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Setting sail safely

From online float plans to a new marine cell phone service, technology is helping weekend boaters keep their outings safe.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2001


photo
[Times files: Toni L. Sandys 1997]
Before taking to the waters, boaters can turn to the Web for resources that include sites that allow people to take safe-boating courses, catch up on the weather and file boating plans.
The Coast Guard heads into the gulf more than 2,000 times a year looking for missing boaters off Florida's west coast, often with no clue about where to start the search.

It's made difficult by boaters who don't tell family and friends much more than that they're going fishing, not where they're launching, what kind of fish they're pursuing or when they'll be back.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Petty Officer Harry Craft with the Coast Guard group in St. Petersburg.

Boaters have always been guided by the stars, but now they can rely on high-tech tools to track their course, file a plan for their outing on the Web and stay in touch with those on shore with a new marine phone system that starts service this month.

On the Web

Several thousand boaters have signed up for FloatPlanPlus (www.floatplanplus.com). It's a free Web service that allows them to file an itinerary similar to a flight plan for an airplane, according to John Halter, president of Zarcor Inc. and founder of FloatPlanPlus.

Boaters list where they're going, when they're expected back and who should be contacted if they're overdue, along with the name and size of the boat and number of passengers. When they return, they need to get to a computer before their target time arrives and cancel the plan. If they're late, the automated system sends e-mails to the designated contacts.

"With boating, people say that I'm going to be at this location at this particular time," Halter said. But "there are no gas stations. There are many more chances that you're not going to make that destination when you should. Boating just has many more avenues of allowing you to get in trouble."

No dramatic rescues have occurred during the service's first year, Halter says, but he's encouraged by reaction. In addition, FloatPlanPlus has helped business at Zarcor, an Addison, Texas, company that makes marine accessories such as seats and shutters.

When they register, boaters are asked if they want to receive monthly e-mail ad pitches. Halter says 95 percent accept the ads, and the site has been getting about 60,000 hits a month.

Petty Officer Craft had not seen the Web-based service, but he liked its concept.

"It's something we really try to put out to the public here," Craft said. If boaters file a float plan, they usually do so at marinas the old-fashioned way, on a sheet of paper.

More often, though, nothing is filed. Craft says any detail can help in case a search is requested: If they're fishing for grouper 40 miles off John's Pass, that's a starting point. If they're launching from a specific ramp, local police can check to see if their car and trailer are still there. A float plan is best.

"It can save a lot of money, time, effort and fuel," he said.

In fact, the Web is loaded with resources for boaters, including sites that allow people to take safe-boating courses, catch up on the latest news and weather, shop and participate in discussion boards.

One of the newest is boatingonly.com, a portal that opened for business last month. It offers everything from online safe-boating courses to articles and chat to shopping, including streaming video of the latest models of boats for those looking to buy.

One Web idea that's apparently not yet available on the gulf or Tampa Bay: Lakevision.com shows boaters on the Great Lakes what the weather looks like through Webcams, says Virgil Chambers, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council (www.safeboatingcouncil.org).

Gadgets on board

Electronic gadgets such as radar, fish finders and chart plotters have improved, says Michael Stoll, who manages the boating and fishing sites for boatersworld.com, the parent of boatingonly.com. In particular, many of the electronics have crisper color displays that are easier to see, and some items that are popular with land lubbers also are taken to sea.

"The popularity of GPS units has exploded," Stoll said. Global Positioning System units give boaters more precise information on position than other sources, though it doesn't do much good if they get stranded without communications and without having filed a float plan.

That's a gap that could be filled by another new service that will debut this month. MariTel (www.maritelusa.com) will offer a marine cell phone service that promises to cover 50 to 100 miles out, unlike traditional cell phones that won't work that far from shore. And it's not just for marine calls; users can make calls from a boat to a regular telephone on land. The first area to be covered by its system will be in the gulf, from Sarasota to Texas.

Its primary markets are commercial vessels that sail near the coast and inland waterways and government agencies involved in maritime activities, according to Jim Tindall, MariTel's vice president of sales and marketing.

"While it's large numbers, the vast majority of recreational boats don't go outside of (traditional) cell range," Tindall said. He estimated that some conventional cell phones might have a range of up to 10 miles offshore.

The system uses a traditional marine VHF radio but it can make calls to phones. For recreational boaters, the devices will be available this summer starting at about $200, with the first year's service included in the purchase price, Tindall says. After the first year, calls could cost about $1 a minute.

For commercial vessels, that's still cheaper than satellite systems and traditional VHF radios that can't reach phones, Tindall says.

And boaters also can buy an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. It sends out radio signals that let searchers more easily find a missing boater, with low-end units starting at several hundred dollars.

Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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