Bumbling from Miami to Bimini and an encounter with the Powers That Be

18 Jan
Not as chummy as they look, as it turns out

In the middle of Miami’s South Beach neighborhood there is a very unique anchorage, a diminutive bastion of the ninety-nine percent adrift in miles and miles of condos and exclusive marinas. Its unique character comes not from the anchorage itself but from the free dingy dock which it abuts. A free dingy dock, I am told when I arrive, is unheard of in South Florida. It is an anachronism from a simpler time, one before it was assumed that every schmuck foolish enough to buy a sailboat would also possess enough spare cash to fill the volume of its bilge.
    Those days are lost, at least in South Florida, but there is still this anchorage, gloriously free. Actually all it takes to understand why these places are disappearing is one good look at this place. It is outlandish. Come in under sail (as only the residents of this sort of anchorage might) and you will  find your wind blocked by looming condominiums and multi-million dollar residences. Then drop your hook and look around and you will see very modest boats, many in need of some work and a paintjob, some missing very important parts such as masts. You might also notice, if you know what to look for, that scattered like gunk-encrusted jewels among the more-or-less respectable boats is an exquisite collection of punks and sailing homebums, on a fleet of crumbling boats. An example: on my first night in this anchorage I got some fishing advice from a man named Tex, who confessed that he has no idea how to raise the sails on his 40′ boat. Seems he has never sailed before but was given the boat by his brother and is enthusiastic to learn. In the meantime he and a female friend are living on it, rent-free, in the middle of South Beach.

Still free, for the moment

    I love this stuff. This guy seems to have never been around boats but he has wholeheartedly thrown himself into his new lifestyle, savoring the ritual of rowing to and from shore, the ability to fish for dinner from the comfort of his outdoor living room. And you know what? Even though he hasn’t sailed it yet he is using his boat more than most recreational boatowners do. More power to Tex, far as I’m concerned. All the same this drives home an unspoken reality that is impossible to escape in South Florida- folks like Tex, and like me, are not the sort of people that the nearby owners of million-dollar boats and houses would choose for neighbors. I guess it’s no wonder that all our free anchorages are disappearing.
    Luckily for me and mine, the condo owners don’t have a choice in the matter just yet. On the evening of December 16th, after twelve hours of plane and bus travel, I finally arrive in South Beach. My destination is just this anchorage where I am joining some friends to set off on a short jaunt in the Bahamas. Walking from the bus stop I end up on Lincoln Road, one of Florida’s hippest shopping corridors, down which I am literally dragging my disintegrating suitcase. It is full of boat books and boat parts and now held together with a spliced and knotted length of three-strand nylon. In this setting and with my ditty-bag-née-rolling-suitcase I feel like some sort of cross between a jetsetting tourist and an old-timey sailor, an oddity caught between worlds. I find some comfort in the thought that at least I know which world I would like to be in, even if I haven’t quite gotten there yet.
    Eventually, escaping the clutches of Lincoln Road, I find my captain and crew aboard Noah’s Ark, the Seafarer 31′ which is to be my home for the next three weeks. The boat, named for a boy and a pun rather than any particular religious sentiment, is easy to find. Even before I spot my friends I know where I’m headed as there is only one thing in the anchorage brazenly trashy enough to fit the bill. This is Floatzilla, our affectionately-name raft of Anarchist owned-and-operated classic plastic sailboats which may just be the biggest eyesore in South Beach. Floatzilla, fat and happy at the moment, bears this epithet with pride. Its current incarnation is nearly a dozen weirdos on three 30-ish foot sailboats in various states of (dis)repair- all swaying gently on a single anchor smack in the middle of some of America’s most expensive real estate. It is a sight to behold but I’m a little too tired from my long trip to take all this in so after brief introductions I call it a night and turn in.
    The next twenty-four hours saw Floatzilla’s dissection into three only slightly more respectable parts as our little rally wrapped up last-minute preparations and headed out. Our crew of four on Noah’s Ark was last, having decided to start in the Biminis rather than following the other two boats to Grand Bahama. Figuring on a passage of around ten hours to cross the forty-five nautical miles between Miami and Alice Town in North Bimini we get started a couple hours after midnight. We are expecting a light, easy sail across the Gulfstream.  In a sense, I suppose, we get what we are expecting. In the end we arrive at North Bimini more than thirty hours later, completing our passage on target but not exactly with finesse.  Does it come as a surprise that this was a theme for most of the trip?

Our view leaving Miami thru Government Cut. And yes, that is a gigantic neon silhouette of a woman dancing on the side of that building…

My fellow blogger Pat Schulte likes to point out that anyone can just go sailing and figure it out along the way, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Still, I would add that if you want to sail the whole time you’ve also got to be ok with doing it ever so slowly, at very least until you’ve developed both passage planning and sailing skills. Still somewhat lacking in both, we spent the majority of our passage with a velocity made good of under two knots (a side note for the uninitiated: Velocity made good, which is a measure of your speed in the direction of your target is also a nifty data field you can display on a GPS. But be warned; it is sometimes better not to know).
    Despite a course offset for the current we sailed only thirty-five miles during the daylight hours of Monday, our first day at sea. We were also set ten miles North of our rhumb line by the Gulf stream. Not great progress but we didn’t care. To finally be sailing put us in a state of near-perfect contentment, even if we weren’t going anywhere fast. As the sun glinted off some of the smallest waves I’ve ever seen in the Gulf stream we took turns on the helm. Winds were mild and confused winds but generally from the South and West, putting us on a comfortable broad reach for most of our passage.

