Sunday, November 25, 2007

24 October-6 November 2007 -- St. Pete Boat Show

We were on our way home from our visit with the kids – actually on Rte. 19 northbound in a gloomy drizzle – when I got around to turning my attention ahead to the next big activity on our calendar, the St. Pete Boat Show The official start date for the show was Nov. 1 more than a week away, but I had the idea to do an article on the behind-the- scenes set-up process, for which I thought we'd want to get there early. So I called my contact at the show headquarters (with whom I had talked about the idea last year) and he said, "Turn around! They are splashing the docks today!"

Which is how we came be parked right downtown on the St. Pete waterfront for almost two weeks. Scott Hawkins, Strictly Sail's Operations manager met us in the parking lot for the show grounds, a rectangle of ground with the Vinoy basin on one side and Tampa Bay and the St. Pete Pier on the other. It was the first official day of set-up, and Hawk himself had just arrived, but the contractors for the docks and the tents had gotten a head start on him. The two big tents were already up, and the almost 1300 feet of floating docks had been unloaded into the water from their flat-bed trailers.

Over the course of the next five days I followed Hawk around as he oversaw construction of the show's underpinnings. I watched the dock guys manhandle the docks into position and secure their connections and the piling barge guys set all the temporary pilings for the show boat slips. I watched the floor contractors lay the flooring under the tents, electricians hang the lights and run all the cabling in the tents and docks, the carpet guys lay the signature blue carpeting in the booth areas, and the "decorators" bring in all the pipe, drape and tables to create the booths. The office modules were trucked in, lines of portable lavatories delivered and activated, and a complete water system installed on the docks.

Up through Sunday the gray and rainy weather had hung on. On Saturday morning, Don and I walked up through the rain for a standup breakfast at the St. Pete Street Market. Although billed as a fresh farmers' market, there were only a few booths of the kind of lovely organic vegetables Tiffany pines for from her California days. Mid-morning Derek and Kai drove down for the day which included a visit to the second floor aquarium at the end of the pier. This turned out to be a perfect stop for a kid Kai's size with bright and colorful aquariums he could easily see and a whole section with "touching pools" of crabs, starfish and urchins, the very kinds of things we would love to share with him in the wild someday. Afterwards, the four of us had lunch on the observation deck from where we watched planes and boats go by. We also got in a little soccer time in our semi-private playground, only a tad hampered by the big ruts the heavy machinery was gouging in the soft ground.

At the end of the day on Sunday Scott admitted to me that "This is not a typical set-up. Things are going unusually well…I'm worried."

Monday morning dawned bright and breezy, and the advance freight shipments from vendors began to arrive for set up. Moods couldn't help but lift in the sunshine, but the forecast was double-edged: yes the skies would be blue the whole rest of the week, but the high pressure system ushering them in would bring strengthening winds from the northeast, the one direction from which the Vinoy Basin is exposed. And if that weren't enough, Tropical Storm Noel was forming to the south and, at the very least was likely to enhance those winds as it passed by Florida.

Sure enough, by midday the docks were jumping and jostling from the 2-3' swells rolling in through the basin entrance, and Hawk was hastily called to one of the big tents where he found the electricians bear-hugging the tent poles to keep the tent from lifting off. After Monday night the decision was made to delay the show boats from coming onto the docks until Wednesday, so while the tents and grounds filled up with vendors, trailerable boats, and concessionaires, the hard-constructed docks remained empty, patrolled constantly by the dock guys Pete and Jason, checking and troubleshooting problems as the cropped up.

So, it wasn't until the very last day before the show that the exhibition boats were finally allowed in. They came in a steady stream, one right after the other. Docking is never fun with an audience, but in the high wind conditions (still blowing 25 as they entered) and the time pressure, there was lots of excitement packing the boats into place.

