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.

Of course the motorboaters also had a good time. They displayed their wildness by racing across Biscayne Bay and towing stunt artists who water-skied while standing on one another's shoulders. After some intolerant souls complained about noisy boats, a club leader beseeched members to use mufflers. During World War II the MOC organized patrols to help defend against possible aggression by the Axis powers.

The MOC's first clubhouse was an old wooden cottage on the eastern corner of Watson Island. The motorboaters had famous neighbors across County Causeway, the road that bisects the island and was later renamed for General Douglas MacArthur. The Goodyear blimp was stored there as were seaplanes from Chalk's International Airlines, which arrived on the island soon after it was created in the Twenties. A year later the Miami Yacht Club, then twenty years old, moved in next door to the MOC. (The yacht club had been headquartered on the Miami River.) The state turned the spoil island over to the city in 1949, with the proviso that it be reserved for public or governmental use.

In the Fifties the MOC organized the county's first marine patrol. Richard Taylor, a Miami lawyer who is now age 75, helped assemble the force at the behest of then-Dade County Sheriff Tom Kelly. "We were sworn in by the sheriff," Taylor remembers. "We didn't carry guns, but we had full uniforms and boats labeled with a police sign we put on them. And the main thing even then was controlling traffic, slowing people down at bridges, that kind of thing. It hasn't changed much, except the numbers. We were usually two in a boat. There were fourteen or fifteen of us. The sign and the uniform, that's about all you need. People slow down real quick."

Taylor, who served as commodore in 1960, introduced the first boat with an inboard motor to the club. A local mechanic installed the engine inside his nineteen-foot cruiser; the biggest outboard available at the time would barely move it.

In 1957 the MOC signed a twenty-year lease with the city at one dollar per year, and a new clubhouse, which still stands today, went up in 1958. But as the boaters fished and cruised away their days, little else changed on the island. One exception was the 1961 arrival of Hotei, a Shinto god of happiness. His pot-bellied granite figure was just one facet of the Miami-Japan Garden, donated by Japanese industrialist Kiyoshi Ichimura. Throughout the Sixties the MOC anchored itself as a Miami institution with charitable acts: hosting races for the Orange Bowl Regatta, providing Thanksgiving dinners for senior citizens, and sponsoring fishing tournaments for poor kids from social service groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The club in those days reflected Miami's population: The majority of members were Anglo. As Cubans streamed into South Florida after the 1959 revolution, the MOC became more Hispanic. But unlike at many local institutions, the immigrants were accepted as part of the gang, as long as they had a vessel, Taylor and other old-timers observe.

Edgar Lendian, a Havana native who arrived in Miami in 1961, was one of the first Latin members. He joined in 1964 after returning from college at Louisiana State University. There was no ethnic strife, he insists. "A lot of the Americans were my friends," says the lawyer and real estate broker, now age 66. He soon convinced another successful exile to join, Ed Fernandez. Fernandez, who had made a fortune packaging Sweet 'N Low, became the MOC's first Cuban-born commodore in 1975, ten years before Miami elected its first Cuban-American mayor, Xavier Suarez. "It was a gradual thing over the years," Lendian says of the club's demographic change from Anglo to Hispanic domination. The shift accelerated after the 1980 Mariel boatlift, he adds.

By the late Eighties the club's roster was full of Latin names. "It happens that Cubans like boating very much because we're from an island," says Lendian. "We're not land lovers, we're water lovers. I think that's what attracted us." He's always considered the club to be cross-cultural, though he acknowledges a drop in Anglo membership. "They retired and moved out. We kept on boating."

A few Anglos still belong to the club and keep boats there, but MOC social events are attended almost exclusively by Cuban exiles. Taylor, who joined in 1955, remembers that some Anglo members groused about their new minority status. But he thinks for the most part the organization has been a rare example of ethnic harmony in Miami. "We've had an invasion more or less and you might as well laugh at it and go along with it, or leave town," he declares. "I don't think grumbling is going to do a bit of good." He sold his 41-foot Hatteras in April, in part because he's feeling his 75 years. "It got to be a long way from the bridge to the engine," he says. But there are other reasons he rarely sets foot in the clubhouse anymore. "I've been backing off over the past year. I go over there and they are as nice as can be -- 'How you doin', Taylor?' -- but then they go right back into Spanish. And I'm a Berlitz failure."

