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Destination Ft. Lauderdale

You don’t need a megayacht to be part of the culture beneath the condos

You don’t need a megayacht to be part of the culture beneath the condos


Do they really think they can tame it? I wonder this as I sail in

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from the Bahamas and see the four striped stacks of Port Everglades emerging on the horizon. The skyline means excitement after we’ve spent months hanging out behind sandbars and coral reef. Port Everglades is the inlet for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., one of the most opulent cities on the coast. But paradoxically, if you’re a boater with a need, it also can be one of the most practical cities. These things lure us into the inlet. But there’s something more.

This small city has a mystique that mixes plush, modern living with the rough-and-tumble basic survival of people who deal daily with the sea. New condos tower over the coast, competing with those four stacks that have guided us in from the sea for so many years. Restaurants attract diners from Europe, limos roll sedately across the bridges, gigayachts anchor offshore, and skyscraping waterfront communities are eating up marinas. As I sail in I wonder if there will continue to be a place for the average boat bum like me — here or anywhere else.

The people looking down from the condos may think they’ve got the city well-tamed, but I don’t think so. They may not realize it, but they’re looking down on a waterfront that throbs with huge deals for huge boats, intrigue about who’s going to get repair contracts or salvage jobs, and tough, savvy people who know and love the water and who make a living on it. There’s a culture beneath the condos that’s been here for a long time, and it’s often been far from tame.

The Seminoles flourished here long ago. The Seminoles could handle the alligators, snakes, tropical heat and tropical storms. To the civilized United States this was a wasteland of swamp and jungle. There were some adventuring exceptions, like the Cooley family, who tried to tame a little of the land in the 1830s and built a home near the river. 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 Hillsborough Inlet. While they were gone, the Cooley women and children were massacred by a small band of Seminoles. They had tried to escape to the river, where they had a skiff, but were killed as they fled. Their tutor was scalped, their house pillaged and burned. Today, Cooley’s Landing Marina, operated by the city, lies close to where that incident took place, a parade of pleasure and commercial river traffic passing its docks.

For years not even the river cooperated with settlement. So uncertain was its course that a Seminole legend said it appeared mysteriously overnight from the ground. A few miles inland it ran strong and swift. You’d come upon it and think it would have been a sure route to the ocean. But the mouth wandered among the shifting sandbars of the beach so much that new people trying to live on its banks called it the “New River.” The government established a House of Refuge on the beach, and in 1888 Capt. Dennis O’Neill took charge of it, standing solitary watch and helping survivors from the frequent shipwrecks.

Settlement, of sorts, began in earnest around 1893 when Frank Stranahan pitched a tent on the river bank. He started a trading post and began a ferry service. To cross the river you rang a bell on a post and Stranahan would row you over on a skiff. If you had a big load, like a horse or a wild pig, he’d pull you across on a barge with a cable. Today launches from restaurants scoot up and down the river, and you can take a water bus for $10 a day ( ).

As Stranahan and friends began taming the river banks, the closest centers of civilization were Miami to the south and Palm Beach to the north. Some people traveled from one to another by paying a small fee to hike with the so-called “barefoot mailman,” who walked along the beach, fording the numerous inlets by wading or by skiff. When travelers stopped at Stranahan’s post, Stranahan offered accommodations of wooden platforms above the quaking grounds, with canvas tarps overhead to keep out some of the rain. Today Interstate 95 or the new airport will bring you to plush hotels. But in 2005 Hurricane Wilma sent rain cascading through the roofs and windows of some of those hotels and condos, and tarps covered the damaged roofs of some buildings for more than a year to keep more rain from coming in.

The magic begins to grow

In 1896 Henry Flagler brought his railroad down to tame the swampy wilderness, and with it came the rest of the world. A rock road was hacked out and laid down in 1903, running to Miami. Stranahan went back and forth on a bicycle to do his job of paying the workers. Today, U.S. Route 1 follows some of its route.

And then in 1909 Napoleon Bonaparte Broward started draining parts of the Everglades. With a past that included running guns on the ocean tug Three Friends to help Cuban rebels, he would later become governor. He selected the New River as the best natural channel to connect two large drainage canals from Lake Okeechobee inland to the Atlantic at Fort Lauderdale. Land that formerly was uninhabitable began to become habitable, if only barely — and for many, barely was enough. Investors poured in from the North by the trainload. They disgorged into the town, sleeping in tent camps as they went about the business of buying land in a “tropical paradise.” They were taken out to the plots of land, sometimes in wagons and sometimes in big Packards. Some of the plots may have been sold the week before and maybe the week before that, and might be sold again the next week. Money flowed into the community. Islands of firm earth (well, firmer than the rest) were built by dredging canals and piling up the mud and muck. Grand estates were planned. However, the second and third tiers of buyers, needed to make it all work, were slow in coming.

What did come was the great hurricane of 1926, which devastated much of the area. That, along with that great “bust” of the 1930s, seemed to doom Fort Lauderdale into remaining nothing more than a swampy morass of broken dreams ghosting around among the moss-covered cypress. It seemed that almost everybody went bankrupt, including the bank that had been started by Frank Stranahan. Despondent and broke from trying diligently to pay off his depositors, it’s reported that he took his life on the river.

