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Picnics, puffer fish and Eric Milton: A new captain meets the high seas

As spring break destinations go, it’s a hard one to beat.

And though some instinctively link the term with Daytona and Miami Beach, the Sunshine State’s southwest coast offers an experience that’s light on debauchery and heavy on chill.

Unless, of course, you’ve never steered a boat before.

The latter was true for me on a recent Sunday, when I loaded the newly-minted 9-year-old (Ryan), the perpetually accommodating wife (Danielle) and the nearest thing I could find to an accomplished seaman (screenwriting ace Michael Korb) into the trusty Kia for a trip to the Tween Waters Inn.

Upon arrival, the task was simply to keep said trio safe as I sought adventure while taking a maiden voyage as captain of a craft chartered through the Inn’s marina.

The property offers skippers of all stripes a chance to take to myriad waterways – bay, river and gulf among them — at the helm of vessels ranging from 19 to 25 feet. Arrangements can be made by calling (239) 472-6336 or visiting a marina-based representative from Beach Bums Boat Rentals, and all that’s needed to get underway is the requisite state paperwork.

Boat operators who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, must have a Florida Boating Safety Education Identification Card or a NASBLA-approved safe boating license to operate a motorboat in Florida. Temporary certificates are obtainable in about an hour onsite, or can be acquired prior to arrival by visiting www.boatus.org/free/#state, www.boat-ed.com/florida or www.boatus.org/florida.

Given that my past captaining experience hadn’t strayed far beyond rubber rafts in backyard pools, I chose the 19-foot Palm Beach model and its 115-horsepower engine and immediately sought the aforementioned Mr. Korb – and his Fort Myers waterfront property street cred – to help ensure the adventure wouldn’t end with an emergency room, a holding cell or an uncharted desert isle.

Toward that end, and armed with sufficient food, drinks and sundries for a three-hour tour, we set off for a back-and-forth trek to Picnic Island, a man-made seven-acre tract that was created by dredging near the confluence of Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass and the Caloosahatchee River.

It’s clearly visible and probably an invigorating swim from the bridges connecting Sanibel Island to the Lee County mainland, but Captiva’s orientation a bit more to the northwest requires a leisurely eight-mile trip that we covered in 45 minutes over glistening and (thankfully) chop-free conditions.

There are no docks, but our boat was easily anchored just a few steps from shore — allowing chairs, towels and umbrellas to be quickly transported. The island’s north side provides a shallow wading area while the south is more wooded, and the entire expanse can be covered on foot in no more than half an hour alongside a generally uninterested menagerie of pelicans, ibis, anhingas and herons.

True to his standing as the trip’s lone Florida native, Ryan chose to stick by the water, where he giddily assembled an entourage of puffer fish, hermit crabs and conch shells, then staked out the boat’s bow for the trip home as the crew’s self-appointed – albeit ultimately unsuccessful — “dolphin spotter.”

As it turned out, the most majestic sighting on the return leg was a palatial home owned by ex-big league pitcher Eric Milton, who must’ve shelled out some of the $47.3 million he earned in an 11-year career (a cool $531,966.28 for each of 89 wins) for a prime spot along the Southwest Florida water.

Seeing how one of his old Cincinnati Reds jerseys still hangs lazily in my wife’s closet – exactly 10 years after his final inglorious game with my favorite team – it’s pretty much a lock that we’ll be stopping by for drinks the next time we’re in the neighborhood.

I figure he owes us at least that much.

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