Al Holden's 34-foot yacht, M/V Close Knit, bobbed as he prepared a meal of chicken and dumplings. On his way to Key West, the Canadian had threaded his way off the Intracoastal Waterway and found a sweet spot to drop anchor. Sunset Lake is situated right between mainland Miami Beach and the Sunset Islands, four little nuggets of land that collectively hold hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate. From this vantage point, Holden could see into the backyards of surrounding mansions.
That evening, May 3, 2011, the setting sun lent a golden glow to one particular $6 million, Mediterranean-style pad on North Bay Road that was just a few dozen feet from Holden's boat. Earlier in the day, the property owner had told Holden to get lost, but Holden had refused. Now rap music had begun to blast from the property: "My nigga's hanging out the window/Mouth full of gold teeth..." The music seemed an odd contrast to the regal architecture. Bemused, Holden shot a few seconds of video of the scene.
Hours later, he pressed the "record" button again. Then it was pitch black, except for a blinding spotlight aimed at his boat. The camera shook violently as the hip-hop continued to echo. Holden shouted as though he were reporting from a war zone: "This is a searchlight he has trained on our boat tonight, along with the music he's starting again! And tomorrow, he's threatened that he's going to bring his boat over here and park it right next to mine! If he does do that and there's an accident between the two boats, I want somebody to know who's to blame!"
"He" would be the owner of the mansion — Frederic Karlton, a middle-aged, ginger-haired, glasses-wearing real estate investor. Having become fed up with boaters who'd discovered the narrow stretch of water behind his house, he'd decided to retaliate.
Holden posted his video clip on YouTube under the headline "Bullying on the Waterway." It highlighted tensions that had simmered for decades between waterfront homeowners, who pay handsomely for pleasant views, and boaters who anchor in public waters exercising a right mariners have enjoyed for centuries.
On boating forums, travelers swapped stories about Karlton cursing at them and shining his spotlights. One wondered if this "deranged-sounding individual" was mentally stable. Sailing writer Wally Moran — a feisty, mustached 62-year-old who spends much of the year cruising with his dog on his red sailboat — heard about the conflict. He too has been shooed away by Karlton. He fired up his blog and sent out a call to arms. "I'm going to anchor right in front of his house," Moran swore. He encouraged others to do the same. "It's your right... Change doesn't come from sitting back in your computer chair and complaining online."
Karlton responded. He alleged that disrespectful boaters had threatened to drill holes in his boat or fill it with tuna fish, that they had peeked in his windows and climbed over his fence. Then he bought a set of plastic sailboat hulls and anchored them behind his home to keep everyone else away. "I had to go buy thirty 12-foot sailboats, at a tremendous cost, in order to protect my right to privacy," he said at a hearing in Tallahassee last year.
The state is currently in the middle of a years-long project to develop rules that uniformly govern anchoring. But in early March, Karlton and other landowners won the most recent round in the battle when Florida legislators outlawed anchoring in specific parts of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. In addition, some liveaboards — as these boaters have come to be known — have recently been evicted from Sunset Harbour, near the Venetian Causeway.
Moran complains this new state law and the crackdown were approved just to appease a few homeowners. He fears they will set a dangerous precedent by driving boaters to ever-more-expensive, full marinas or to a limited number of already crowded anchorages. To the little guys, it sends a message, he says: The waters are only for rich people.
"There's no way in hell we can let them get away with this," Moran warns.
When Mark Reinhardt wakes up on his 39-foot Ericsson sailboat in the waters near Dania Beach Boulevard, he enjoys the same views as homeowners along the shore: majestic sunrises, anhingas diving for grunts, the occasional manatee breaking the surface.
Whereas this view costs landlubbers many millions of dollars, Reinhardt's monthly outlay is less: "Two hundred, maybe $250 with the cell phone," he estimates.
Reinhardt, whose white beard and twinkling blue eyes would make him the perfect mall Santa, formerly ran a seafood restaurant in Orlando. He had a house, a wife, and kids. But three years ago, after the children grew up and he divorced, he thought, "Why are you working your ass off your whole life? I decided to give up chasing the American dream and bought a sailboat. Now I work when I want and cruise when I can."
