Chairmen of the Outboard

A 50-year-old Biscayne Bay institution builds a dock to the 21st Century

It is Sunday evening in the Happy Room, the bar at the Miami Outboard Club on Watson Island. Clemente Gonzalez, a talkative 38-year-old with a goatee, is recapping the aquatic equivalent of war, which broke out on the MOC grounds a few hours earlier. Armed with bilge pumps, dozens of members drenched one another with powerful streams of water. The soggy battle marked the end of the club's regatta, an annual treasure hunt that takes contestants to the far reaches of Biscayne Bay.

As Gonzalez tells his tale, 61-year-old Juan Munne stands a few steps away, remembering a tour that would have made Ginger, the Professor, the Howells, and all the Gilligan's Island characters shudder. Six years ago he was a few miles off Bimini piloting the Wet and Dry -- his 34-foot sport-fishing vessel -- with his wife and teenage daughter and son onboard. They were heading westward to Miami after ten days on the Bahamian island. It was late morning and Munne's compass was just where he wanted it, at 270 degrees. Then a tornadolike storm blew in from behind. The high wind, rough seas, and driving rain sent him off course. "I got switched around and all of a sudden I was at 90 degrees," he recalls. "The waves were ten or eleven feet. And with following seas. Following seas are very bad. When you get hit from the bow you can navigate waves. But when you get it from the stern, you have to surf. Otherwise you fall into the hole."

The hole. It lies below your boat when you are riding a huge swell. If you don't know how to handle the descent, you can nosedive and capsize.

Munne whipped up an emergency plan: Beach the vessel and swim to terra firma. "I was going to crash the boat against the shore and save my family," he says. "But the breakers were so bad I was afraid to throw my children into the water." So he headed back to sea to ride out the storm.

In the end Munne made it safely to the outboard club docks. "I just hugged my family and we kissed each other," he says. The Wet and Dry was in fairly good shape.

The Happy Room is steeped in such stories. "We are not exactly tame people. We are a little wild," confesses Munne, who emigrated from Cuba to Miami by boat in 1965. "For people with families the club adds a little action to life. It's good, healthy action." The seventeen-year MOC member works as a boat-engine mechanic at a shop on the Miami River. As Munne ends his saga, Gonzalez is still raving about the water fight to his beer-sipping compadres. He's leaning on a section of the bar dubbed long ago "the Cuban corner." Nearby two men roll dice from a leather cup. And though it is approaching midnight, the clacking sound of shuffling dominoes marks the start of yet another game at one of three tables in the lounge next to the bar.

The boat club is among the last remnants of old Watson Island, an 87-acre heap of bay bottom that has once again become a target for developers. Along with their neighbors (fishmongers, fishing-charter captains, a bait and fuel shop owner, seaplane and helicopter operators) the boaters are feeling the pinch. Over the next year Parrot Jungle, a multimillion-dollar tourist attraction, is supposed to move from suburban Pinecrest to a sixteen-acre site adjacent to MOC's three-and-a-half acres. Four million dollars' worth of new water- and sewer-lines and roadway ramps are already under construction. Across MacArthur Causeway city planners envision a seaplane and helicopter airport that will feature a new terminal, hangars for six choppers and two aircraft, and a U.S. Customs station. A new facility for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is also in the works, and officials are contemplating new cruise-ship terminals.

"This island has been Cinderella for a long time. There are lots of princes who want to take her on a honeymoon," observes MOC vice commodore Jorge Gonzalez, who sells chandeliers to upscale clients and keeps his 25-foot Sea Ray cruiser at the club. Although most of the island's residents think their days are numbered, the boat club's flanks are formidably protected; it has a lease that expires in 2026 and a bevy of city and county politicians on its membership rolls.

Three outboard-engine salesmen launched the MOC in April 1938: Robert Soelke, Harry Santana, and Lew Hewes. Thirty members attended the first meeting at Hewes Outboard Service on the Miami River and agreed to pay dues of 50 cents per month. They adapted rules from the Tampa Outboard Club. The craft were small, wooden, and propelled by Evinrude and Johnson motors. Among the club's first members were Bill Barker and Ed Todd, who would become local maritime celebrities for their swift Barker-Todd plywood boats.

For its first few years the group had no permanent home, yet it quickly became one of the largest motorboating collectives in the United States. The MOC offered rescue training and searched for missing children. "Club members are at the beck and call of any organization in time of trouble or disaster," a February 16, 1941, Miami Daily News article stated.

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