Fear and Boating on Biscayne Bay

Regattus interruptus aboard the Special Warfare dampens historic nude fest

After we tacked once more, it became clear the crewmembers were working together well. Some displayed remarkable troubleshooting savvy when lines became ensnared. "Excellent instinct!" Denise yelled. Once around the next mark we would be scot-free, because then a tailwind would propel us most of the way to the first day's finish line. With three of us on the rails to keep the boat from tipping, Captain Sorg instructed Walter to tighten the backstay once more. He wanted to squeeze out that last bit of speed. Moments later a deep, eerie, popping sound pierced the wind's roar. The mast had buckled and fallen into the shape of an upside-down V; its bottom had become detached from the deck. Only the stays kept the twisted mess from tumbling into the water. Special Warfare was out of the race and bobbing like an empty can of sardines.

Captain Sorg grimaced but said nothing. He grabbed a walkie-talkie to radio for help, while the crew struggled to keep the mangled mast from falling overboard. Soon after a towing boat finally arrived, the mast fell on to Denise's legs. Several sailors quickly lifted it off. She was not hurt. Walter and Jim tied us to the rescue vessel, which delivered our broken craft to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club.

After we returned to the start, the womenfolk disembarked. Charles Branning, the Grove club's commodore, was preparing to voyage southward to the Elliott Key festivities in the Upside, his 35-foot Morgan. The aging sailor did not have the gumption to race, but he had an upright mast and was looking for some extra passengers. So Denise and Linda jumped ship. We planned to meet them later in the day on the northern perimeter of the aquatic nude show.

After hauling the sails and severed mast to the club yard, we set out again, emastulated as it were, and sans women. With Special Warfare's classic, gasoline-powered engine propelling us slowly across Biscayne Bay, Sorg steered us straight toward a dark cloud that hung unusually low over the water. Perfect weather for a Navy Seals operation, the captain noted. "That was when we'd go in," he said. "At two in the morning." The day's mishap was whipping up our captain's memories of maritime contretemps, like a covert operation that went awry off the coast of Nicaragua in the mid-Eighties. Sorg's Seals unit was aboard a U.S. Navy submarine that was transporting Contra rebels from Honduras to the Nicaraguan coast. The sub was plowing through rough seas when a big swell swept the rebels and an American soldier from the deck into the choppy waters.

But in all Sorg's years of sailing he had never lost a mast. A native of Richmond, Virginia, the salty sailor moved to Miami in 1956. During a 24-year navy career running undercover missions from Southeast Asia to Central America, he had learned to remain stoic in the face of adversity. "As [Jimmy] Buffett would say, 'Why do you ride the carousel? For the stories you could tell,' " Sorg remarked.

Buffeted, in another sense, by several rainstorms during the next three hours, the Special Warfare at long last arrived at the green-and-red signs marking the channel that would lead us to the libertine madness. An elephantine powerboat christened the Tushy-Bopper sped by, its driver oblivious to maritime rules such as slowing down when passing a smaller craft. We were now very close to our destination.

Soon a vast expanse of anchored vessels came into view. "Chaos," muttered a shivering, rain-soaked Walter. Powerboats outnumbered sailboats 4-1. The masts stuck out of the bay like a flooded forest. A demented floating tailgate party filled the briny underbrush. Music from 1000 speakers combined to create a demonic thumping cacophony. We motored in.

But where was the nudity? It was 1800 hours and so far everyone seemed to be wearing at least a bathing suit. Then Jim spotted an inflatable doll flapping like a kite above a boat. A few minutes later we witnessed our first instance of real human nudity: a skinny elderly man standing in the stern of a yacht. We cringed.

Then we passed the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary patrol boat Indigo. The crew wore orange-red life vests, blue slacks, and blue caps, which gave them a rather innocent appearance. They were anchored on the perimeter of the madhouse, about 30 yards off the stern of My Katrinka, where a topless woman with buoy-size, silicone-enhanced breasts posed astride a Waverunner that was mounted on the stern. On another vessel a bottomless man held a plastic water cannon to his crotch and sprayed a stream of water toward a group of giggling ladies.

Sorg, however, remained focused on the mission. At the end of the day we were to rendezvous with the Upside on the outer ring of the ocean-going mess. But after 90 minutes of cruising darkness approached and we had failed to locate it. Jim urged Sorg to penetrate further into the circle of watery hell, but the captain demurred. Not only was there scarce room to maneuver, but the skipper did not want to risk hitting swimmers who were casting about like so much flotsam.

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