ENGLEWOOD BEACH — Watching his two of his friends race high-power boats across the water, 58-year-old Mike Tama asks himself if he really wants to get into back in the cockpit again.
"The answer is always yes," said the Boca Raton resident. "I picked up my best friend Rob Els from the airport so we could watch our friends in the Fast Boys and Lilly Sport Boat (in the Offshore Powerboat Association races Saturday on Englewood Beach).
"I follow these races all over including St. Pete, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Key West," he said. "I've come to the Englewood races two of the last three years. This is by far my favorite. I like how this small community opens up to visitors like myself and friends. I like the Wavery Restaurant (across from Englewood Beach). It has good food and a great view of the beach.
"You really can't ask for anything more."
George and Jeannette Ivey came to Englewood Beach to support their friend and racer Gino Marrone who pilots the Disabled American Veterans boat. Marrone is a retired U.S. Navy Seal.
"I race a boat called Rollin Dirty (P4-50 series) for Visit Jacksonville," George said. "We are friends with the OPA racers. I'd love to see Visit Sarasota or Englewood have their own boat in the future."
Craig Wallace owner of Rev X Oils watched as the LSB boat he sponsors flew by on Englewood Beach.
"What's nice about these races is you now have fathers racing against their 17-year-old sons," he said. "Driver Jay Muller is out there, but he also has his kids racing. This is truly a family sport. This is a great location for it."
Race organizers redesigned the course, making it closewise instead of counter-clockwise like last year. Now in turn 7, the boats come at the fans, which makes for great photos. Organizers say there were more people at the boat parade on Dearborn Street Friday night, which kicked off Waterfest and the races.
"There are people for as long as the eye can see," said Ray LaBadie, past president of Waterfest. "There are thousands of race fans lined from Englewood Beach all the way down to Manasota Key. There's more people here than last year."
Unlike the Iveys and Tama, charter-boat captain Doug Goodman and his wife Kara didn't have to drive many hours to get to the races. Instead, they drove a couple of miles from their Rotonda home to Lemon Bay High School. They boarded a bus for free and arrived on Englewood Beach seven minutes later.
"Any other time of the year, I don't want to tell anyone about this area because I love it so much ... because it's an intimate place," Goodman said, "but this weekend, I'm glad there's people here from all over the world.
"We got on a bus and I met 15 new people. It doesn't get better than this. The people are just great. It's a lot fun."
Goodman said he was saddened by negative comments by local red-tide groups who don't want to see the boat races here.
"I've watched the helicopters check the water and the beach—they do care about the environment," he said. "Waterfest gives back to local environmental groups funds that last well beyond this race. The organizers do care about our safety, the driver's safety and the sea life."
Rebecca Blaxton, a research biologist, talked about the work the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does in Charlotte County. From inside a tent in the family area of the Waterfest Saturday, she explained FWC collects water samples for red tide in Charlotte Harbor and sends them to a lab in St. Petersburg. The results are posted on the FWC website.
Meanwhile, Nathan Bajner, 5, who was visiting from Chicago, learned about saving sea turtles from 25-year Mote Marine volunteer Doris Anne Prieur.
"I like turtles," Bajner told Prieur as he touched the turtle shell used to show the thickness of their bodies.
In addition to the environmental tent, there are local food and other vendors just outside of the races.
Racing begins 11 a.m. today. Parking is sparse and some lots are charging $40 for private parking. However, Waterfest buses are free and run every 15 minutes to the beach. The awards ceremony is planned for 7 p.m. today at the SandBar & Tiki Grille, 1975 Beach Road.
For more information or tickets, visit englewoodbeachwaterfest.com.