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Miami club’s passion for powerboats

Celebrating its 70th anniversary, group provides ‘average boaters’ with prime beachfront cruising grounds

In an era of luxury yacht clubs and marinas, the Miami Outboard Club is a throwback to a time when small-boat clubs were a hub of family boating.

Celebrating its 70th year, the club started in 1938 as an outboard racing club and evolved into a family atmosphere where just about everybody likes to go fishing.

“This is a common man’s boating club,” says Commodore Luis Duarte, 71, a retired broadcasting engineer. “It’s not for millionaires. Most people come down here to relax after a hard day’s work and get together with friends and family.”

They go fishing in the evening, or bring the family down to eat at the restaurant. Duarte says the food and drink is as inexpensive as you can find in Miami.

After dinner, the kids can go out to the playground while the parents sit out at the tiki bar and take in the priceless view of Biscayne Bay and the Venetian Isles.

Some of the men play dominos, a favorite pastime of the first-, second-, and even third-generation Cuban immigrants who comprise much of the club membership.

Located on Watson Island on the north side of the MacArthur Causeway, the Miami Outboard Club sits on city-owned property — an 87-acre spoil island created in the 1920s from dredging Government Cut, Miami’s inlet to the ocean.

“When the club started, this was just a mud flat,” says Robert Castillo, 55, the club’s secretary and a retired court reporter. The club’s official history describes how a group of 30 outboard enthusiasts who liked to race got together in 1938 to form a club since “at the time these noisy and sometimes cantankerous pieces of equipment were looked at with disdain by the local yachting groups.”

They started meeting in garages, filling stations, the back of stores and “any place the fellows could get together.” After World War II, they leased 3-1/2 acres of beach on the causeway from the city for $1 a year where they could trailer and launch their boats, and race out on the bay. In the ’50s, they acquired — for free — an abandoned, 20-foot by 40-foot wooden elementary school for their clubhouse.

One old-timer and former commodore, Dick Taylor, in an account for a 70th-anniversary yearbook, remembers joining in the 1940s with a speedy 13-foot plywood boat — one made popular by two locals, Bill Barker and Ed Todd, who designed and built them. Today, many of the boats still are smaller than 30 feet, center consoles that members trailer to the club and launch from its ramp or a public one next door. Others are parked on trailers on the uplands. Larger sportfishermen — some with towers — are tied up at one of about 40 slips at the club’s docks.

The club used to permit members with outboard boats only, Duarte says. Adapting to the times, it now welcomes inboards and sterndrives.

One morning in December, many of the boats in their slips still were decorated for the club’s 11th annual Christmas Boat Parade, which drew 50 boats the evening of Dec. 20. “It’s a family parade,” Duarte says. “It’s not commercialized.”

Members come down to the club and decorate their boats themselves.

“They mingle and get to know each other more,” Duarte says. “They share food and drink while they decorate, and the whole family gets involved.”

The 2- to 2-1/2-hour bayside parade runs from the club through the Venetian Isles, along the back side of Miami Beach past the Miami Beach Coast Guard station, down Government Cut to Bayside Marketplace and the Miami River, and back to Watson Island, giving a light show to bayside residents.

Lying on city land, the club is expected to be involved in civic activity, and it has a long history of community service. Before it even had a permanent site, club members did their bit for the war effort. “During the war, our members volunteered to patrol the coast with their outboards,” says Ray Olton, 82, a retired Miami Beach lifeguard and club member since the 1970s.

The outboards buzzed around the Straits of Florida like a cloud of mosquitoes looking for German U-boats. Later, club members were enlisted as an unarmed marine patrol authorized by the Dade County sheriff to stop and warn reckless or speeding boaters. Today, club members take inner-city children out fishing, run tournaments to raise money for a children’s afterschool program, throw a Christmas party and dinner for seniors in public housing, and host other community events.

“We’re a fishing club, a family club, a club that works with community and charitable organizations,” says Castillo. “We wear a lot of different hats.”

The mud flat on which the Miami Outboard Club sits is now prime real estate, and this has raised both financial issues and political problems for the club. Located midbay, between downtown Miami and Miami Beach, and across Government Cut from Miami’s cruise ship terminal, Watson Island has been re-envisioned as a tourist Mecca. The island’s southwest corner is slated for development as a $400 million luxury hotel, megayacht marina and retail complex. Called Island Gardens, the waterfront project will displace charter fishing docks and the historic Chalk’s Ocean Airways’ seaplane terminal. Construction is not expected to begin until 2010. That and a new Jungle Island botanical garden and parrot park, the Ichimura Miami-Japanese Garden, Miami Children’s Museum and Miami Yacht Club — a small sailing club — round out the tenants on Watson Island.

“This is a prime location,” says Duarte. It is so desirable that in 1993 a city planner suggested that the law required the city to put the outboard club property out to competitive bid to maximize its return and give other nonprofits an equal chance to use the property. Miami voters nipped that idea in the bud, passing a referendum allowing the outboard club — and the Coconut Grove Sailing Club and Miami Yacht Club — to remain on public land without competitive bidding.

The club renewed its 30-year lease in 1996, but with a rent escalation clause that has driven the annual rent to $80,000. That price is a bargain for the location, but still a tough nut for the club, which under its lease must cap its boat-owning membership at 426 and total membership, including social members, at 600.

Membership fees are modest: $1,000 to join and $68.50 a month for dues.

Storage fees are competitive: $4.50/foot per month dry storage, $9/foot for a slip.

The club relies heavily on volunteers to maintain the clubhouse and docks, and to make improvements. They put a lot of sweat equity into the clubhouse — its lounge, two dining rooms, kitchen and tiki. “The club built all its facilities,” Duarte says. “The city has not spent one penny to build or maintain this property.”

He says the club has to run a tight ship to stay afloat, but it facilities are in good shape, the club is paying its bills and it has a long waiting list to join.

At 70 years old, the Miami Outboard Club is thriving.

“We hope to be here for a long time to come,” says Castillo. “This club gives the average person in Miami the chance to do some boating.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.