But the magic hung on and began to grow, despite the hard times. Few could begin to imagine what we see here today. Most of the canals around the empty islands had bridges blocking each end. No one thought of using them for boats. The canals were simply where the developers got the dirt to build the islands. The neighborhoods of islands with names like Idylwyld, Venice, Rio Vista and Citrus Isles slowly began to take aboard homes and people. But you couldn’t even get to the ocean beach except by boat. It was separated from the land by a lake behind the dunes.

The river still played with the edge of the ocean. Today, if you walk along the beach near the Bahia Mar Yachting Center and Resort, you can see the remains of the old rock jetty that marks where the inlet used to be. Well-oiled beach tourists frolic around it, oblivious to the fact that the river passed through where they now play, that boats navigated that shallow inlet during prohibition, running rum from the Bahamas and Cuba. They know nothing of the rum-running captain hanged nearby at the old Coast Guard station in 1929 for killing members of a boarding party.

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.

‘Where is Fort Lauderdale?’

Making it happen was becoming a trademark of the area. Port Everglades was born, and things haven’t stopped happening since. Today, 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 Queen Elizabeth II. And people haven’t stopped coming. The more recent ones, who have made this city what it is, have been tough adventurers in their own ways and have made a huge difference for many boaters.

In 1946 Bob Cox sailed in on his 83-foot motorsailer, Ungava, after living aboard in New York during “two winters in the ice.” A chief engineer for a New York firm, he’d worked on various projects, including the Flushing Bay Boat Basin for the World’s Fair of 1939. Like so many of the rest of us he wanted to go south, though not just for warmth but “for a place where you could do business with a handshake and without two dozen lawyers standing around.”

When Cox, who is 88 and served as Fort Lauderdale’s mayor in the late 1980s, arrived at Port Everglades he could find no place deep enough to dock except for the ship harbor, and private pleasure boats weren’t allowed there. He found an old Navy facility at the end of a long dredge island, sticking out into the lake just to the north of the inlet. It had been used to develop and test top-secret torpedoes during World War II. Private pleasure boats weren’t allowed there, but Cox persisted. So much did he persist that he eventually owned the place and two years later began a fueling dock.

“There really wasn’t much here then,” recalls Cox. “Boats would come into the inlet and ask, ‘Where is Fort Lauderdale?’ They’d be surprised when I told them that this was pretty much it. But they stopped anyway, because there wasn’t any other place to get fuel.”

There was no place else for boats to go either, except for a few private mansions and a little cove up the lake called Las Olas Boat Basin. By then a small bridge crossed the lake there, connecting tourists to the beach. For years a huge floating barge “hotel” called the Amphitrite had been tied to shore at the basin. Today, the Las Olas City Marina occupies much of the basin, and from its docks you can walk to the Atlantic and seemingly unlimited restaurants and shops. Cox saw the set of the wind and began selling bait and gear, and renting marina slips. Lauderdale Marina was born, and it’s where we fuel up today as we begin and end our Bahamas voyages.

Money and boats

The Bahamas and Cuba have helped form the culture here. Bimini, only around 50 miles across the Gulf Stream, attracted famous fishermen like Ernest Hemingway, wealthy yachtsmen with grand yachts, and everyday boaters. The city’s been a gateway of pleasurable trips to these destinations, but it’s also been a gateway of “business” trips.

Before Castro, casino, fishing and other commerce coursed to and from Cuba. After Castro’s coup, smugglers of people, goods and guns made the Cuban trip. Cox recalls that he’d often find large, fast boats abandoned at his marina docks in the morning, their one big trip ended. Proceeds were so high that they made the boat expendable. Today, they still come. Many “boats” sink, and many are apprehended by the Coast Guard, like the old car — modified, waterproofed and full of Cuban citizens — trying to escape to the United States.

And in the not too distant past, there were the days of “the trade.” It’s rumored that you could drive across the Southeast 17th Street Causeway Bridge and see people standing there signaling boats below coming in from the inlet. The 300 miles of navigable water in Broward County helped make drug smugglers rich, for a while.

Money and boats: You’d think the combination would exclude everyday people like you and me. But it’s worked to our benefit. While many of the yachtsmen were, and are, very wealthy, much of the rest of the boating set were hard bound to becoming wealthy, and were ready to work for it. Some began selling yachts. In the early days this field of endeavor had the wild and woolly frontier settings of much of the rest of South Florida. The story is told of one broker who sold a yacht in Miami. The fee was so good he did it again. And again. Each time, the new owner changed the name. When the bank would send its agent down to the marina to inspect its collateral, a compatriot at the marina would rush down the dock and put the preceding name back on.

Unlike most states, Florida today requires that all of its brokers be licensed and bonded, and its brokerage industry is huge and renowned worldwide. The Web site of the Florida Yacht Brokers Association ( ) will give you a list of member brokers. You can even shop with your dinghy, cruising up and down the canals, looking for the hundreds of “For Sale” signs, studying the boats from the water, then calling the contact numbers.

