Anchors Away

Captain Midnight, an irascible hermit, lives from time to time on a crumbling trawler with six yelping mutts. The captain is universally hated by his neighbors. He likes to pop up on deck wearing yellowed Fruit of the Looms and curse at novice sailors. If the sailors tack too close, he pelts them with dog turds.

Warren Thornburg, a handsome cabinetmaker, has read all 21 Travis McGee detective novels and can quote the best passages from memory. He gets his electricity from a little windmill on the sun deck of his tidy houseboat, and dutifully hauls his kitchen garbage to shore instead of throwing it in Biscayne Bay. Except for occasional besiegement by would-be girlfriends, Thornburg lives a placid life, enjoying the sunset with a cup of tea and keeping a weather eye out for bottlenose dolphins.

Captain Midnight and Warren Thornburg have almost nothing in common except the Dinner Key Anchorage, a floating village of 200 vessels hidden behind a string of manmade islands near Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove. As permanent residents of the Anchorage, an 80-acre patch of protected bay at the top of the Florida Keys, neither man has paid any rent, property taxes, or utility bills in years. On the other hand, they have had to row or motor to shore in dinghies, fight terrifying tropical storms, and deal with the daily hunt for drinking water, showers, and parking on land. Anchorites aren't allowed to use the restrooms and washing machines at nearby Dinner Key Marina; those are reserved for marina customers who dock their boats in slips that cost upward of $450 per month.

Since 1973 Miami city commissioners have sporadically striven either to tax or evict the Anchorites, an iconoclastic collection of computer programmers, writers, crackhead hookers, construction contractors, nurses, electronics engineers, drunks, artists, and shrimpers who make up one of Florida's last and largest free-floating live-aboard communities.

This winter, with an eye toward revenue, Miami commissioners will take up the fate of the Anchorage again. At the moment, city attorneys are preparing to mull over a proposed ordinance that would define new and narrow boundaries for the sprawling Anchorage and would result in the displacement of approximately half the existing boats. Once created, the smaller, demarcated anchorage would charge a monthly fee for mooring, require that vessels register with the city dockmaster, maintain liability insurance, and be "capable of self-propulsion." The last requirement refers to the fact that dozens of boats at the Anchorage are bereft of engines and haven't sailed or motored anywhere for years.

In exchange for some measure of government control, residents of the new Anchorage would get parking decals, a dinghy dock, and access to showers, washing machines, and drinking water, according to a draft of the new law. But while the ordinance might seem innocuous to landlubbers, many Anchorites fear it spells the end of a cherished lifestyle.

Sailors and houseboaters once lingered where they pleased along both coasts of Florida. By accepting the rigors of a live-aboard lifestyle, they enjoyed certain ineffable pleasures associated with wilderness, ones all but lost to the nine-to-five world: Orion's winter arrival, the movement of water under keel, solitary sunrises, the element of air in all its moods.

What seemed like a birthright is history now. In the past decade, free anchoring spots have disappeared one by one in the face of hostile onshore homeowners' groups, money-hungry city governments, and evolving attitudes toward water safety and the natural environment. In 1987 Vero Beach built a city mooring field and started charging $120 per month per boat. Fort Lauderdale now limits free anchorage to 24 hours, then requires boaters to move on or pay up. Key West, following a series of pitched legal battles, has killed all but the remnants of the colorful Cow Key Channel live-aboard community that first sprang up in the mid-Fifties and once was home to more than 500 people.

Some of Miami's Anchorites are refugees from other hassle-free anchorages, now vanished. All are acutely aware of their status as a dying breed. "They're going to be extremely upset, and it will be up to the city police to enforce it," says Miami city administrator Christina Abrams, the architect of the Anchorage ordinance, summing up her plan and the reaction she anticipates from live-aboard boaters.

Upset is right, says Dave Bricker, president of the Dinner Key Anchorage Association, a citizens' group made up of some, though not all, of the resident boaters: "This is right out of the Warsaw ghetto. Basically, the city is saying, 'If you pay the fee and wear your yellow arm band, everything will be all right.'"

A business owner who put himself through college on money he saved by living at the Anchorage, Bricker believes it will cost the city a fortune to administer and regulate the new anchorage. Once it's in place, he predicts, many boaters will move out of pricey Dinner Key Marina and store their boats nearby in the proposed mooring field for a cheaper rate. Anchorites who refuse to pay the mooring fee will be driven out into the least-protected reaches of the bay, further stratifying a watery world already defined by social castes.