For some members politics was as much a passion as boating. And the MOC's patch of Watson Island offered an excellent vantage point for viewing two of the most bizarre events in Miami-Dade's political history. Coincidentally both occurred in 1985.

One of them erupted over a plan to make the spoil island a tourist destination. That idea was not new, of course. In the Seventies and early Eighties, then-Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre campaigned repeatedly for a theme park on the island. "When Ferre wanted to build that big project we put out a bumper sticker that read 'Save Watson Island for boats, birds, and blimps,'" recalls Armando Gutierrez, a political consultant who has been an MOC member since the Seventies. (He owns a seventeen-foot Mako.)

But a new-and-improved 1985 concept for the rustic isle gained enough steam to win the city commission's backing. Developer John K. Meyer's proposed $130 million, Arquitectonica-designed complex that would include a boat-exposition center, a 300-room hotel, two restaurants, and docks for 300 boats. It also called for the MOC and the Miami Yacht Club to merge into one building. Among Meyer's associates was lawyer (and future City and County Commissioner) Arthur Teele. The investors included Cuban American National Foundation honchos Jorge Mas Canosa and Pepe Hernandez.

But then-Commissioner Joe Carollo, who cast the sole vote against the project, sent the scheme into disarray by disclosing that a company with dealings in communist countries was among the twelve investors. A war of words followed and Mas Canosa challenged Carollo to a duel with guns or knives. The commissioner suggested water pistols. In the end there was neither a shootout nor construction. "They are running like chickens," Carollo bragged to the Miami Herald after Mas Canosa and other CANF investors pulled out.

Another bizarre drama unfolded that year in and around the MOC's Happy Room. On August 22 an FBI undercover informant met with then-County Mayor Steve Clark and retired Miami zoning officer Kevin "Waxy" Gordon. (Clark was a club member.) Agents were probing two claims: 1) longshoremen were involved in racketeering at the port; and 2) Gordon was involved in a zoning scam in Hialeah. The FBI later reported that Clark had offered political help, but nothing overtly illicit.

Six months later Clark and Gordon were again at the MOC. Now Gordon was wearing an FBI wire; agents had snared him in a drug deal several weeks before the encounter. According to a transcript of the chat, then-federal Judge, now U.S. Congressman, Alcee Hastings warned Clark to stay away from Gordon. Hastings was privy to the federal investigations because he had authorized the wiretaps. (Disclosing such information is illegal.)

Here are some highlights of Clark's barely intelligible exchange with Gordon at the MOC:

Clark: I remember saying, "Hello, judge," and he comes to me saying, "Stevie, I want to tell you something.... Don't get near Kevin.... Kevin Gordon is involved in some zoning in Hialeah and don't, I'm just telling you don't, don't [go near him] ... just walk away from it." ... How in the hell would he know that?

Gordon: I have no idea.... Here's what I did. I made one call....
Clark: To a commissioner?
Gordon: To a commissioner out there....
Clark: How, how in the fuck would the judge know about this?

Gordon died of a heart attack a month later. The FBI eventually dropped the investigations and the U.S. Senate impeached Hastings for plotting to take a bribe, but acquitted him of charges he leaked word of the wiretaps to Clark. (Hastings denied warning Clark and a federal judge later ruled the impeachment invalid. The affair was the subject of a July 13, 1988 New Times feature story, "Undercover.")

The episode is now a dim chapter of MOC lore. "We never figured out what really happened," concludes commodore Gonzalo Planas, an electrical contractor who lives in Hialeah.

Clark sailed on and so did the MOC. The extent of Clark's advocacy for the club, which paid the city $13,000 in yearly rent, is unclear. "Clark didn't attempt to do their politics for them, that I know of. He was just the guy in the background," concludes John Brennan, who chairs the city's Waterfront Advisory Board. "I think it was sort of like having a shotgun in the closet. They didn't have to open the closet, but you knew that they could get serious if they had to."

By 1988, MOC's 50th anniversary, it was clear the club had forged a grand Anglo-Cuban alliance. Proclamations commending the motorboaters' public service were issued by Cuban-American mayors across Dade County, including West Miami's Pedro Reboredo (now a Miami-Dade commissioner), Sweetwater's Isidoro Cuevas, and Miami's Suarez.

