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MarshBunny Notes
The St. Johns River The Intracoastal and Beyond

Airboats are flat-bottomed boats that are powered by an aircraft engine and propeller. The engine, prop and seats are mounted high on the boat to raise the center of gravity so that the boat will skim over the surface rather than having to push it's way through the water.


The ideal trail for an airboat is a couple of inches of water over a sandy bottom, but they are not restricted to that. They can go over grassy plains, through mucky swamps, on deep water, and over totally dry ground...for a ways. That's pretty rough on the bottom of the boat, but several local airboaters still claim to be the one who drove an airboat two miles down the middle of State Road 192 from the Sweetwater ramp to the parking lot of the County Line Saloon. (Ran out of beer, you know.)

Driving an airboat requires a few different skills than driving anything else. To start with, you have a big heavy boat sitting on a couple of inches of water. For an airboat to function properly you really have to stand on the gas and get it up on a plane so that it skims the surface of the water. To accomplish this you have an accelerator at your right foot. No brakes, just an accelerator.

At your left hand you have the stick to control the rudders. See the big square things behind the prop cage? Yeah. Those are the rudders. When you move the stick forward or back they go to the left or right to channel the flow of air and turn the boat. A little tricky, since you have to coordinate your acceleration with the turn. Don't even think you can let off the gas and just hold the rudder stick to make a turn - I'm here to tell you that if you don't have air flowing the rudders aren't doing a thing! Try it yourself... you will be learning a little something about the laws of inertia, and noticing the lack of brakes.

Your right hand is for holding your beer or soda. It gives you something to clutch in terror without your passenger seeing you white-knuckle the arm rest.

So here you are, flying through the marsh happy as a bird! Don't get too happy - you must stay aware of your surroundings and be prepared to react.

Trails are often very narrow and you must be alert for other boaters approaching or stopped in the trail ahead of you. Some plants are slick and can be rode over to cross a dry spot, but other plants are very rough and will clutch at the bottom of the boat. Don't stop in the middle of a mud or muck hole, you may never get moving again. When passing ranging cattle beware being charged by a bull. Be on the watch for root clumps, large 'gators, and other obstacles in the trail - an airboat is so top-heavy that if you hit something in the trail it can easily knock you over. (Even assuming you aren't injured, you really don't want to have to walk out of the marsh.) Cypress knees can rip the bottom right out of your boat. Stopping or turning in deep water requires care - the way the boat is balanced makes it very easy for it to roll right over and sink. Just a few things to watch out for.

Makes you wonder what the great attraction is, doesn't it? (It's the scenery.)

Variations on airboats include using a car engine (usually a Cadillac) rather than an aircraft engine, different types of props (some have 2 blades, some have 5 blades), or different sized boats.

A tourboat.

Most airboats have 1 seat for the driver and then another seat that holds 1 or 2 passengers, but many only have a seat for the driver. (A passenger in this case rides on the footrest and gets a very close-up view of all the scenery they are hurtling towards...er, riding through.) Places that offer airboat tours have boats that can hold 20 or more passengers, but the ride just isn't as much fun.

A friend of mine once built himself a one-man airboat specifically to get down small canals to gig frogs. The boat was so small there was just room for him to sit in the bottom and steer, and the prop and cage were so small they looked like they came off a household fan. It looked a little strange, but it did the job.

Airboats at Camp Holly
Airboats on the hill.

Some airboats are a little extreme, but very, very interesting....

Houseboat with airboat engine.

Airboats are expensive to build and need a lot of maintenance. They also cost a great deal in gas, oil and beer (you don't think anyone would drive one of those things sober, do you?), but they can travel remote and otherwise inaccessible trails where you see the most beautiful scenery and wildlife in the world. They are squirreley in deep water, dangerous at the best of times, and still the most fun you can have with your pants on!

Deep in the Cypress - if you don't have an airboat, you can't get to this spot.

Many Airboats
Airboaters crossing Lake Sawgrass after a weekend of hunting and camping.

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