Anchors Away

City Hall revives a scheme to do away with Dinner Key Anchorage, Miami's last floating village

Captain Midnight, an irascible hermit, lives from time to time on a crumbling trawler with six yelping mutts. The captain is universally hated by his neighbors. He likes to pop up on deck wearing yellowed Fruit of the Looms and curse at novice sailors. If the sailors tack too close, he pelts them with dog turds.

Warren Thornburg, a handsome cabinetmaker, has read all 21 Travis McGee detective novels and can quote the best passages from memory. He gets his electricity from a little windmill on the sun deck of his tidy houseboat, and dutifully hauls his kitchen garbage to shore instead of throwing it in Biscayne Bay. Except for occasional besiegement by would-be girlfriends, Thornburg lives a placid life, enjoying the sunset with a cup of tea and keeping a weather eye out for bottlenose dolphins.

Captain Midnight and Warren Thornburg have almost nothing in common except the Dinner Key Anchorage, a floating village of 200 vessels hidden behind a string of manmade islands near Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove. As permanent residents of the Anchorage, an 80-acre patch of protected bay at the top of the Florida Keys, neither man has paid any rent, property taxes, or utility bills in years. On the other hand, they have had to row or motor to shore in dinghies, fight terrifying tropical storms, and deal with the daily hunt for drinking water, showers, and parking on land. Anchorites aren't allowed to use the restrooms and washing machines at nearby Dinner Key Marina; those are reserved for marina customers who dock their boats in slips that cost upward of $450 per month.

Since 1973 Miami city commissioners have sporadically striven either to tax or evict the Anchorites, an iconoclastic collection of computer programmers, writers, crackhead hookers, construction contractors, nurses, electronics engineers, drunks, artists, and shrimpers who make up one of Florida's last and largest free-floating live-aboard communities.

This winter, with an eye toward revenue, Miami commissioners will take up the fate of the Anchorage again. At the moment, city attorneys are preparing to mull over a proposed ordinance that would define new and narrow boundaries for the sprawling Anchorage and would result in the displacement of approximately half the existing boats. Once created, the smaller, demarcated anchorage would charge a monthly fee for mooring, require that vessels register with the city dockmaster, maintain liability insurance, and be "capable of self-propulsion." The last requirement refers to the fact that dozens of boats at the Anchorage are bereft of engines and haven't sailed or motored anywhere for years.

In exchange for some measure of government control, residents of the new Anchorage would get parking decals, a dinghy dock, and access to showers, washing machines, and drinking water, according to a draft of the new law. But while the ordinance might seem innocuous to landlubbers, many Anchorites fear it spells the end of a cherished lifestyle.

Sailors and houseboaters once lingered where they pleased along both coasts of Florida. By accepting the rigors of a live-aboard lifestyle, they enjoyed certain ineffable pleasures associated with wilderness, ones all but lost to the nine-to-five world: Orion's winter arrival, the movement of water under keel, solitary sunrises, the element of air in all its moods.

What seemed like a birthright is history now. In the past decade, free anchoring spots have disappeared one by one in the face of hostile onshore homeowners' groups, money-hungry city governments, and evolving attitudes toward water safety and the natural environment. In 1987 Vero Beach built a city mooring field and started charging $120 per month per boat. Fort Lauderdale now limits free anchorage to 24 hours, then requires boaters to move on or pay up. Key West, following a series of pitched legal battles, has killed all but the remnants of the colorful Cow Key Channel live-aboard community that first sprang up in the mid-Fifties and once was home to more than 500 people.

Some of Miami's Anchorites are refugees from other hassle-free anchorages, now vanished. All are acutely aware of their status as a dying breed. "They're going to be extremely upset, and it will be up to the city police to enforce it," says Miami city administrator Christina Abrams, the architect of the Anchorage ordinance, summing up her plan and the reaction she anticipates from live-aboard boaters.

Upset is right, says Dave Bricker, president of the Dinner Key Anchorage Association, a citizens' group made up of some, though not all, of the resident boaters: "This is right out of the Warsaw ghetto. Basically, the city is saying, 'If you pay the fee and wear your yellow arm band, everything will be all right.'"

A business owner who put himself through college on money he saved by living at the Anchorage, Bricker believes it will cost the city a fortune to administer and regulate the new anchorage. Once it's in place, he predicts, many boaters will move out of pricey Dinner Key Marina and store their boats nearby in the proposed mooring field for a cheaper rate. Anchorites who refuse to pay the mooring fee will be driven out into the least-protected reaches of the bay, further stratifying a watery world already defined by social castes.

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