Two categories of boaters will be affected by the state's new anchoring restrictions: guys like Reinhardt, known as liveaboards, who use their boats as primary residences, and cruisers, who are mostly retirees like Wally Moran. They stay on boats long-term as they travel from place to place.
For a while, Reinhardt did what many liveaboards do: He kept his boat at a marina in Pompano Beach, where he could plug into water and electricity. "I paid a thousand bucks a month to keep the boat at a dock," he explains.
But over the past decade or two, real estate prices have skyrocketed, so developers have torn down marinas to build
Reinhardt understands the business logic: "There're so few marinas and so many boats — if a marina can charge $1,000 per boat and not pay electricity and water on that, they'd rather have [that sort of tenant]. Do you want someone who walks around, has trash, or the guy that never uses his boat and it just sits there?"
So Reinhardt decided in 2013 to leave the dock and live in a style he and his comrades call "on the hook" — just dropping anchor. Now, he has no mortgage, no rent, no landlord. He's living the fantasy lifestyle Jimmy Buffett has sold for decades.
"My boat is completely off-the-grid sustainable," Reinhardt explains proudly. He has two tanks that catch rainwater. He uses two gallons of it per shower, whereas in a normal home, he estimates, "you use 40 gallons just to warm up the water."
He cooks on both an oven and a barbecue grill. Solar panels on his boat generate enough electricity to run his freezer. And, he says, "I'm a die-hard sailor. I don't use fuel hardly at all." He sold his car a year ago. With Uber, there's no need.
If he wants the internet for his computer, he switches his cell phone on as a Wi-Fi hot spot. To pump sewage out of holding tanks, Reinhardt visits a pump-out station in Hillsboro Beach. It costs a couple of quarters. Lately, he's been fantasizing about a Nature's Head toilet that turns waste into compost.
Of course, there are challenges. A year ago, his mast snapped when he was out sailing and he had to replace it. Another time, his dinghy drifted away, and it took a half-mile swim and wading into mangroves to catch it.
Doing laundry is a once-a-month project. And forget about air-conditioning. Liveaboard life is "a step above camping," Reinhardt notes. Which adds another obstacle: "You don't find a whole lot of women who want to go camping."
When deciding where to anchor, Reinhardt explains, sailors look for a place that's safe from wind and boat traffic. (In February, freak 60-mile-per-hour winds in Fort Lauderdale flipped a 12,000-pound catamaran upside-down.) It's ideal, he says, to be near a grocery store. To go ashore, he packs rain gear, climbs in a small powder-blue skiff he calls Lil Tip Sea, starts the outboard engine, and searches for a place to tie up.
"That's what makes the different anchorages popular," Reinhardt says, "where you can go to land your dinghy." Most private property is off-limits. Public dinghy docks are rare. In Fort Lauderdale, the Southport Raw Bar allows dinghies to tie up for a $10-per-day charge that can be used toward food or drinks at the restaurant. In Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour, tying up is allowed for just 20 minutes.
Reinhardt understands why some homeowners complain. Not everyone is as conscientious as he is. Some liveaboards can't afford upkeep and allow their homes to look like hell. When boats fall into disrepair or get thrashed in storms, some owners scratch off identifying marks and just leave them to sink rather than pay a few hundred dollars to have them towed and chopped up at the dump. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), at any given time, the state is processing 250 to 350 complaints about derelict vessels. Cities have their own cases on top of that.
To avoid bothering homeowners, Reinhardt never stays in one spot more than a few weeks. He says South Florida has an "antisailboat culture."
"I never even knew that existed until I came here," he says. "I asked around: 'Why does everybody hate sailboaters?' " The answer came: " 'Cause you guys are cheap."
Kevin, a computer consultant in his mid-40s, has worked hard to afford his $2.3 million, two-story, gated home on the Middle River just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale. It's located along a
Kevin (who did not give his last name because "there's been retaliation" by boaters) remembers an afternoon that he was water-skiing with his wife and daughters and caused a wake. "This guy on his little dinghy chased me around until I stopped and started going off on me and threatened me. He's cursing, 'I'm going to call the police!' I said, 'I'll call them for you!' The city has [limited] marine patrol units, and they've got to spend time chasing down these idiots?"
