It's All Downhill from Here

Amazing things can happen when you bring together a vessel, a vehicle, and one very slippery boat ramp

It was about 2:00 p.m on a recent Sunday -- low tide -- when a couple on a water scooter cut the motor and floated to the south side of a City of Miami boat ramp. They studied their prospects for pulling the craft out of Biscayne Bay. The ramp, just south of Monty's restaurant in Coconut Grove, descended steeply and slickly into the water.

Too treacherous, they decided. So Norgee Morales of Miami moved the scooter to what she thought was a safer spot after her boyfriend disembarked to retrieve his pickup. As the truck backed down the concrete ramp, Morales directed it away from a section where the cement drops off sharply rather than sloping into the bay.

Had the truck backed down the steeply angled drop-off, it would have been doomed, Morales knew, for it would have been nearly impossible for vehicle, trailer, and scooter to climb back over it. "I've seen a van slide in," Morales said. "It's slippery, no matter how you do it." When she finally loaded the scooter onto the trailer and headed up the slope in the truck, its rear tires spun -- spewing green muck. For two full minutes the pickup could go neither forward nor backward. It was a close call. But finally, with engine droning, it crawled to the top.

Bruce Klein, who works on the dock just north of the boat ramp, recalls seeing at least seven cars slip into the bay over the past two years. "They were completely submerged," Klein says. Dock master Jim Hesketh has seen at least four go in. And from an anchorage just south of Monty's, dive boat captain Carl Starling remembers seeing at least half a dozen vehicles go down.

Once submerged, they are practically ruined. "Should the car be launched fully -- and this has happened several times -- you'll have major, major damages," warns Henry Choat, an executive with the American Automobile Association near Orlando. "You'll have a loss of function." Once a car sucks in salt water, it must be disassembled. Each part must be rinsed with fresh water. Disassembly, rinsing, and reassembly could run up at least a $1000 bill -- and that may not even include drying and cleaning the upholstery. But it must be done; otherwise the salt will crystallize and corrode the parts, Choat says. That's not the kind of ordeal most recreational boaters plan for when they head to the bay. "It scares me," Norgee Morales confesses. "It makes me so paranoid."

Boat ramps can be tricky anywhere. It's a simple matter of physics: Try to pull a 1000-pound boat and trailer up a slippery slope with a subcompact car, and gravity rules. But the ramp in question, a former Coast Guard seaplane launch, is particularly precarious. For one thing, the incline is steeper than those ramps designed specifically for boats. Like other ramps, it gets covered with oil, mud, and algae. And when boaters try to pull out their craft at low tide, a six-foot swath at the bottom of the ramp becomes wet and slick. Additionally, where the ramp drops steeply, the tide has eroded a hole in the sand, which can trap a vehicle's tires, explains Harry Horgan, executive director of Shake-A-Leg, Inc., a sailing program for the disabled that operates from a dock adjacent to the risky ramp. "The novice boater who comes in and backs his car in -- once his wheels get on that algae, that's it, there's no stopping that car," Horgan says.

The Coast Guard moved into that section of the bay in 1932 and built a hangar and ramp for seaplanes. The guard abandoned it in 1965, and in 1972 the federal government deeded the hangar and ramp to the city for recreational use, according to preservation officer Sarah Eaton. (The hangar, badly damaged by Hurricane Andrew, for years was known as the Virrick Gym.)

The city has recently made improvements to a boat ramp about a half-mile south of the Coast Guard hangar. That ramp was designed for boats and does not create the kind of safety problems that occur at the old seaplane launch. But it is not uncommon for the parking lot there to fill up, forcing recreational boaters to head north and launch from the intimidating incline.

Now the city wants to make structural improvements to the old hangar and build a community water-sports center. Miami officials have $800,000 in Hurricane Andrew insurance funds and a $400,000 grant from the state's division of historical resources to rehabilitate the building, says Jack Luft, director of community planning and revitalization. It will ask for $500,000 more from the state this year, Eaton adds. Shake-A-Leg will try to raise enough money to remodel the inside of the hangar and build classrooms for sailing, canoeing, and kayaking. That could cost another million dollars, Luft estimates.

The city hopes to obtain even more funding to improve the site. In November voters will be asked to approve a $200 million bond issue for park improvements. Dade County and every city within it will get a share of that money if the bond issue passes. Miami plans to spend $1.8 million of its $21.6 million share for the water-sports center, and $2 million is available for the project from a $15 million fund for regional parks in urban areas, says Brenda Marshall, Miami project manager for the Trust for Public Lands, which has campaigned to pass the bond issue.

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