Fear and Boating on Biscayne Bay

Regattus interruptus aboard the Special Warfare dampens historic nude fest

When Surfer John called on a Thursday afternoon, New Times's plans for exclusive coverage of the 45th annual Columbus Day Regatta seemed to be proceeding auspiciously. "This is the Polack," bellowed the legendary Coconut Grove nomad, whose waterfront connections run as deep as anyone's. "I'm looking for your berth aboard the good ship Lollipop." He let loose a slightly insane laugh and hung up. He knew this was no ordinary sailboat race. For decades the two-day contest had offered thousands of people a strangely South Floridian opportunity to celebrate the "discovery" of America. Mariners on small and large craft alike had traveled the waters from the north end of Biscayne Bay to Elliott Key and back.

But while historians were recasting Christopher Columbus as a genocidal maniac, the regatta held in his honor was evolving into an ever-widening powerboat party featuring increasingly large doses of nudity and debauchery. These days hundreds of pleasure craft anchor en masse near the finish line of the first leg. And they aren't there to look at those beautiful sails.

This strange outpouring of human behavior obviously called for journalistic scrutiny. But Surfer never called back. Time was running out. It was already Friday and the two-day race started Saturday morning.

Columbus Day Massacre: Captain Sorg (foreground) and crewman Walter Goebel recover after the dismasting and before the disrobing
Photos by Kirk Nielsen
Columbus Day Massacre: Captain Sorg (foreground) and crewman Walter Goebel recover after the dismasting and before the disrobing

Fortunately, just twenty hours before the race, the New Times Maritime Affairs Desk located Capt. Stuart Sorg at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club. He was prepping the Special Warfare, a twenty-year-old, 28-foot, metal-masted Ranger. Sensing that the windy, cloudy weather over Biscayne Bay would continue into Saturday, the tanned and steely 68-year-old retired Navy Seal was just desperate enough to invite a tall and inexperienced scribe aboard for ballast. We agreed to reconvene at 0745 hours the next day.

That meant the rest of Friday could be devoted to tracking down preregatta bachannalia, which was sure to be brewing. But the Marine Council's regatta kick-off bash at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club was disappointingly tame. At 10:00 p.m. everyone was still fully dressed. A couple danced innocently as a band called Fabulous played the doo-wop tune "One Summer Night." A little later, as the lead singer belted, "Do a little dance/Make a little love/Get down tonight," the crowd perked up. But it was a false alarm. The randiest couple in the bunch was only smooching at the end of the dock. Fully clothed. But not to worry, there would be plenty of carnal knowledge the next day.

"I don't see what the big deal is about nudity," a female acquaintance said as we watched the party from the clubhouse balcony. She recalled a trip to Bali. "All the women are topless there. Even 80-year-old women. Actually that was a little shocking."

People had told me the regatta also could be a little shocking, topless women and bottomless men cavorting all over the bay. One participant, for instance, recalled observing a man and woman copulating at the back of a yacht in the presence of their boating brethren. There had been wild orgies on Bertrams, Sea Rays, and inflatable rafts. Unbelievable, unspeakable displays of human sexuality. Could it be true?

For hard-core sailors the nude fest was merely a depraved (though intriguing) sideshow. About 200 sailboats participated this year, down from as many as 700 in the years before Hurricane Andrew took the wind from the race's sails. Yet enthusiasm runs high. And so when the race master sounded the gunshot at 9:20 Saturday morning, Special Warfare's four-man, two-woman crew was thoroughly focused and totally clothed. Along with eleven other craft in our class, we got a roaring start from a gusty, twenty-mile-per-hour wind at our backs. Sorg commanded the tiller and barked orders. The mates included his girlfriend, Linda Will, a 47-year-old law-firm librarian; Denise Baker-Reinman, a 40-year-old administrative assistant; Walter Goebel, a 41-year-old boat repairman from Argentina; Jim Clark, a 37-year-old TV sports producer; and New Times.

Behind us the crew of the Maiden, one of Special Warfare's traditional foes, was having trouble with its spinnaker. Sorg had wisely opted not to deploy the extra sail. Once we passed the first buoy, we would have to tack into the wind. But for now things were fairly relaxed. A powerboat bounced swiftly past displaying maidens in bikinis. It offered a reminder of the brothel-on-the-sea awaiting us ten miles to the south. The crew's language grew increasingly suggestive.

"Why are we dragging the spinnaker line?" asked Denise.

"We're keeping it moist," responded Jim, grinning sheepishly as he pulled it from the water. "You don't want them to dry out." His smile contained a smidgen of mischief. So did Denise's.

Jim had experienced the Columbus Day Regatta in 1994. He remembered the female blow-up dolls that some powerboaters flew above their vessels like perverted banners. New Times requested more detail, but Jim only deepened the mystery. "People were doing things they normally would do behind closed doors," he said.

We rounded the first marker with a crisp tack, bearing straight into an intense wind. We soon came about again and Walter's ankle was briefly entangled in a line connected to the boom. Waves crashed over the bow, drenching everyone. "Can I get a skirt?" Jim shouted. Considering we were at midrace, it seemed a rather brazen statement. But I soon learned skirt was maritime jargon, meaning to free the bottom of a sail caught on the railing. Denise took care of the glitch while Linda provided commentary: "Hey, she's not a skirt. She's a woman!"

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