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.
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!"
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.
Then the heckling began. The sight of a mastless sailboat provoked ugly, delirious outbursts of sexually charged machismo: "Where the hell's the mast on that thing?" and "Congratulations! Thanks for coming!" and "Hey, maybe next year." A guy on a sailboat named Margaritaville sneered, "Want to borrow my mast?"
Sorg smiled calmly. "I'm going to have to borrow somebody's," he yelled.
The sun set and we still had not located Branning. In the twilight we dropped anchor near the outer ring of the stygian flotilla. When darkness fell, lights atop sailboat masts dotted the night sky above the powerboats' scattered luminescence. "It looks like a city," Walter marveled. It sounded like 1001 open-air nightclubs.
Sorg descended into the tiny cabin to prepare coffee and a dinner of fried steaks and salad. There would be rum and Coke for dessert. While the party boats thumped into the night, the Special Warfare was the scene of sleepy conversation ranging from the ills of local television news to the amazing achievements of former Navy Seal and current Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. We secured a small fluorescent lantern to ward off drunken skippers on power vessels, then turned in for the night. Whoops and screams mixed with the strains of music drifting over the water. God knows what was going on.
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As soon as the sun rose over Elliott Key and the slumbering partiers, Sorg wasted no time heading north. It was sunny and a strong breeze kicked up a mild chop. "This is my kind of wind!" he exclaimed. "We would have done well today." Walter, apparently still under the bacchanalia's naughty spell, told an obscene joke involving Superman, Superwoman, and the Invisible Man. A boat with billowing sails approached and two crew members razzed us about having no mast. But Special Warfare pressed on.
"Beaten but not defeated," said Walter. Sorg nodded. "We will live to fight again."
Others would not. On Sunday night a 22-foot powerboat rammed into a much larger sailboat near Elliott Key. According to the Coast Guard, the crash killed one man and injured two passengers in the motorized vessel. No one on the sailboat was hurt.