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Venice of America

Fort Lauderdale is ground zero for all things nautical, but you’ll find much more if you set a few waypoints off the beaten path

The inlet of Port Everglades leads you into Fort Lauderdale, one of the most opulent cities on the East Coast. Paradoxically, if you’re a boater with a need it can also be one of the most practical cities. They say that if you can’t find it for your boat here, it doesn’t exist.

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If you’re entering the city by boat for the first time you’ll encounter the overwhelming hustle of cruise liners, freighters, Intracoastal Waterway traffic, currents and channels. Port Everglades Inlet is sometimes restricted because of security concerns related to the movement of large commercial traffic. Give these vessels a wide berth. A strictly enforced security zone exists around their piers on the western side of the basin. Turning north, you’ll see the famous SE 17th Street Causeway bridge (approximate vertical clearance 55 feet when closed).

If you approach from the north via the ICW, be prepared for bridge after bridge, many of which require opening. Consult an updated guidebook for schedules. If strong currents are running with you toward the bridges, time your approach to avoid an early arrival necessitating that you hold position with a gaggle of other boats trying to do the same in the narrow channels.

The distinctive Andrews Avenue bridge on the New River

As the density of the waterfront civilization overwhelms you, it helps to remember whence this all came. The Seminoles flourished here long ago. They could handle the alligators, snakes, tropical heat and tropical storms. To the more civilized United States this was a wasteland of swamp and jungle. There were adventuresome exceptions, such as the Cooley family, who tried to tame a little of the land in the 1830s. They built a home near the New River. But on Jan. 6, 1836, William Cooley and a few other men left to “salvage” some of the wreck of the Spanish brigantine Gil Blas near Hillsboro Inlet. While they were gone, the Cooley women and children were massacred by a small band of Seminoles. They tried to escape to the river, where they had a skiff, but were killed as they fled. Their tutor was scalped. The house was pillaged and burned. Cooley’s Landing Marina, operated by the city, now lies close to that scene. A parade of pleasure and commercial river traffic passes its docks.

About 1893, Frank Stranahan pitched a tent on the riverbank, started a trading post and began a ferry. To cross the river, you rang a bell on a post, and Stranahan would row you over on a skiff. Today, launches from restaurants scoot up and down the river, and you can take a water taxi with special rates for one-stop trips or touring.

In the 1920s a “permanent” inlet was dredged to make a reliable port for big ships. The opening was a grand affair, and President Calvin Coolidge was invited to the ceremony to push the button to detonate the final blast that would open the inlet to the sea. On cue, he pushed the button. On cue, nothing happened. Eventually, of course, they made it happen. Making it happen was becoming a trademark of the area. Port Everglades was born.

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Things haven’t stopped happening since, and people haven’t stopped coming since. We sometimes come through the inlet and see seven or more of the largest cruise ships in the world docked, including the Queen Mary II and the Queen Elizabeth II. The cruise ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas debuted at their home port here.

As you would expect, the area has a Sea Tow operator and TowBoatUS operator. The latter is a part of the huge operation of Offshore Marine Towing, which can handle tows and salvage ranging from small to huge vessels over great distances and offers many other services.

The Bahamas and Cuba helped form the culture here and add their unique flavors to the brew. Bimini, about 50 miles across the Gulf Stream, attracted famous sport anglers such as Ernest Hemingway, wealthy yachtsmen with grand yachts, and everyday boaters. Fort Lauderdale is a gateway to these destinations and the Caribbean. But condos now tower over beaches and the river. Private palaces populate the islands. The canals, byproducts of early island building, are now navigable passages and docking areas, qualifying the city as the “Venice of America.” The boats, yachts and marine services that fill them have given the city the reputation of being the “Yachting Capital of the World.”

The New River is, to me, the heart of the Fort Lauderdale experience, and a boat trip on it (preferably in your tender the first time) is fascinating. Megayachts, usually under the control of two tugs, sweep around the bends. Tour boats, such as the famous Jungle Queen, full of camera-toting tourists also round the bends, sometimes seemingly side-first as the wind and tide carry them. They have limited maneuverability in many tight areas, and you must stay clear. In this river, the great tarpon still swims. Parrots screech overhead. Iguanas sun on the banks. Sometimes you see monkeys cavort upstream.

'Little Florida,' a private property on the New River.

Although quiet residential areas remain, high-rises, mega-mansions and megayachts overwhelm your perspective along much of the shore. At the mouth of the New River and in the 2 miles of ICW between East Las Olas Bridge (ICW Mile 1064) and SE 17th Street Causeway bridge (Mile 1065.9) you’ll find the Miracle Mile, with huge mansions and luxurious marinas.

New River Loop

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To get a taste of the way this area was in days past, take a trip in your tender along the New River Loop. It brings you up the New River, winding around to the south and then back to the east, exiting into the ICW via the Dania Cutoff Canal, just south of Port Everglades. Branches of the New River extend into the Everglades, and the entire locale used to be a subtropical, swampy forest. You feel as if you’re exploring an earlier world as you pass between deep mangrove and old cypress. For some of the trip you’ll hardly know that so much civilization is around you.

