Chairmen of the Outboard

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

Later that day the motorboaters gather for the annual regatta banquet. About 150 members devour salad, soup, and fish. Spanish is the preferred linguistic order of the day. Seated at one of fifteen round tables are Humberto Amaro, an aide to Mayor Alex Penelas, and Amaro's wife. A guest asks whether all of MOC's members are Cuban. Someone at the table offers that there is one exception. "No, lo botaron hace un par de anos (No, they kicked him out a couple of years ago)," says an elderly woman in a sleeveless blue dress dotted with white daisies. Everyone at the table laughs.

Planas is hustling around in a shirt with red, white, and blue stripes, and yellow shorts. He wears a cell phone on one hip and a ring of keys on the other. He's making last-minute preparations for the night's big event: the talent show. Through the club's fuzzy speaker system, he announces the first act, the MOC Boys, three kids in sunglasses and baseball caps. One of them is actually a girl in a shiny black jacket. To taped music they sing a song called "Adelante la Juventud" ("Onward Youth"). Next, fifth-grader Jenny Perez, in red bell-bottoms, lip-synchs Whitney Houston's "As Long as You Love Me." Four women billed as the MOC Village People dance and fake the words to the tune "YMCA," after which Planas exults in English: "These village people are from Hialeah and Little Havana!"

Then Juan Munne croons a bolero, slightly off-key, as another man, wearing a wig, several fuchsia leis, shorts, and a white T-shirt with fake breasts, prances across the stage. After Munne's tune concludes, a Gloria Estefan impersonator in a black spandex body suit mouths the words "Yo quiero bailar" ("I want to dance") as the diva's voice sounds from a stereo. A woman in the audience squeals, "It really looks like her!"

Next Mary Wells's Sixties hit "My Guy" blasts from the speakers as vice commodore Jorge Gonzalez struts onstage clad in a bright-red robe with silver wings attached to his back and a halo around his head. He is supposed to be God. One by one women dressed as nuns walk out singing "My Guy." One of them appears to be nine-months pregnant. The crowd explodes.

Finally it's time for the "Who has the most beautiful legs?" contest. Several members string up a sheet that will enable the audience to view the participants' from the waist down only. The first one saunters out behind the sheet, prompting chuckles. The legs belong to a man. So do those of the next seven contestants. "AAy, que piernas, papi! AQue piernas!" ("Oh, what legs, papa! What legs!"), exclaims Planas. As the laughter resounds, the commodore begins the judging. He asks the audience to applaud for its favorite appendages. Suddenly the vice commodore, still wearing his red robe and wings, dives out from off-stage and wraps his arms around one man's ankles. The audience roars. When the judging is over, contestant number eight, the one with the skinniest legs, wins.

Even before all the performers cram the stage for the finale, the sound of dominoes being shuffled clatters in from the next room.

MOC's hilarity was nearly silenced in 1993. Then-city planner Jack Luft told the boaters Miami law required the municipality to explore whether other clubs were interested in the site. Along with the Miami Yacht Club and the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, the MOC took its cause to the public. First, members persuaded commissioners to put the question to voters: Should nonprofit clubs such as MOC that operate on city property be allowed to negotiate leases without competition? That November, by a slim margin, city voters approved the measure. "That was the Alamo for us," asserts MOC member Jack McGovern, a 65-year-old retired shipping executive who helped engineer the referendum campaign.

A 30-year lease signed in 1996 increased the motorboaters' rent from about $13,000 per year to $65,000; a discount of up to $30,000 was allowed if the group sponsored charitable events. The deal also required the MOC to shell out $300,000 to improve the facilities, a process that is still under way. This past April the city raised the rent to about $75,000.

So how did they pull it off? Former commodore Richard Taylor, who was on the MOC's lease-negotiating committee with McGovern, says it was the same old formula that had won hearts and minds before: taking inner-city kids fishing, feeding people from retirement homes, and hosting popular public events like the Orange Bowl Regatta.

Moreover MOC ranks include several top politicians. Among them: current and former Miami Commissioners Willy Gort, Joe Sanchez, and Victor de Yurre; Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and County Commissioners Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Pedro Reboredo. State Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Miguel's brother, is also on the MOC roster.

Miami Commissioner J.L. Plummer is also an ally. "Plummer and I go way back. That didn't hurt," Taylor admits. But Plummer's popularity at the club dipped in 1993, when he questioned whether there was sufficient public access to the MOC.

Politicians continue to traipse through the MOC entrance. It's a recent Monday night and members swipe their plastic membership cards through a magnetic gadget on the glass doors and head inside for the club's weekly meeting. Then in walks City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, dressed in a suit and tie and accompanied by his chief of staff Eileen Taulbee. Clemente Gonzalez, the boastful bilge-pump gunner from the water fight, approaches Sanchez with a thick wad of cash in one hand. Sanchez glances at a New Times reporter. "Look, he's trying to bribe me!" the politician says in jest. Actually Gonzalez has just scrounged the money from MOC members in a ten-minute crisscrossing of the clubhouse. He collected about one thousand dollars to help pay medical expenses for a 41-year-old member who recently had a brain tumor removed.

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