There was bound to be conflict. Florida has nearly 11,000 miles of inland waterways. Upon these waters float more registered boats than any other state: about 1 million.
The Florida Constitution holds that lands under navigable waters be held "in trust for all the people... Private use of portions of such lands may be authorized by law, but only when not contrary to the public interest." But since as early as 1918, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that people owning land adjacent to navigable waters are entitled to certain "riparian rights"; i.e., rights that come with the shore, including the rights to access the water and to "unobstructed views."
Over the past century, local governments instituted a hodgepodge of laws that confused boaters as they traveled along the water through cities and towns. In 2009, Florida lawmakers ruled that only the state, not municipalities, could regulate anchoring, though local governments retained the right to govern liveaboards. The FWC then set out to develop a more permanent solution and in five regions is now testing the idea of letting municipalities regulate their own waters if they provide mooring fields — essentially parking lots where boaters can clip onto mooring balls affixed to the sea floor. Results of this program are expected in 2017.
Until permanent rules take effect, local governments have tried to shoo away boaters in other ways. In the Florida Keys and Volusia County, boaters have reported that police have been coming aboard, sometimes with guns drawn, alleging they're checking to see whether vessels are illegally dumping sewage out of their holding tanks.
Miami Beach used another tactic. In 2015, the city made it illegal to dock an "unauthorized vessel" on public property, effectively making it impossible for liveaboards or cruisers to come ashore via dinghy in the city at all. The law was prompted by residents' complaints, according to City Manager Jimmy Morales. Last July, officers enforced it during a two-day mission dubbed "Operation Dinghy Sweep."
At a Miami Beach City Commission meeting this past October, commissioners agreed to move toward developing a mooring field so the city could regain local control of the waters and mitigate the "squatting," as Commissioner Michael Grieco described it.
Commissioner Deede Weithorn complained about seeing boaters on the dock of her million-dollar home on Stillwater Drive. "Some of these people think they can use our docks for their personal ability to walk through the neighborhood and go to the grocery," she said. "These are people who believe that they have the constitutional right to run around on the water, pay no taxes, pay for no services. I see them there for weeks and months at a time, so I know that they are discharging into the bay things they shouldn't discharge."
The commission discussed whether Miami Beach Police could board boats and put color-changing tablets into discharge tanks, which would be visible in the water if sewage were dumped. Police said they could, but tablets would be useless if boaters dumped their tanks at night.
Homeowner Frederic Karlton volunteered that he had begun working with engineers privately on designing a mooring field. Property owners "have absolutely no options," he added. "Boaters have many, many options, other places to go, and we have none."
Mayor Philip Levine — who lives on Sunset Island Number One and also owns millions of dollars of commercial property in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood — thanked him. "How do we deputize Fred as an honorary marine patrol?"
In December, State Rep. George Moraitis Jr., a Republican real estate attorney from Fort Lauderdale, introduced a law to prohibit anchoring overnight, from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise, in the Middle River of Fort Lauderdale. He added locations in Miami Beach on Sunset Lake and between certain islands along the Venetian Causeway.
Moraitis, who once served as a submarine officer in the Navy, keeps his office along the Middle River, and his father owns a home there as well. Like other complainants, the representative mentioned "sewage issues and sanitation issues" with boats that stayed at anchor.
But Moraitis said the reason he sponsored the bill was because "anchoring makes it difficult for kids to water-ski." He described accidents where kids maneuvered to avoid anchored boats and then slammed into walls. "It's about having a balance," he says.
Among those who testified in a hearing on the bill was Marc Gold, founder of the Ticket Clinic law firm, who lives along the Venetian Causeway. He said: "Three months a year, I have a trailer park in my backyard."
The bill passed and was presented on March 9 to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
Though the law will expire when the state comes up with its more permanent plan, Kevin — the Fort Lauderdale consultant with the $2.3 million home — seemed relieved. At least for now, he says, overnight boaters will be ousted from behind his house. "Look who's paying taxes, who's contributing to the economy," he adds. "It's the people that live on the water, not the relatively small population of boaters, most of whom come from out of state. They don't even want to pay $20 to $30 a day for a slip. When something happens to [boaters], it's our taxpayer resources that have to go bail them out — our police, our fire rescue."
