Dave Apling and family and friend have torn a page out of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a summer waterway adventure as long as the storied Mississippi River.
Only Apling's craft is hardly a raft, and the 2,400-mile route - Mackinac Island, Mich., to Marco Island, Fla. - is hardly the muddy Mississippi, though just as long.
“I'm 60 years old. I still work a little bit,” says Apling, whose family owns Devil's Lake Water Sports at Manitou Beach, Mich. “But I'm trying to do things to keep it interesting.”
Having sold pontoon boats - highly popular in southeast Michigan's Irish Hills lakes - for 20 years, Apling was intrigued by trying long-distance cruising in such a craft. He noted that the Great Lakes-Erie Canal-Atlantic Coast water route is well-traveled, but to his knowledge no one has done it by pontoon.
“After making the trip to Florida in a motor yacht (a 40-foot Hatteras), I started thinking that the same trip could be done in a pontoon - equipped with the right space, layout and engine.” He approached Maurell Products, of Owosso, Mich., makers of Crest pontoon boats, with his idea and specifications.
The result is a three-pontoon, 30-foot boat with an 8-foot, 6-inch beam, the latter being the legal limit for highway towing without a special permit. The boat length was sized to accommodate the long-range fuel tanks and a big payload, up to 3,900 pounds.
“They recommended putting a triple tube on it,” Apling said, noting that each pontoon is 25 inches in diameter. He adds: “You could carry the entire Detroit Lions football team on here.
“They went with a 30-foot length to be able to carry that kind of fuel weight up there,” he said, referring to tandem, 62-gallon tanks hidden under lounging berths just ahead of the center console. Two other berths are built in behind the console, and a portable toilet with raise-up curtains is installed just ahead of the transom. Fully equipped, Apling estimates the craft would cost about $36,000.
It is equipped with a 225-horsepower, state-of-the-art outboard engine built for saltwater use. The powerplant can push the boat to 36 mph and can cruise at 26 mph. It can easily cruise up to 10 hours at a stretch, although Apling notes, “after eight or nine hours the fun starts to go out of it. But it depends on where you're at and where you want to be.”
Too, he advises, “It's a cruise and adventure, not a race.”
He is certain, for instance, that the fisherman in the crew, his long-time friend Clark McKelvey, will want to wet a line along the way. “Clark will fish. I know he will.”
The rest of the crew comprises sons Patrick, 34, and Michael, 36, and grandson Andrew, 16.
The first leg of the adventure began last Monday at Mackinac Island, and Apling covered 239 miles to Port Sanilac, in Michigan's Thumb, in just nine hours. Tuesday was an easy six-hour run down to Toledo Beach Marina south of Monroe to complete the first 349-mile leg. At Toledo Beach the crew gathered up for the expected 18-day run to southern Florida's Gulf of Mexico coast.
“We haven't had a hitch with the boat so far,” the skipper said.
The rest of the run will be divided into three six-day segments. He, Patrick and Andrew left Thursday to cross Lake Erie and enter the Erie Canal at Buffalo. The canal will take them to the Hudson River at Troy; they then head downstream to New York City.
“We plan to stay in hotels and motels,” said Apling. “At the end of the day I really enjoy a nice dinner, relaxing and reflecting. Camping is not in my blood.” He added that he wants to show his grandson some of the sights in New York, where there will be a crew change.
Son Mike will join Apling for the next leg of the adventure, probably stopping at Atlantic City, N.J., then Norfolk, Va., before entering the Intercoastal Waterway, a series of shoreline channels protected by islands and barrier reefs.
Even though the New York-Norfolk leg will include open-ocean motoring, Apling plans to stay within a half-mile of shore. “The closer you are, the more you can see. Looking at open water is just looking at the same thing.”
McKelvey will accompany him on the final leg. Exact ports of call and refueling stops may change depending on weather, fuel needs and mood. “A lot will depend on conditions. We won't be racing. It's not a speed thing.”
Hilton Head, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville are among the bigger targets.
“If worse comes to worst, 90 per cent of the places you go by you could just beach this boat,” Apling noted. Fully trimmed, it draws just two-and-a-half feet of water. “But you really need three feet of water under the pontoons.”
Once he and McKelvey reach Stuart, Fla., on the Atlantic coast, they will turn inland via the Okeechobee Waterway, which transits the famed Lake Okeechobee, which feeds fresh water toward South Florida.
“We'll dump out (of the inland passage) at Fort Myers. Then it's just three-four hours to Marco Island.” Apling owns a condominium there.
At trip's end, the skipper said, “We may keep it a while in Florida. It would be good in the Gulf.”
Otherwise the plan is to truck the rig back to Michigan. Pontoons, however, have become very popular with Florida boaters, especially on intercoastal waterways and the Gulf, Apling said.
So he and his crew are off on a summer odyssey that the fabled Huck Finn might have drooled over. Or at least understood.
Speaking of crew, Apling never had a doubt about finding enough hands. “We've had a lot of volunteers.”