"You'll have three classes of citizens," Bricker says. "Dock people, mooring people, and the lowly surviving Anchorage people. The moorings will get filled up by people who want to pay for a mooring instead of high rates for a slip at the marina. Meanwhile, anchored people will continue to be treated as undesirable second-class citizens who don't need water or bathrooms or a secure dinghy dock."

Actually, according to the ordinance, Anchorites won't have the option of refusing to move into the new anchorage and paying a fee. If they don't weigh anchor and move, police will tow their boats and charge them for the ride. It's not clear where the boats might then be stored.

Abrams denies that her efforts to regulate the Anchorage are designed to extinguish a community that local politicians have long seen as freeloaders, deadbeats, and individual representatives of a collective eyesore. (The blight begins at a garbage-strewn dinghy dock near the foot of 27th Avenue and extends to the Anchorage itself, home to many a shipshape watercraft but also to dozens of abandoned, rotting vessels). In fact, the new ordinance isn't even mainly a hunt for new revenue by a nearly bankrupt city, she says.

Abrams, director of the city's Department of Conferences, Conventions, and Public Facilities, claims her motive is a 1995 report by Metro-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management. The county environmental protection agency is threatening the city with fines and lawsuits if it doesn't rectify a seagrass die-off in the Anchorage caused by dragging anchor chains, sunken derelict vessels, and too much shade from ships' hulls. Biologists say the seagrass provides a crucial habitat for fish, sponges, and algae in Biscayne Bay. (At least two studies in the past showed that suspected water pollution from live-aboard sewage dumping is not in fact a detectable problem.)

Bricker and other Anchorites say the issues and the motives are much broader, and cite a long history of bad blood between the no-rent boaters and the city. John Brennan, a member of the city's Waterfront Advisory Board, says he's sympathetic. "The Anchorage people have proved their willingness to negotiate with the city for any sort of deal that seemed reasonable to them. For a year or so in the past, the city provided some services -- water and bathroom facilities. Then the city decided to pull the rug out from under them. There's not a lot of trust there."

Indeed, one encounters a slight sourness of attitude among Anchorites -- a hint of cynicism, a soupion of bile -- inspired by the suits at city hall. "These nitwits have made my life a living hell for twenty years!" shrieks Milanne Rehor, who lives on a wooden-hulled sloop and has tilted with bureaucrats for two decades over Anchorage regulation. "I have a couple of degrees, I pay taxes, I work. I just happen to live on a boat. What is their problem? They've got rape, murder, and mayhem onshore. They're broke. And yet they persist in attacking this microscopic group of people at the Anchorage."

Rehor sums up: "If the city has a beef with any of the boats out there, then they should enforce existing maritime law and navigation rules. They can earn money from us right now without doing a thing except providing services. There is no need for any of the city's spurious 'improvements.' What's that? What? Angry and hostile? You're right! I am!"

Alan Kobrin, a Pennsylvania native who lives on a 37-foot sailboat, shares his neighbor's skepticism. City officials consistently fail to appreciate the Anchorage as a unique social and cultural phenomenon, he says. He did too, up until four and a half years ago."I bumped into this guy and he started telling me about this place, this Anchorage," Kobrin recalls. "I got invited to what they called a Chautauqua, a party on this two-story houseboat with a piano. There must have been twenty people onboard. There was lunch; everyone contributed, telling stories, playing music, reading poetry. I thought, 'I didn't know there were people like this in Miami.' It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

"Not to get too philosophical, but I think this mania to regulate the Anchorage is another example of the internal contradictions of our national psyche," Kobrin says. "On one hand we espouse a set of values, and then we deny them. We espouse the frontier spirit, the cowboy ethic of independence and self-sufficiency, and then we seek out and destroy every place where it can exist and flourish."

At press time, Brennan and his colleagues on the city's Waterfront Advisory Board were scheduled to vote on the Anchorage ordinance December 10, with the city commission following in late winter or early spring. (The commission is the real decision-making body and may or may not follow the recommendations of the board.) Brennan says he's queasy about some of the effects the proposed plan might have. "There are people out there at the Anchorage who are honorable, hard-working people," he notes. "There are also a bunch of 'em that should be in halfway houses. And if you take their boats away, they're going to be sleeping under your bushes."

