One thing you’re never far from in Florida is the water. And that’s especially true in The Villages, where residents have turned the local waterways into recreational hot spots. Lakes and streams in and around The Villages are used for a boatload of activities, ranging from sports as tranquil as fishing to as exhilarating as water skiing. “In addition to all the recreation centers and sports pools, our residents are taking waterways and turning them into recreation areas, and it just speaks to their enthusiasm,” said John Rohan, director of The Villages Recreation and Parks Department. “And, of course, Florida is so conducive to that sort of activity year-round, it’s really cool to see the residents take advantage of that with the various clubs and activities.”
One of the most popular, and most interesting, water sports in The Villages is dragon boating.
The sport, which predates even the oldest Villages resident by a couple of millennia, became a staple in the area nearly a decade ago.
The Leathernecks, the community’s original dragon boat club, were founded in 2007.
That group eventually evolved into the Grand Masters Dragon Boat Club, which today encompasses more than 400 members spread across nine different teams — the Blackhearts, the Dirty Dozen, the Dragon Sisters, the Paddling Patriots, the Silver Dragons, Sparta 70, This Boat Rocks, the Village Dragons and the Warriors. One additional competitive team, the Southern Heat, is based in The Villages and includes members who are not Villages residents.
Lee Cerovac, co-founder and former president of the Grand Masters, said the sport creates a unique sort of unity among teammates, which is part of what makes it so popular in The Villages.
“I think it’s the camaraderie,” Cerovac said. “You get going out there and you come off the water feeling like you had a really good workout.”
The level of intensity varies from team to team — the Paddling Patriots proudly display a motto of “Fun, Fitness and Friendship,” while teams like the Blackhearts and the Warriors travel, sometimes internationally, to compete against some of the top crews in the world.
In 2018, the Southern Heat traveled to Szeged, Hungary, for the International Dragon Boat Federation’s Club Crew World Championships, which featured more than 6,000 paddlers from 28 countries, where their women’s crews secured a pair of gold medals.
“The Club Crew World Championship is the International Dragon Boat Federation equivalent to the Olympics,” Heat captain Robert Saltsman said during the competition. “We were challenged in every race by high-quality, well-trained teams, many of whom have a lot of experience in placing in world competitions such as this one.”
The competitive teams have garnered quite a bit of attention for The Villages within the dragon boating community, but not every team is focused on competition.
This Boat Rocks is one of the most active teams in the Grand Masters club, holding practices three days a week.
“We are a team of 140 members and the majority of our members are there to have fun, exercise and socialize,” said This Boat Rocks captain Kathy Summers-Sitarski.
This Boat Rocks also is the entry point for a lot of residents to try the sport out for the first time. The club has beginner, intermediate and advanced boats, which allow paddlers to learn and advance at their own pace. The club aims to make the sport approachable to anyone who may be intimidated by what they see from the shore.
“We do work hard but it’s not completely untouchable. It’s perfectly managed by every individual,” Summers-Sitarski said. “There’s always a seat to be had and no one is ever turned away.”
For many, that seat is only the start.
“Once they know how to do it, they can stay or move up into some of the other clubs,” Cerovac said.
For those who like to relax on or by the water, The Villages and the surrounding area offers plenty of real estate for fishing.
Within The Villages, there are more than 20 bodies of water in which residents can cast their lines — and there are four official clubs dedicated to the act.
The Villages Freshwater Fishing Club is the largest of the groups, including more than 300 members. The club makes its wealth of knowledge available to any potential anglers who are new to fishing in Florida, which club President Randy DiSanto said is different from fishing in other regions of the United States.
“It’s a very slow style, you can’t really rush your presentation,” DiSanto said. “It’s like the Southern lifestyle — everything slows right down.”
The club meets monthly, bringing expert guest speakers to Lake Miona Recreation Center to educate members, and travels all around Central Florida for fishing trips.
For anyone who views fishing as a solo sport, DiSanto encourages them to consider the resources the Freshwater club can offer someone who’s never fished in Florida before.
