Jay Nichols is one of the hottest high-performance powerboat photographers in the world, never mind the Fort Myers, Fla., area he calls home. From offshore races and formal poker runs to casual raft-ups and regattas, you name it and he shoots it.
But Nichols also lives the go-fast boat lifestyle, meaning when he’s not capturing the action from a helicopter he’s on the water every weekend with friends who own some mighty fine—and mighty fast—hardware. So it’s safe to say he has personal and professional investments in the health and growth of that community. That’s why in 2006 he decided to help start a go-fast powerboat club in his area with his friend Bob Barnhart. A Canadian who winters on Marco Island—one of the jewels of what is known as Florida’s “Gold Coast”—Barnhart has a small performance-boat fleet of his own, and also knows a slew of performance-boat owners. Rather than grinding through their respective contact lists and hitting up folks with a, “Hey, want to join a club?” telephone pitch, Nichols and Barnhart turned to a popular online go-fast boat community called offshoreonly.com.
Through private messages on the site, Nichols, Barnhart, and a few other Fort Myers go-fast boat owners decided to start a thread on boating in the area and gauge interest in a new club that might be dedicated to it. The interest was right there—to say the least.
“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.
“But it all really started with that thread on OSO,” Nichols added. “ We said, ‘Let’s start a thread and see where it goes.’ Well, it really went somewhere.”
Fort Myers Offshore was born—and the truth is, it was born online. A virtual community became an actual community.
A year later, tragedy bonded members of the club and gave them an emotional 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. 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 members during club activities— the 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.
The online germination of Fort Myers Offshore is far from an isolated case of a virtual go-fast powerboat community becoming a real one. Just up the coast from Fort Myers in Clearwater, Jay Pilini recently founded the Tampa Bay Powerboat Association, which recently hosted its first event.
Like Nichols, Pilini has a vested interest in the high-performance powerboat realm. Pilini founded the Spectre and Motion go-fast catamaran lines. At present, he is the driving force behind Spectre Offshore Performance Marine, which builds 35- and 31-foot center-console V-bottoms.
Rather than going through an existing online community such as offshoreonly.com, Pilini established the new group through Facebook.
“We had a boat club here that I started in the mid 1980s, but over the past four or five years it fizzled,” says Pilini. “But we were a very strong club. I liked the idea of getting people out there and doing something again, so I decided to create another organization. So we created a Facebook page where people could say, ‘Hey, I’m going to Egmont Key or I’m doing a raft-up, who wants to come?’ And it’s taken off.”
At present, the club has 160 members, according to Pilini. Almost 30 boats registered for the first event, which began with a raft-up and lunch on Shell Key and finished up with a party at Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant.
“New people are coming into the sport,” says Pilini. “So we have to help give them something to do with people who share their interest. It’s a good thing—a really good thing. It helps all of us.”