Despite it all, the show opened complete and on schedule Thursday, and the weather was gorgeous, if still breezy. By the weekend, however TS Noel had finally made the predicted turn off toward the Atlantic, and local winds and seas calmed right down making for perfect show weather. I worked as usual inside the tent for Sea Tech Systems as well as giving three of the Women & Cruising seminars I do with Kathy Parsons and Pam Wall. Don, recruited as a volunteer coordinator for Strictly Sail's Discover Sailing program, spent his days down on the dock managing the crowds that lined up for the free 50-minute rides in one the three sailboats provided by vendors. This turned into a full-time thing for him, but he reaped the rewards of his dedication when Tiffany, Derek and Kai arrived early on Saturday and were able to have a trip all to themselves... Kai's very first sail!

Any boat show is a social opportunity for cruisers, but as St Pete is in our back yard so to speak, the numbers go up. Plus after three years of doing the shows during our winters back in the US, we have a whole network of show-associated friends. On Sunday night for example we had an impromptu party on board the coach ostensibly for the Colts football game that exemplified the mix: with Kathy Parsons and her partner Bill (Kathy, the author of the Spanish & French for Cruisers Books we originally met in Trinidad), Diane & Alex (our friends in Hernando beach who are refitting their first boat in ten years, but whom we originally knew in St. Thomas), Sherry & Dave (the cruising friends we introduced and who are now married and cruising aboard the Tackless II's sistership Soggy Paws in the Western Caribbean) as well as Ray Carter, the Sales Manager of Spectra Watermakers, for whom Don will be working at the Miami and Pacific Expo Boat shows.

St Pete is a funny show. Everybody involved enjoys this venue: from the Sail America organizers, the contractors setting things up, the vendors who pay to come and the ticket holders making a day outing of it. But every year the show draws fewer and fewer people and therefore, obviously makes less and less money. This is of course in part a response to the contracting economy in general as well as a reflection of the slowing boating industry. There is also a big boat show in Ft. Lauderdale the week before which siphons off some interest, and cruisers southbound on the ICW have been held back up north by the lengthened hurricane season insurance restrictions…a point emphasized by TS Noel's flirtation with Florida this week. Who knows for sure how long Strictly Sail will continue to put on the show here? So far, it's a go for next year. Guess we'll take it one year at a time!

It's amazing how fast the show breaks down. What took eight days to put together broke down in less than two. By Monday morning the tents and grounds were largely deserted, By Monday afternoon all the boats were gone, and by Tuesday morning as we backed our RV out, the docks were coming out of the water and only one tent remained standing! It is a prodigious effort by a wide array of people...and all for the entertainment of Florida sailors!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

16-23 October 2007 - Grandparenting continued

Our First Grandparents' Breakfast

This grandparenting thing can be a fun deal! A few days following the kids visit to NCL, we dusted off the coach tires and rolled the big box out on the road and made our way south to Clearwater to be on hand for a 'Grandparents Breakfast" at Kai's school.

Kai, at two and a half, is in his second "semester" of school, this year going for a half-day, five days a week. School has been a wonderful experience for him, giving him the chance to interact with other kids in an environment of educational play. He has positively bloomed.

We arrived and were ushered into the auditorium where we sat with his best friends Tovar and Darra along with their Moms and special guests, along with over a hundred other guests. Breakfast was a nice buffet of bagels and muffins and fruit salad. Afterwards grandparents were ushered into a Scholastic book sale where we could buy books to donate to the classrooms as well as for our own kids. We came home with a cute book called Tyrannosaurus Reg and, with Halloween around the corner, another called Bats on the Beach.

Birthday at Fort De Soto Park

That afternoon we drove to the Clearwater office of Pinellas County's Ft. De Soto Park. The Park itself occupies the beaches and islets at the southernmost tip of the St. Petersburg Peninsula and offers camp sites right on the water. With my birthday on Saturday, it was my heartfelt wish that we could get a site there and have the kids come for a camping weekend together. It was a rather naïve wish as Ft. De Soto, like most Florida parks, can be booked up to seven months in advance, meaning that weekends even in the off season are usually sold out. However, luck was with us thanks to the recent addition of three RV spots that don't come up on the computer.

