally suited for long trips. It stretches 11 feet, 9 inches and has a 4-foot, 2-inch beam, which makes it a very roomy, stable platform. Even without extra tanks it has plenty of range thanks to an 18-and-a-half-gallon fuel tank. The Connext color touchscreen display kept us informed of all aspects of engine performance, including precise fuel monitoring information, which is critical on long trips. RIDE is a twin-lever control system that allows the operator to shift from forward to reverse without taking his hands off the adjustable handlebars, and he can use it as a brake if needed.

Its NanoXcel hull keeps the weight down to 810 pounds and it has 44 gallons of storage capacity. Powering this model is Yamaha’s most powerful engine, the SVHO, which has an intercooled supercharger for incredible throttle response (even before we modified it). The touring seat gives up to three riders plenty of comfort and support while little touches such as footwells that drain make all the difference when cruising.

 

 

Awards

• Best Meal. Fresh stone crabs that we bought right off the boat at St. Marks Seafood and stopped to enjoy on remote beaches along the way.
• Best Lunch Stop. Cabbage Key in Pineland and Tarpon Lodge in Bokeelia. These Florida sister restaurants are legendary boat stops and also have nice rooms for overnight guests.

 

Gear and Setup Instructions

Be sure to take along the following items and get set up correctly:
1 GPS or Navionics app for a smartphone.
2 Handheld VHF and flares.
3 Spot satellite locator. Purchase the optional insurance that covers a private rescue company.
4 Fully charged phone and portable USB charger.
5 Gear dry bags. Use a quarter-inch drill bit and parachute cord to make 4-inch diameter loops on the watercraft to fasten these in a saddlebag fashion on each side.
6 Rise luggage shelves. This collapsible shelving system keeps clothes folded and neatly organized, and speeds packing and unpacking.
7 Two five-gallon gas cans and an AO Hybrid Soft- Sided Cooler. Fasten these in the stern with Roku motorcycle straps and marine bungees. Use enough so they won’t budge, and then add more for safety.
8 Polarized glasses, rain gear and gloves.
9 Collapsible paddle.
10 Factory tool kit plus a 3/8-inch ratchet with an 11mm socket, to remove the intake grate in case something gets lodged in the impeller.
11 Waterproof camera and rechargeable Bluetooth speakers.
12 Two docklines, bumpers and a heavy-duty watersports tow rope. Pass the long line around the far piling, then get off on the dock and use it like a pulley to move the watercraft back into the center of a slip.

Homework

To find out more about long-distance PWC riding, read “Dreamrider: Adventures on America’s Great Loop” by Larry Harcum. He details his 5,805-mile adventure on a PWC.

Fast Fact

Beware of environmentally sensitive areas in the Florida Keys and Everglades that are closed to PWC. Avoid them.

Lessons Learned

What would we do differently next time? Bring more clothes! It is not as warm in North Florida in April as we thought it would be.

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