Waterfront board chairman Richard Bunnell predicts the advisory group and the city commission will pass the plan, partly in response to the city's financial crisis: "If you're passing through town and you throw a hook out and spend a couple days relaxing, that's one thing," Bunnell says. "But if you're using the Anchorage as a permanent homesite, then you should pay for it. The city wants revenue, and right now, who can blame them?"

Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer echoes Bunnell: "If the fee is reasonable, I would be inclined to vote for it. If it isn't, I would try to bring the fee in line with what's fair. The Anchorage was a problem in 1970 and it's a problem now. I think the biggest one is the derelict boats. They're a danger to themselves and to the people around them, and to the people trying to get in and out of Dinner Key Marina."

In the past the independent-minded Anchorites have proven themselves capable of collective activism, packing commission chambers with boisterous opposition to the several regulatory efforts that have come and gone.

One stumbling block for city administrators has been the confusing question of legal jurisdiction. In 1949 the State of Florida deeded to the City of Miami a section of bay bottom near Dinner Key, which today underlies most of the Anchorage. But opponents of municipal regulation have long claimed that superseding federal maritime law protects the right of mariners to anchor anywhere in Biscayne Bay, provided no boat channels are blocked. "We're prepared to fight this out in federal court, or anywhere else," says Renu Mody, one of two attorneys representing the Dinner Key Anchorage Association. "That may not be necessary. I'm sure if the two sides can sit together, something reasonable can be worked out."

Abrams counters: "I see the legal issues as really being pretty simple. The city owns the bay bottom. Our intent is not to prohibit anchoring, just to restrict it to an area where it won't damage the environment. As for the federal law, I just don't think it applies."

Ted Guy, a maritime lawyer and director of the Stuart-based Marine Industries Association of Florida, says he fears Abrams is right. In 1994 Guy, whose trade organization represents 1400 recreational boat businesses, helped boaters sue the State of Hawaii in federal court. The boaters wanted to continue anchoring where they pleased without municipal control. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with local government, rejecting the boaters' contention that federal maritime law was on their side. "The federal preemption argument is dead at this point," Guy concludes.

Far more pertinent, in his opinion, are a pair of Florida statutes that govern anchoring and live-aboard rights. One of the laws states that cities can regulate any floating structure or live-aboard vessel. The other defines a live-aboard vessel: a boat that is someone's full-time, year-round home. Cities don't have the authority to regulate "nonlive-aboard vessels engaged in rights of navigation." Guy points out that many of the Anchorage's boats might fall under this rubric, giving boaters grounds in state court to resist the city's efforts.

With a week to go before the city's Waterfront Advisory Board was scheduled to vote on the anchorage ordinance, Assistant City Attorney Warren Bittner says he hasn't read it and knows nothing about the legal issues involved. The impending bankruptcy of the city might be keeping him a tad distracted. "We'll deal with it when it comes up," he explains hurriedly. "Right now we've got bigger issues we're dealing with."

Excellent, says Bricker, the Anchorage activist -- deal on. The more distracted bureaucrats are, the better for their opponents. In the past, Anchorites have packed the commission chambers, gone to court, or sicced outside regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Miami when the city tried to build a mooring field and charge fees.

"We've thwarted their efforts in the past by being a big enough pain in the ass," Bricker notes. "When they realize this is not going to be a simple matter, that it's going to be a legal battle and it's going to take time, money, and effort, they'll rethink the whole idea. One thing I can assure you is that these people aren't going to leave without a major protest."

From his houseboat in the Anchorage, Warren Thornburg has watched the city skyline rise to blot out the horizon. The stars have grown dimmer, and the bottlenose dolphins come to visit less and less. The survival of the Anchorage, he says, has always depended in part on the tumult of Miami's city government. Bigger issues have always emerged, distracting city administrators from their periodic pique to reorder the Anchorage.

"This city has been one lumbering, bumbling, shock-treated, beast of a wart hog for so long," Thornburg muses. "How serious they are this time I don't know. This always happens at the beginning of a new administration. The politicians have to focus on something before they get bogged down keeping themselves out of jail.

"This time they've brought the environment into it, and everyone loves the environment," Thornburg adds. "I'm sure they'll say it's about safety, too. And maybe they're right. Maybe your kid will be safer if you put a football helmet on his head 24 hours a day, but where do you draw the line between rules and freedom?


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