Take Me With You

Thinking about blowing major cash at the boat show this week? There is a cheaper way.

With surf and wind whipping through his beard, Dale seemed to descend into a folksy Zen state; the motion of his powerful engines across the water seemed to overtake him, like a massage chair in a crowded shopping mall.

We arrived, an hour later, at Boca Chita Key. The 32-acre island and national park boasts a lighthouse, a small concrete harbor, and beautiful mangrove beaches, just 16 miles south of Key Biscayne. The distant smoke stacks atop Turkey Point nuclear power plant and the silhouette of a colossal landfill offered the only signs of far-off Miami.

Dale swung into Boca Chita's harbor and dipped past the stumpy stone lighthouse teeming with day-trippers. We idled toward a long barrier peninsula where his friends waved and toasted our arrival from lawn chairs.

Dale's friends, an armada of yacht-owning Cuban-Americans, had besieged the island days ago, lining its inlet with 18 boats. After tying a line to a yacht, Dale and I wandered ashore and headed for the picnic.

A husband and wife were hacking a giant ham into chunks at the end of four contiguous picnic tables. Disco and salsa music blared, at equal volumes, from a pair of yachts. Two middle-aged men in windbreakers — embroidered with the names of their boats — grilled sausage on dueling camper stoves. In the distance, a circle of wives downed ceremonial shots of tequila and tried to convince their children to eat and put on clothes.

On the table, at the center of the action, stood a tall bottle of Johnny Walker Black and a jumbo stovetop espresso maker.

After twenty minutes of schmoozing, Dale returned to The Son Also Rises and sequestered himself in his cabin with Mango and a bottle of Bacardi Limon. He needed some downtime, his friends assured me, after defending Wendy's against a lawsuit filed by a woman who'd managed to lose her hand at a drive-through. (He'd talked a $2 million civil lawsuit down to a $200,000 settlement).

Even with Dale gone, the group of lawyers, process servers, and accountants quickly welcomed me into the fold. They called themselves "Amor y Verdad" and warmly regarded the yachts they'd packed into the inlet as a "mobile condo community." Strangers wishing to "tie on" were fiercely rebuffed. Several members claimed to have designs on buying Boca Chita from the park service.

Life on the island proved slow and delicious; the biggest challenge seemed to be drinking just enough to make it to the next feast.

After two hours of the sweet life, I needed a break. I spent a few hours rocking on the deck of Dale's boat under a sleeping bag, while the next generation of Amor y Verdad zipped around the harbor in their parents' dinghies.

I awoke to a rich aroma of wine, garlic, peppers, and fatty meat.

Three men had independently slaughtered a trio of goats in the days before their arrival. The cooks on the island had split into three factions; each cluster insisted on the supremacy of their combination of the same four ingredients.

After the feast, the still-standing members of the party adjourned to what was described as "a homemade yacht." The boat's owner, a small scraggle-toothed man, stood still on the hull, his face affixed in a permanent grin.

The two-story wonder was clapped together out of red plywood, a pair of outboard motors, and several tons of Christmas lights. The evening concluded with three hours of bawdy Spanish karaoke — sung, predominantly, by a hurricane shutter salesman who had come to Miami, by raft, from Cuba in the early Eighties. By 3:00 a.m., I had been on more boats than I could count — or would ever want to remember.

In the early morning hours, a pair of women fussed over where I would sleep most comfortably. I finally collapsed on the back of Dale's boat for a couple of hours. I awoke, at sunrise, to the sounds of engines cranking. Dale missed his wife, and we were off.


I never did find another boat friend like Dale, who later mailed me a T-shirt and coffee mug bearing his corporate logo: a marlin astride the scales of justice.

Life outside the world of Amor y Verdad proved harsh y cold. In a single day, as I made my rounds, I was rejected or ignored by every boat owner on Palm and Star islands.

"I'm sorry," one woman sang cruelly from within her enormous mansion on Palm Island. "This is not how you make friends."

A few doors down, another resident told me she kept her boats in "a boat yard," even as I saw them parked, in plain view, behind her electronic gate.

I staggered on to Star Island. The guard in the imposing kiosk let me right in after I told him I wanted to "canvass the place for friends." The residents, however, proved less amenable. Even the servants have servants, and no one is authorized to make friends. I left a pleasant written request to discuss boating in the mailbox at Shaquille O'Neal's ivy-encrusted front gate. He never replied.

Rich people, it seems, don't need more friends.

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