We drove down Thursday to cement our claim only to find that the new site, unfortunately, was not only not right on the water but, being new, looked a lot more like a regular RV park spot that a wilderness campsite. I hated to be ungrateful, but it was not exactly what I'd had in mind.

Our first afternoon Don and I made our bicycling debut of the year by following the bike trail out to the beaches some 4-5 miles away. Reconnoitering first by car would have been smarter because the trail offered no shade and in the afternoon sun the temps soared to the high 90s. There were two pretty unhappy captains by the time we straggled back to camp. On Friday we made the trip back by car with chairs, books and a couple of tall lemonades from concession stand. Now this was more like it. Lots of people-watching. The outgoing tide made a perfect place for boys to slide on their skim boards while two young girls rode the one foot waves over and over to the beach. By the end of day, however, a threatening front had moved in and seemed like it might blow out all our plans. The silver lining to the gloomy weather report was it resulted in a bunch of cancellations Friday afternoon, and when we happened to be in the office when someone canceled out, we were able to move to a much neater site -- still not on the water but embedded in woods near one end of the island. Much more atmospheric!

The kids arrived Saturday morning with a pan of birthday cupcakes from Cindy and all the gear to keep us shaded on a hot beach. Ironically, the cloud cover that rolled in with the front and dumped heavy rain inland cooled off the beaches without shedding more than a drop or two. As a result our beach time was spent kicking the soccer ball in long sleeves rather than swimming and sweating! Quite interesting to Kai were a bunch of Japanese tourists who arrived with the usual cameras as well as a volleyball. Kai made it his personal responsibility to chase down their ball whenever it got loose and return it to them with a vigorous kick. They were most impressed with the little blond-haired kid.

We also visited the historic fort for which the park is named to check out the cannons mounted there. I think Kai got as much of a kick out o the cool windowless subterranean rooms that were once magazines for powder and shot, but for Kai made great echo chambers.

Back at the campground, there were kids everywhere, riding bikes, throwing footballs, and fishing from the banks. We did pretty much all of the above ourselves the rest of the afternoon and into the long evening. We divided into teams and played some football in an open grassy area. Kai can not only throw the ball like a pro, but he is a wily runner when he gets a hand-off from his Dad. Only hitch is, I think he likes to be tackled! Later he made friends with a boy about five years older who was very impressed at Kai's ability to throw, and they tossed the football back and forth as we went for a walk around the grounds. Another kid who was obviously experienced at being an older brother patiently demonstrated how to catch a fish, baiting the hook with a shrimp and casting smartly into the green water. There was a lot of catch-and-release going on, adults as well as kids. You'd think the fishies would vacate the area, but maybe it's worth it to them for the free bite of shrimp! Anyway, all this activity is what I love about this kind of park experience, and indeed it was exactly what I'd had in mind for the weekend.

On Sunday morning we finally initiated our grandson into boating by renting two two-man kayaks and taking him on the one-hour paddle tour. We were quite touched that Kai opted to ride with the two captains, which we thought showed his good sense. However Derek revealed a previously unreported talent, and the grandparents had to work hard to keep up...despite Tiffany taking a distinctly passive, Cleopatra-like role! Most of the tour was through quiet mangrove waters, but in the open the wind was up, making a pretty decent chop in the one exposed leg. Kai took it all in stride and did not get antsy or restless, enjoying the herons and egrets on the banks, the pelicans and terns making headlong dives, and the crazy fish that seemed to be popping out of the water all around us.

The kids headed home Sunday afternoon leaving us to enjoy a quiet evening on our own. We could have had our choice of any number of waterfront sites that night as the weekend campers emptied out. Instead, we got our private beach fix the next morning when took our coffee to the peninsula's East Beach to walk and watch the sunrise over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. We were the only people there.

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