“From the standpoint of just moving here and not knowing the lay of the land, the benefits of joining the club are astronomical,” DiSanto said. “We have people who have fished for 40 or 50 years of their lives and some who have spent 20 down here and they’re willing to share all that information.”
Each year, the club also coordinates a bass fishing tournament with The Villages Recreation and Parks Department. The contest, which awards winners by total catch weight over the course of a February morning, is a popular draw for residents, attracting 59 participants this year with an almost even split of members and non-members.
“It’s a fun time,” DiSanto said. “It’s well received.”
For the recreation department, the event is valuable both for the recreation opportunity it supplies but also the educational benefit for those who partake.
“It’s a great way to promote responsible fishing in Florida and The Villages specifically, and helps promote catch and release,” said Lifestyle Events Coordinator Lisa Parkyn. “It’s an opportunity for our residents to learn a lot about our retention ponds — which ones are available for them to fish in — and helps maintain the health of our fish.”
Nothing says fun on the water quite like water skiing.
For Villagers, the Waterski Lake Miona Club offers a chance to try one’s hand — or, feet — at the sport.
While there are several highly experienced members, there is no prerequisite qualification to join the club.
Bob Smalley, who founded the club and coordinates outings, often encounters people who are scared to try water skiing because they failed at it once and are intimidated by the prospect of trying again. But he assures anyone willing to give it a chance that he can help them learn it better than they think.
“That’s because the way they’ve been introduced is not practical,” Smalley said. “The progression we use is practical and the probability of success is excellent.”
Smalley starts beginners out on a boom, a pole that extends out from the side of the boat. With the skier in earshot, he can give instruction, rather than throwing someone out 75 feet behind the boat and letting them fend for themselves.
Village of Hadley resident Judy Carter is one recent success story. She tried water skiing 30 years ago, never got up on the skis and thought she’d never try it again. But she went out with Smalley and the club and learned quickly, getting up on her third try with the help of the boom.
“(Bob) talked me through it,” Carter said. “He showed me what I was doing wrong.”
Carter is now a capable skier and is even learning to ride on one ski.
“I never thought I could do it, but now I’m doing it and I love it,” Carter said.
The club was founded in 2009 and started out meeting three days a week at Lake Miona. In the first year, Smalley said the roster was eight to 10 members. Now, he has an email list of more than 30 households and often takes eight to 10 people skiing each day. He even added a fourth day, Sunday, to the schedule to accommodate interest.
“The Villages has grown tremendously over the last 10 years so you have so much more potential for skiers,” he said.
Smalley provides the boat and all of the equipment for participants. While he does receive a small contribution from club members to help put gas in the boat and maintain it, the former teacher dedicates his time and resources mostly because he enjoys sharing the experience of water skiing with people.
“I enjoy the sport a whole lot,” Smalley said. “I enjoy watching people go from zero to something positive.”
Canoe and Kayak
The Villages Canoe and Kayak club has been around for more than a decade, springing forth from the former Explorers Club, which started more than two decades ago.
“The residents started the Explorers Club for people that wanted to go snorkeling and canoeing and kayaking,” Rohan said. “The club got so big that they eventually started branching off and those folks started doing their specialized activities.”
Since those days, the Canoe and Kayak club has grown to include nearly 300 members.
The group traverses waterways all over Central Florida with events all throughout the year, often taking multiple trips a week.
“We go to all the springs and rivers between one and three hours from The Villages,” club President Pati Deland said.
They also hold monthly meetings on each third Tuesday at Colony Cottage Recreation Center, which feature speakers on boats and paddling, as well as experts on Florida’s waterways.
The club doesn’t require advanced paddlers — “It’s not a race, like dragon boating, it’s a leisurely paddle,” Deland is quick to point out — but they do require members to know how to paddle a vessel before joining.
While the club doesn’t have the time and resources to teach the skill, it does recommend outfitters that offer affordable lessons.
Once a potential member has the requisite abilities, they’re ready to hit the water for what Deland describes as a great way to spend the summer.
“I think it’s the best way to see Florida, taking the back roads and seeing all the trees and rivers,” Deland said. “It’s like a prehistoric world out there.”