Want to start a thriving high-performance powerboat club in your neck of the woods? Well, my friends, as it turns out you’re in exactly the right place—cyberspace or, more accurately, just a few clicks away from the “General Discussion” forum on this website. That’s right, a message board on which folks from around the country communicate through odd screen names isn’t just a virtual community, it can be a means for creating an actual community.
But don’t take my word for it. (Heck, I wouldn’t.) Just ask the founders of Fort Myers Offshore, a Florida-based go-fast boat club that traces its roots right here to offshoreonly.com. A lot of you probably know this story, but for those who don’t here goes.
Way back in 2006, Fort Myers-based photographer Jay Nichols was still reeling from Hurricane Charlie two years before, which for all intents and purposes had blown everything he owned off the map. Around the same time, Canadian Bob Barnhart, a diehard performance-boat lover who owns a winter place on Marco Island, was organizing fun runs with his friends in the area to destinations such as Cabbage Key.
Through private messages on this website, Nichols, Barnhart and a few other Fort Myers folks decided to start a thread on boating in the area and gauging interest in a new club that was dedicated to it.
“At around 10,000 views, the whole thing just kind of took off and Bob took over,” said Nichols. “Bob is one of the biggest reasons the club is so successful. He is the chairman of the club and he takes care of all the details like reservations and docking, and the rest of the members take up the slack.”
Nichols added, “But it all really started with that thread on OSO. We said, ‘Let’s start a thread and see where it goes.’ Well, it really went somewhere.”
A year later, tragedy galvanized the club and gave it a rallying point. An offshore powerboat, not affiliated with the club, overturned in the area and killed four of five people on board. The only survivor was then 16-year-old Jennifer Molter, who lost family members that day, and with Barnhart leading the charge the club raised approximately $34,000 for Molter’s college/trust fund.
That was six years ago, give or take a few months, and now the not-for-profit (the club’s 501 (c) (3) designation reportedly helps mitigate liability for individual club member liability during club activities) group has more than 240 members and seven official events during the season, meaning October through March. Nichols estimated that at least half of the members are from Canada, Michigan and other places where winter is a whole lot more severe than it is on the west coast of Florida. Among the club’s better-known and most dedicated members are Dan Davies, Tom Cullen, John Wilkinson, Bill and Lori Lemanske, Don and Amanda Gardner, Hans Haedelt and Eric Belisle. And Barnhart is at the epicenter of all of them.
“Bob is such a no-nonsense guy—what you see with him is what you get—and he has taken on the leadership role,” said Nichols, who is the club’s official photographer. “In some ways, he is the club, though he would never say that. The reason it all works so well is so many of us are good friends, and everyone has taken on a role.”
The last Fort Myers Offshore run of the season is March 30, and it heads to Cayo Costa for a beach party and picnic. The club’s smaller runs draw 20 to 25 boats. Its larger events like the Turkey Run, which has an ongoing charitable component, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the New Years Day run, pull in as many as 40 boats.
“Those event have become so popular that we’re thinking about selling sponsorships,” said Nichols.
Seven events, 240-plus members, fundraising for local charities, potential sponsors—all seem a long way from a message board thread on this website that was started by a few like-minded people just seven years ago. Yet, these are the realities of Fort Myers Offshore, a real community that began its life in the virtual world.
All photos by Jay Nichols/Naples Image.
Matt Trulio is an award-winning journalist who has covered the high-performance powerboat world since 1995. He wrote for Powerboat magazine for 17 years and was the magazine’s editor at large until it ceased publication in 2011. Trulio is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site that covers the high-performance powerboat realm. He’s also the former editor of Sportboat magazine.