DESTIN, Fla. - The Army Marina upgraded the showcase boat in its charter fleet last summer and plans to build on a cruise schedule and water taxi service to beach, dining and entertainment attractions around Destin Harbor.

The 35-foot Stars and Stripes features state-of-the-art electronics and is twice as fast as its predecessor, which has enhanced sightseeing opportunities and the marina's deep-sea bottom fishing range in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, said William Moore, business manager for the Destin Army Recreation Area. The $250,000 Triton boat replaced the Follow Me III in August.

The old 27-foot Boston Whaler averaged 10-12 knots on the open water, he said. With three 300-horsepower Mercury Verado outboard motors, the Stars and Stripes runs between 24 and 28 knots and once got up to 60 mph in Choctawhatchee Bay.

"It's a spectacular boat (and) really gets out to the fishing holes," Moore said. "The Stars and Stripes allows us to go out much further. We can get to distances we didn't get before. In the long run, it's better for getting the big-game fish everyone wants to catch. They can focus on marlins, tunas and sailfish within that 50-mile radius.

"It's also been a smoother and quieter ride for us. You can be at full throttle, and hear more wind noise than engine noise."

Meanwhile, Army I is a flat-bottom boat primarily designed for bay and Intracoastal Waterway fishing, but it will go just off the Gulf shore each summer.

The Stars and Stripes and Army I each seat six passengers. Moore said only four people could fish comfortably aboard the Follow Me III. Both boats in the current fleet go out all year.

The two charter boats also provide Army guests with dolphin-viewing trips, harbor tours and water taxi service to locations such as Norriego Point, Crab Island and Harbor Walk Village in Destin Harbor.
This year, the Army Marina plans to do three two-hour harbor cruises a day, including sunset outings. The cost is $30 a person during the peak season of March to October, and $20 in the winter. Moore said most harbor tours go for $40 to $60 on the Destin commercial market.

The speed of the Stars and Stripes allows Army passengers to roam around longer and see more areas because the marina crew has greater flexibility with the cruise schedule, he said. Through April, a six-hour charter on the boat is available for $240 plus fuel costs, half off the normal rate.

"It's not about making money for us, it's about making memories," he said. "It's all about the service and views of the harbor we can offer."

Moore said the water taxi began last year on a limited basis, but recreation officials want to expand the service and give guests a vehicle alternative when they hit waterfront stores, restaurants and bars. The fare is $5 per person during the day and $10 at night.

The Army Marina will add three 16-foot fishing boats to its rental inventory this year. Since 2006, it's purchased 20 wave runners, seven brand new pontoon boats, and replaced its stock of kayaks and bicycles.