Tampa Bay is, like San Francisco Bay in the west, a spectacular body of water in a natural amphitheater. It’s visible from all the surrounding communities, so it’s no surprise that boating is a natural part of life. But therein lies the problem: how to get out on that water.
You can, of course, simply buy a boat. That brings with it a certain level of commitment and expense, such as a marina slip and maintenance. But wait, as the Ginsu knife ads command, there’s another way — rentals.
In general, boat rentals are as easy as car rentals, where you simply pop into Hertz or Avis, sign on the dotted line and they hand you the keys. There are some caveats of course, but more about those in a moment.
First however, some definitions so that the villagers don’t take torches to my castle. I have eliminated all the oddities, from jet skis to kayaks to paddle boards. All these are perfectly good ways to get out on Tampa waters and there are companies specializing in these, but not for this story.
If you wonder why, just Google “Tampa Bay boat rentals” and you’ll find dozens of companies ready to get you on the water in everything from runabouts for family outings to center consoles for fishing to pontoon boats for entertaining to speedboats for waterskiing to crewed luxury yachts.
The easiest way to get afloat, requiring no boating skills at all, is a crewed charter, such as Sunburst Yacht Charters. Sunburst has a pair of 83- and 88-foot Sunseeker luxury yachts, which are available for full-day, half-day and sunset cruises, as well as overnighters with a captain, mate and stewardess. Based at the marina at Harbour Island in front of Jackson’s Bistro, these yachts are also available as luxurious accommodations within walking distance of the Tampa Convention Center.
What do you need to rent a drive-it-yourself boat by the hour or day? Theoretically anyone born after 1988 and operating a boat with more than 10 horsepower must pass an educational course. But many boat rentals simply don’t ask to see any card.
Kevin Fife, owner of eBoats Tampa on the Riverwalk, offers silent, electric-powered Duffy launches, pointing out that he requires no license for exploring the downtown channels and up the Hillsborough River because his comfy cruisers are exempt.
Emily Meister, general manager of Riverwalk Boating Co., has a fleet of restored fiberglass runabouts (think tail fins!) from the 1950s in bright vintage colors with engines under 10 horsepower. These are also exempt and turnkey.
But how do you choose a boat rental? The starting point, of course, is what do you want to do? If you simply want to take Aunt Edna and your other relatives on a leisurely cruise around the harbor or up the river, then you might be looking at a comfortable pontoon boat (think a floating patio) or a multi-seat day cruiser, which might even have a head (marine toilet).
If your interests are more Izaak Walton and you want to test your skills against the many varieties of fish in Tampa Bay, Capt. Stacey Edmondson and his Little Harbor Watersports can put you in a Key West center console (with a tower!) for deep-water sport fishing or a flats boat for shallow-water fish stalking.
For a more active experience, such as towing inflatable toys or kneeboards, you’ll want a faster boat, like one of the Little Harbor 35-mile-per-hour bowriders.
Sailors can even find a selection of enjoyable small boats to savor Tampa breezes, such as the Olympic-class Lasers and sporty Hobie Cats at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. With a sailboat, you’ll have to demonstrate some wind-powered skills before casting off.
Second, give some consideration to where you want to do your boating. Some rental operations have limits on how far you can venture, either into open water, up the Hillsborough River or sightseeing around Davis Islands. Choose your rental base by the area you want to explore and check to find out the exact boundaries.
Tip: Some rental companies set a time limit on your outing, so always ask how far you can get with that time constraint.
Price, of course, is always a consideration on your boating adventure, so check for deals and steals. Some companies offer packages for half- or full-day outings, others offer frequent-user discounts and many have rates for the military or first responders.
So, you’ve decided on a rental and a boat. What do you take? Says Edmondson, “Sunblock!” Take it by the gallon to protect your skin because, even though most rental boats offer canvas or fiberglass tops, you can burn quickly from early or late sun angles, plus reflections off the water. Most rentals prohibit aerosol sunscreen (making boats slippery), so plan on tubes of lotion.
Take bathing suits, light clothing, hats (with safety cords) and sunglasses (with safety cords). Depending on the boat you choose, you may get wet, so wear outfits that can handle spray.
Bring your own food and drink because you really don’t want to waste your rental time sitting at a waterfront restaurant while the clock is ticking. Your boat will likely have either built-in or portable ice chests, so make sure they have ice to keep your drinks cool. Keep in mind that the U.S. Coast Guard and the local Harbor Patrols have hawk’s eyes when it comes to spotting skippers they think might be BWI (boating while intoxicated). With fines of up to $5,000, it’s a good idea to just leave the beer ashore.
Aside from by-the-hour boat rentals, there are other options for enjoying Tampa Bay — the membership clubs. In short, you pay an initiation fee and monthly dues, which give you access to fleets of boats. With the larger clubs, you also have access to club fleets across the country.
Like conventional boat rentals, all the downsides of boat ownership are eliminated. There are no maintenance costs and when you return the boat, you simply walk away: Someone else cleans it, just like a hotel room. The three 900-pound gorillas of boat clubs in the Tampa area are Carefree Boat Club, Freedom Boat Club and Sovereign Boat Club.
With a boat club you have the use of several types of boats, so you aren’t locked in to just one boating interest. Choose from fishing boats, family cruisers, runabouts and more, all under the same membership plan.
Some considerations for choosing a boat club: location, location, location. Does it have bases near your planned boating areas? Understand clearly how often you can use its boats and if there are time limitations for each use. Does the club take reservations or is it first come, first served? Does it provide instruction so you can transition into its larger boats? Is it like a fitness club where your membership allows use of company facilities anywhere?
With so many rental boats available locally (millions of Google search results), there’s no reason you shouldn’t (pardon the expression) get your feet wet on Tampa Bay.
Chris Caswell is an award-winning writer and the former editor of several yachting magazines. He has appeared on Oprah as a boating lifestyle expert and hosted the Marine Voyager series on the Speed Channel
Check out our Boating Guide for 2022.