Through all the politics, the MOC's purpose remained as stated in its charter: "for the furtherance of outboard boating in all of its allied activities ... to foster a spirit of helpfulness and good fellowship ... [and] to enable the boatman to fully enjoy the use of his outboard-powered craft."

Speed is not the only factor in this year's regatta. As in a scavenger hunt, crews locate clues, figure out the answer, then travel to the next stop. Members hide out in various parts of Biscayne Bay dispensing hints. Commodore Planas stations himself at the edge of Bicentennial Park with the first clue. The last stop is at a boat just off Virginia Key. The winners take home a coveted prize: a bottle of booze.

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.

A few minutes later Planas calls the general meeting to order and about 50 members recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Then Graciela Botero, a neighbor from the nearby Miami Yacht Club, walks up to a microphone and thanks MOC members for helping out at a recent fundraiser.

Sanchez sidles to the mike and invites everyone to compete in the Mahi-Mahi Classic, an annual fishing contest founded by policemen and hosted by the MOC. "It's a great fishing tournament because it allows us to open up our hearts and provide for those who are less fortunate," he intones. The proceeds go to five local charities, most of them Cuban American. After his spiel Sanchez heads for the Happy Room.

Planas quickly moves through the agenda. Two new members are nominated and unanimously approved. Clemente Gonzalez presents Planas with the cash he raised. A man in a black T-shirt emblazoned with wings, a motorcycle, and the words "Ride Free" tells the group that a 45-year-old man he works with has tumors on his larynx from smoking cigarettes. "Just a little thing I thought I would share with you," he says earnestly and walks back to his seat.

The meeting is adjourned. Some head for the domino tables, a few meander into the billiards parlor, and others move to the Happy Room, where Sanchez is enjoying his dinner. "Hey, want a beer?" he asks New Times. He and Eileen Taulbee wonder what story the paper is working on. "Don't write anything bad," Taulbee pleads, with a big grin. "This is a good place."

Sanchez and Taulbee return two weeks later for the June 5 fishing tournament. One of the other competitors: Mayor Carollo.

It is about 2:00 on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June. A man and woman are fastening a small fishing boat to a trailer at one edge of the MOC grounds, which are packed with vessels of all sizes and styles. Out on the club's main dock two men have just returned from a half-day of fishing and are hosing down the deck of a large white sport-fishing craft. A few slips away, Edgar Lendian stands in the stern of Blue Eyes, his 31-foot Tiara fly-bridge fishing cruiser. He and his wife Diana, who heads the promotions office at Bacardi-Martini USA, are about to cruise over to Key Biscayne. "We'll go for a dip, have a few drinks," Lendian says, sporting a black Bacardi cap. One of his two friends onboard Blue Eyes is Mariano Senti, a 43-year-old construction worker who was granted political asylum in the United States a month ago after spending twelve years in a Cuban prison. "We just like to get out on the water, get away from town," Lendian says. Since joining the club in the early Sixties he's owned ten boats.

"This is a workingman's club," insists Andy Antelo, who joined in 1969. Today the bilingual 45-year-old sales manager owns a 25-foot open fishing vessel. But he rarely uses it because his job frequently requires him to leave Miami. "There are people here who make five dollars an hour and people who make a lot more than that. But when we walk through that door we're all equal."

Indeed a working stiff can afford the rates, though they have risen substantially in recent years. The MOC's 350 regular members each pay $450 per year to belong. About 100 people have limited memberships, which cost $100 and allow them to use the bar and dining facilities. Monthly storage fees and an assessment for improvements add a few hundred dollars per year.

Although some Anglo members have left over the past few years, Jack McGovern thinks the MOC is in good hands. "The advent of the Hispanics has been a boon," he concludes. "We used to have to twist people's arms to get them to run for office." Then he adds a jocular caveat: "But basically I would say that if you don't know how to play dominoes you're not going to meet very many people."

Besides flooding caused by the Parrot Jungle construction, commodore Planas must deal with restoring the membership rolls. "I'm trying to bring new blood here," he says. "We've got the new millennium coming."

Planas recently has managed to lure a few new members, including Frank Falestra, a 42-year-old Miami native of Italian-American extraction. Falestra, who runs a small recording studio and performs rock music under the alias Rat Bastard, stores his twenty-foot vessel at MOC. "They're really nice," he says. "They gave me a plaque." He joined the club mainly because it is an affordable place to keep his boat, not for the domino sessions or talent-show boleros.

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