This trip can take much of a day because of the strictly enforced no-wake zones, but you can stop for lunch at a restaurant such as The Downtowner or The Pirate’s Republic on the lower New River. Be careful of shallows and obstructions. On another day, take a dinghy trip to the park at Whiskey Creek, the entrance of which lies between the inlet and the Dania Cutoff Canal to the east of the ICW. You’ll travel through mangroves to enter the creek’s cove, where you can stop at an inside beach, just a short walk under the palm trees across the small ridge of sand to the ocean beach.

Doing boat business

The SE 17th Street Causeway bridge

Although the city has its share of the my-yacht-is-more-mega-than-your-yacht set, it also has more than its share of “average” boaters such as you and me. Because there are so many marine businesses in the area, and thus so much competition, the big guys and the average boater can find good prices and an excellent supply of parts and services. The key is to shop around. You may be surprised at how prices can vary and how a high-dollar price doesn’t always mean better. The following is a representative sampling of a few businesses to help you begin shopping.

You’ll probably find many of your solutions within the radius of a few miles of Lester’s. This popular diner, a few blocks west of Route 1 (Federal Highway) on the south side of SR 84, lies between SW 2nd Avenue and SW 3rd Avenue. A huge collection of marine businesses lies between and along these streets. Here are a few.

• Raritan, a fully stocked service center for its array of heads, water heaters, water systems, icemakers, etc., (954) 525-0378

• Spurs Line Cutter, (954) 463-2707

• DeAngelo Marine Exhaust, (954) 763-3005

• Beaver-Brand Canvas, (954)-763-7423

• Marine Lift Technology (tender lifts and fabrications), (954) 527-0180

• Seafarer Marine of Fort Lauderdale (wood and related products and fabrications), (954) 763-4263

• Lewis Marine, (954) 523-4371

• D.S. Hull (wholesale parts and equipment), (954) 463-4307

McDonald’s Hardware — (954) 463-2000, across SR 84 from Lester’s — has tools and hardware you’d never dream of finding for almost any job. A few blocks west, Boat Owner’s Warehouse — (954) 522-7998, locally owned and operated — has no-nonsense marine hardware and parts at competitive prices. West Marine — (954) 527-5540 — has a huge flagship store at SR 84 and Andrews Avenue (southwest corner). Just east of Lester’s on SR 84, Sailorman — (954) 522-6716 — sells and buys used and new items.

Ward’s Marine Electric — at 617 SW 3rd Ave., (800) 545-9273 — is a third-generation family-owned business. It’s a one-stop shopping experience in electronics and related needs, with sales, service, engineering, engraving and surveys. It serves megayachts as well as smaller boats and, unlike some electronics retailers, installs, makes it work and keeps it working.

There are many more businesses, near Lester’s and throughout town, most within a few miles of this center. Farther out SR 84 you’ll pass through “Marina Mile,” where you cross over the South Fork of the New River. In this vicinity you’ll find more marinas and yards and marine businesses, such as Don Hillman Generators — offering Onan and Kohler sales and service, (954) 467-6755 — and ACR Electronics, known for its safety and survival equipment — (954) 981-3333.

Bill Conry, in the reverse osmosis business for more than 20 years, consults and offers a range of products and services at Sea-R.O. — (954) 527-5282 — from systems for boats to islands. Lee Kelm, of Lee’s Marine A/C & Refrigeration — (954) 649-0003 — has years of experience in his field. Coast Line Marine — (954) 782-7279 — is a factory-authorized warranty service center for Yamaha, Johnson, Evinrude and Suzuki. It offers such services as routine maintenance and repairs, repowering, rigging, electronics, fiberglass/gelcoat repair, bottom painting and detailing. It offers 24-hour dockside service and pickup and delivery — of particular interest to transients with tender problems. Wet Spot water softener — (954) 914-5642 — removes impurities from dock water so that your washdowns dry spotlessly. There are several large yards that do it all, even building new yachts and lengthening old ones.

Many contractors will come to your boat. Some work “out of the truck.” Some boat owners worry about a lower degree of reliability, but we’ve often found excellent help in this sector at reasonable prices. Good one-man operations don’t have to support all the infrastructure of a huge business. The trick is to find them.

Of course, there’s Google and a phone book, if you can still find one, but there are other ways. Look for business cards posted in marinas and marine stores. Ask marina dockhands and other owners and captains. Look around and see who’s doing work on other boats in your marina. When you go into a marine shop, ask the staff for suggestions.

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The networking in the town is impressive. There are other ways into the network. For example, many local businesses have special departments for this. Boat Owners’ Warehouse — (800) 262-8799 — has a special order department with a staff to handle regular call-in orders. BOW Worldwide Yacht Supply — (954) 463-8077 — caters to yachts over 80 feet. Both are related to the 50,000-square-foot D.S. Hull warehouse and have local staff who “know what’s where” in the city. Bluewater Books and Charts — nautical books, guides, paper and electronic charts, (800) 942-2583 — offers helpful advice and ships promptly around the world. Ask owners and captains about their contacts in the area.

The area also is a huge shopping mall for boats, from megayachts to kayaks. In Florida, brokers must be licensed and bonded. There is also an $18,000 cap on sales tax for yachts. The website of the Florida Yacht Brokers Association ( will give you a list of its member brokers. It’s fun to shop by tender, cruising up and down the canals, looking for the hundreds of “for sale” signs, studying the boats from the water and then calling the contact numbers.

See related article:

- Finding a place to tie up

November 2012 issue