Kevin has seen it all. Once, he discovered a man walking on his boat deck, naked in the middle of the day. He taunted Kevin. "He's like, 'What are you going to do? You're over there, and I'm over here.' "
The homeowner went on to describe boaters tossing dog poop overboard or urinating off the sides of their boats. "I have no idea if these are people with records, if these are people with sexual crimes, that are living behind [my] house. I question whether or not they can really be emptying their sewage appropriately. Would you let someone park a mobile home for months at a time in a public street?"
Marcus and Margie Hayward have come to adore the family of manatees — four adults and two babies — that has been hanging out under their 49-foot yacht. The couple sold everything they owned in England in 2013 to retire and travel the world. Next stop: Brazil.
"We have to fix the generators and a lot of expensive repairs," Margie explained, and Fort Lauderdale, with its major marine industry, "is the place to do it."
In just weeks, the couple has become part of a community of about 15 boats anchored in the Middle River. But they were astonished to learn that in this city — the so-called "Venice of America" — they're not welcome. Boats will be forced to move from the anchorage when the new law takes effect July 1.
"It's against the general rule of the sea — that a sailor be able to anchor!" shouts the baldheaded Marcus incredulously.
"We've never had problems anchoring anywhere else," pipes in Margie. "It's our first time in the States, and we find out we're not really wanted."
The Middle River anchorage is the farthest-south spot where they can stop. Their 67-foot mast is too tall to pass under fixed bridges on the way to Miami, and their seven-foot draft means their boat will hit bottom in shallower anchorages.
With marinas charging by the foot, an overnight stop could cost $300 per night — too much, since they live
The Brit was surprised to hear that nearby homeowners are angry. She's met several who paddled out in kayaks to say hello. "They come aboard, have a chat," she says. But as soon as the couple's boat is provisioned, they'll gladly move on. "We won't come back," Margie says.
Moving will also be on the agenda for Michael Kutner, age 23, and his best friend, 22-year-old FAU student Zachary Huberty, who live side-by-side on their boats. After breaking up with a girlfriend, Kutner began sleeping on his cheap sailboat and decided he preferred it to his $1,300-per-month apartment. Soon, Kutner sold Huberty the $4,000 craft and upgraded his own digs to what he calls the "Chevy Malibu of catamarans" — a $42,500, 32-foot Gemini. "Pretty generic," he says, though it has a queen bed, an extra stateroom, a stove, a grill, and a salon.
Kutner describes the standard routines of liveaboard life — dinghy docking, pump-out runs, laundromat days — but doesn't see any downside. He's glad to be building equity in an asset instead of enriching a landlord. And in his case, the boat is an aphrodisiac: "It's kind of like a no-brainer. I can't even tell you how many girls just fall in love on the water."
The lifestyle is so awesome, in fact, that he quit FAU to become a marine mechanic. Now he makes a good salary with his own business, America Mobile Marine, while his college-degreed friends flounder. It's turned out so well, he says, that three buddies are saving money to buy their own boats.
"The people who don't live on a boat hate us because they're jealous," Kutner says. "They wish they were doing what we're doing — living the legal, exciting way."
Yeah, says Huberty. "It is 100 percent free, and that's what I think they don't really like about it. They're in their $15 million homes looking at me living for free in their backyard, and they don't get too happy about that."
When the new state law goes into effect in July, though, the bros will likely split up: Huberty plans to move to an anchorage three miles south known as Lake Sylvia, while Kutner will likely head north to Palm Beach County's Lake Boca.
Nearby, 75-year-old Craig Stultz comes up the stairs of his 38.5-foot sailboat with a gleaming smile. The Marine Corps veteran grew up in Jupiter and had a career managing Marriott Hotels in Montego Bay in the 1970s, back when Jamaicans "hadn't seen ice cubes."