Dawn on day 1, just before my rude awakening

 I had never heard of the Seafarer before (not that I’m well-versed) but she was a real sailboat, built with very classic lines, and her motion was exquisite. Under each puff we would heel gently and slice across the waves, even under our totally blown out sails. Of course we had no self-steering but with a crew of four shifts on helm were short and made gladder by a hull which tracked unexpectedly well. Noah’s Ark held a course so tightly that on any point of sail you could leave the helm to fetch something in the v-berth and return to a boat still more or less on track. It was a slow but wonderful passage and besides the occasional cursing which accompanied sporadic GPS fixes the only thing to break our reverie was one very brusque visit.
    On our first morning, while sailing at a stately two-and-a-half knots towards the ten mile mark and away from the USA we were ‘pulled over’ by a speedboat full of well-armed Customs and Boarder Protection officers.  These folks were new to me (Perhaps previous encounters were subconsciously scrubbed from my stock of formative sailboats-and-authority-figures memories?). After this incident they have a comfortable lead as my least favorite of the freshly-militarized domestic organizations that now fall under the Homeland Security umbrella. Far from professional, for no reason that we could discern or that they cared to share, our four CBP agents spent the majority of their fifteen-odd minutes in our company yelling at us. Oh, and they rammed our boat. (And for the record, I only started taking photographs at the end. Oddly enough they look quite friendly in all my photos).

The seas, you might note, are quite calm

Enter US Customs and Border Protection:
    I was shaken awake soon after sunrise, just as I was starting to get into my first deep sleep since arriving on the boat. Groggily I joined the rest of the crew on deck where I was yelled at for taking so long, though it had been at most one minute. After some shouted instructions to maintain course and speed two of the CBP agents attempted to board us without notice or warning. Maybe they we were worried that we would call up a wind and whisk ourselves away?

Whatever the reason, their surprise boarding attempt was unsuccessful. When they put fenders out they had placed them far too high for our low freeboard. As the sharp V of their hull came abruptly alongside ours, riding up on a small wave, these fenders rolled uselessly up onto our deck. Then their hull came down, landing on two of our starboard stanchions, pushing them violently inboard and ripping screws out of our caprail. Predictably, I suppose, their response to this gross error was to yell at our helmsman.
Then they came back for a second try. The second attempt had just as much yelling and machismo but maybe a wee bit less bravado as they had us untie and lower our lifeline in preparation rather than jumping on unannounced. Two officers came aboard, rather clumsily, for a cursory search. Then they ran our passports and dodged questions about their names and badge numbers (we were given a phone number for their ‘supervisor’) before finally going to bother someone else.

One of our damaged stanchion bases

  As you maybe noticed, I found this encounter infuriating. It’s not so much the ignominy of being searched without provocation which bothers me- as much as our marine forces’ near-limitless powers of search and seizure bug me in principle, in practice I’ve spent my whole life getting used to them (Incidentally, Clark Beek recently wrote a great overview of this issue). What really got me about this incident, and these agents, was their boorishness and disrespect they showed us, even after damaging our boat. Even a staunch defender of the ‘necessity’ of such far-reaching powers ought to admit there is no reason these people couldn’t be courteous.
In an unflattering comparison (unflattering for the Americans, that is!) I was reminded of the Cuban soldiers who once held my family in a Naval compound during our 1995 circumnavigation of the island. Though it was clear that we did not have the option of refusal in the two weeks we were there not once did these soldiers fail to ask permission before coming aboard and they would always set down their rifles and remove their shoes before setting foot on our decks. Apparently, in a post-9/11 America we can’t afford the same simple niceties as this tiny, also over-militarized nation which our government so loves to demonize. But if you’re going to trample my Fourth Amendment rights, you could at least do it barefoot.

On our way again

    Fortunately back in the present we still had sunshine, clear blue seas, and a great crew. Soon enough we were all sitting together in the cockpit laughing about what these very stern military types must have made of us. Our little ship which sailed so beautifully was also in a shabby state of disrepair, lifelines hanging dejectedly from loose stanchions (now looser) and decks pockmarked with cracks. What repairs had been made were applied with a definite flair for punk-rock style rather than an attempt at seamless transitions. Then there was Kyle. On helm when CBP arrived, he happened to look like a pastel pastiche of the Florida sportsman, clad in a bright pink hat and a gaudy tank top prominently featuring images of parrots. As for me, the last to come bleary-eyed up the companionway, I was wearing the sarong I had been sleeping in, meaning I was basically wearing a skirt. Laughing cheerfully about this and with two weeks of sailing ahead of us I could almost forgive those poor bored saps for wanting a peek at this little boat full of weirdos. Almost, but not quite. Maybe if they had taken their shoes off…

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder

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