tampabay.com

Shuttle's offering island adventures

Charlie's Charters lets customers step on board at the Gulfport marina for a trip to Egmont Key.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published August 22, 2006


GULFPORT - Getting to Egmont Key just got a little easier with last month's debut of a shuttle from Gulfport to the historic island at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

"I've always wanted to do this," said Hal Batey, owner of Charlie's Charters, which sends a homemade 35-passenger boat to Egmont on a four-hour round trip every morning. "I've been planning this for 10 years. Had to have a little luck and a little money."

Batey, 43, said he has operated charter boats for others over the past 10 years and also has had a hand in building two other boats, including one another captain runs to Egmont from Cortez. But after working for others and seeing how the business was run, he decided to go out on his own.

"I learned what's important, after running other people's boats," said Batey, who operates out of the Gulfport Municipal Marina at 4630 29th Ave. S. "It's service. It's like getting a bunch of friends together and going to an island."

Batey is a native of Gainesville and came to the Tampa Bay area 18 years ago to study engineering at the University of South Florida. He spent a few years working in the industry before getting involved in charter boats. He helped in the construction of other boats, but for the charter he runs to Egmont, he saved up and then designed and built the boat in his driveway near Seminole.

The boat is reminiscent of a Boston whaler, he said, 36 feet long with a 12-foot beam and a wide front to keep passengers dry. He said the boat is extremely stable, making it excellent for sightseeing when visitors want to hop to the rail to see a dolphin.

There are other charters that take visitors to Egmont, but this is the first that runs off mainland Pinellas County, making it more accessible to visitors, Batey said. He aims to market his service not only to tourists but also to residents of the area and even those from Tampa and Orlando who otherwise might not make it to Egmont. Tickets are $35 for adults, $25 for children.

"People that live in Florida like to play in Florida, too," he said.

Batey said his cruise takes longer to get to Egmont than the popular route that runs from Fort De Soto Park, but he makes the 45-minute trip worthwhile. He makes stops along the way and teaches passengers about the marine environment.

"This is the best snorkeling spot in this part of Florida," Batey said of some of Fort Dade's ruins that are now partially submerged and have become habitat for marine life. "We see some manatees, even tarpon. People freak out when they see a 200-pound goldfish."

Batey said he runs the trip as long as he has at least six paying passengers. Business has been slow over the summer and he is just breaking even, but he expects an upturn when tourists return in the winter. He also plans to add an afternoon trip to Shell Island, a shorter trip to avoid late-day storms.

Though his business will make it easier for more people to visit the island that has been home to pirates, soldiers and even prisoners, Batey said his aim is not to let it be overrun but to teach. He insists that visitors clean up after themselves and tread lightly near a wildlife preserve.

"People don't have enough respect for the ecosystem," he said. "It's hardy, but we don't want to mess it up."

Batey can be reached at 417-8837 or through his Web site at partyboatcharters.com.