Where there are boats, there are broken boats. Broward County has more than 42,000 registered boats — from tiny skiffs and funky collages of junk and jury rigs to multimillion-dollar masterpieces — and that number doubles in the winter. Each year around 900 yachts 80 feet or larger visit, and around 800 of these use area yards.

Back in 1893 Stranahan didn’t have to do much to fix his ferry, but as boats of all types and sizes flooded the canals, the river and its branches, the marine trade grew by leaps and bounds: yacht designers, builders, interior decorators, mechanics, wood and fiberglass workers — every trade imaginable. Today some 109,000 people are employed full time by the county’s marine industry.

Like their clients, these people are an independent lot. Nevertheless, in the early 1950s Cox and a few others started the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, though he says they had a tough beginning. “We wanted to get the city to start spending advertising dollars to attract boaters,” he says. “But the city wasn’t very interested because we didn’t know how big we were as an industry because nobody wanted to tell anybody else how much he was making.”

When they finally got beyond that hurdle, they discovered, to everyone’s amazement, that the marine industry was bringing more bucks into the area than tourism. Now the MIASF, under the leadership of executive director Frank Herhold, is considered one of the strongest organizations of its type in the country. Not only does it lobby for the marine industry and its customers, it owns the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, touted as the largest in-water show in the world.

Today, condos tower over beaches and over the New River, and private palaces populate the islands. The canals, those byproducts of early island-building, now are navigable passages and docking areas, qualifying Fort Lauderdale as the Venice of America. And the boats, yachts and marine services on and along them have given the city its reputation as the Yachting Capital of the World.

In the shadow of the condos

Sometimes the past seems lost in this glitz, but you just need to know where to look. For example, prehistoric coral beds support the foundation pilings of many of the plush towers. And the excavation for the Point of Americas condo near Port Everglades Inlet turned up the bones of an old wooden sailing ship, likely the schooner Richmond, with anchor chain still stretched toward the sea. She lay around 1,000 feet inland from the ocean.

At least 30 shipwrecks are reported to lie off local shores. Somewhere out there are five avenger torpedo bombers that took off from Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station for a two-hour trip to the Bahamas in December 1956. They mysteriously disappeared, spawning even more rumors about the Devil’s Triangle offshore. Heading up the New River, past the S.W. Seventh Avenue Bridge, we see today an old boat named Devil’s Triangle. Its owner wrote a fascinating book of that name.

Salvage captains, yacht crews and marine artisans weave a network around the city’s civilization and link it to the past, when seafaring pioneers like Cox sailed in and started businesses. The lives of the water people, as portrayed by novelist Christine Kling in her fictional books of the area, still goes on. Have a drink, or better a meal, at the Downtowner Saloon on the New River. You’ll see many of these people around the bar, looking out on the water where they worked all day. You may see Kling there doing the same. She lives on a boat nearby. The tough aluminum tug Hero steams past, with a huge but helpless megayacht wallowing in tow. The gaudy but well-known Jungle Queen riverboat, full of flash bulb-popping tourists, slides around the bend, scattering smaller pleasure boats on its way to its “tropical jungle landing” upriver. It passes mansion after mansion, but it also passes the unpretentious single-story home of Jim Naugle, mayor of Fort Lauderdale. A small, vintage Hatteras sits alongside a dock in front, ready to take Naugle and his family on their many trips over to Bimini.

I recall as I come into the inlet that river captains say the new condo towers on the river have created new wind patterns, as breezes funnel between the towers and blow across the narrow river with greater velocity than before. I’ll be wary of this new phenomenon, but I’ll also be aware of my old friends that are still there. The great tarpon still swims the waters of the river, parrots screech overhead, iguanas sun on the banks, monkeys cavort along the Dania Cutoff Canal. And the huge ancient Banyan tree that our daughters played on when we first sailed into this town more than 20 years ago still spreads over the banks of the New River. We see it to port as we pass over the Route 1 tunnel, just after we pass the Stranahan house on our starboard. It’s in what is now known as Smoker Park, defying the steel and concrete.

And Bob Cox? He’s like most of the area’s marine artisans. Even though they work in the shadows of the condos, they’re still there when you need good stuff for your boat. Cox is still doing his thing at Lauderdale Marina. Around 15 years ago he took off in a 21-foot Boston Whaler powered by a single outboard and “cruised” up the Intracoastal Waterway, from Miami to the St. Lawrence, stopping overnight at motels and eating at restaurants along the way. The trip took him 13 days. He says he wanted to show that you can have fun on a boat without a huge yacht. “The ICW is like a wet Route 1,” he says.

When I talked to him recently, he was excited about the prospect of taking an open boat from Fort Lauderdale and going all the way around the rim of the Caribbean, stopping each night along the way. “When Cuba opens, we can do this,” he says, “and it’ll be fun.”

Much is said lately about our beleaguered boating lifestyle. I believe that as long as there are people like Cox around, Fort Lauderdale won’t be tamed and neither will our boating heritage. There will still be a culture beneath the condos for boaters like you and me.