"I fell in love with people who live in the islands," he explains. He keeps an apartment on Las Olas Isles, "but I prefer being out here. It's so beautiful to be on the water. Just look at it!" he says, gesturing to the glimmering river and leafy palm trees.
He understands anger about unkempt boats — "I've been to some places that are horrendous, like Slumville" — but this community is not so, he insists. "It's a lifestyle choice. These are not derelicts, not bums." He says he has spent more than $50,000 on his boat in the past year.
When he is forced to leave, Stultz says, he'll dock at his apartment. "Life is not fair, so we adjust," he says stoically.
But, he warns, with a nod to sea-level rise, "When the water gets high, everybody will like to have a boat." He adds with a chuckle, "When those houses are underwater, I'll sail by."
Miami Beach veterinarian Mike Tenzer slips off his Converse sneakers after he climbs from his inflatable dinghy onto his $150,000 Hunter sailboat. He's kept the boat anchored in front of the Sunset Harbour condominiums,
It turns out the city had decided to enforce an ordinance that declares the boats have "a deleterious effect upon the health, safety and welfare of the residents" and "constitute aesthetic pollution, being unsightly and interfering with views and enjoyment by the public of the beautiful vistas of Biscayne Bay."
What a ridiculous law, says Tenzer. He says that the sailboats are pretty, that their owners live simply, and that one wasteful megayacht or broken sewage line does more damage than all boaters combined.
Miami Beach Police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez said that the city in March cited four boats under this ordinance and also issued warnings to eight or ten boats that they were considered derelict and could be towed away. One mother and her teenaged son who'd been living there for a year were ordered to leave by authorities.
Tenzer said that most of the people living on neighboring boats are hardworking but that he believed a few rundown vessels had been anchored there by unscrupulous individuals and rented out cheaply. Tenzer said that people on four or five vessels anchored by Sunset Harbour left the area voluntarily to avoid conflict.
Rodriguez says the city decided to enforce its "long-neglected ordinance" partly due to "ongoing complaints from certain people" and partly due to an incident this past October, when 17-month-old Yadriel Alba toddled off his family's boat anchored near Star Island while his mother slept. Officers found his little body near the shore, lifeless and blue. In a report two months earlier, FWC officers had described the boat as "disgusting and horrific... They are essentially homeless."
Moran, the feisty blogger, concedes that some boats are poorly kept by individuals who can't afford regular homes but says the child's death should not be used as an excuse to take away rights from legally anchored sailors. His blood boils every time the opposition lumps responsible boaters in with sex offenders, pedophiles, sewage dumpers, and the homeless. "I am grossly insulted by the way we have been referred to by the administrators of Miami Beach," he rants.
Moran picks apart the new state anchoring law: "They want to eliminate anchoring at night — but it's already against the law to water-ski at night." The new law prohibits stopping from sunset to sunrise, but any yahoo could still anchor in the way of water-skiers in the daytime. "You tell me who's jerking whose chain," says Moran.
He's enlisted two organizations, Boat US and the Seven Seas Cruising Association, to help oppose the homeowners. But in Tenzer, he has found an ally who will go to the mat. Tenzer is affluent, and his boat is spic-and-span. He already has one of those composting toilets.
"I'm going to fight for my right to anchor legally," Tenzer says. He has hired an attorney and contends that Miami Beach is overstepping its authority. The city treats anyone staying on their boat for more than seven days within a 30-day period as a liveaboard. But the state defines liveaboard vessels as those used "solely as a residence and not for navigation." Tenzer says he spends a lot of time on his boat but is not a liveaboard.
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Both Moran and Tenzer says authorities' energy would be better spent enforcing laws already on the books — like citing homeowner Karlton for the plastic decoy boats that he's anchored behind his house in Sunset Lake for three years. Moran contends that they would violate rules requiring boats to have proper lighting and not interfere with navigation. "They fit the definition of a derelict boat — they're filthy, covered in sludge and bird feces."
Eliminating anchorages, Moran says, means more boaters will squeeze into the ones that remain, creating overcrowding and safety issues. Once a precedent is set, homeowners along those banks will expect that they too can get rid of the nuisance. "All the marinas are full. You can't get a dock if you want one. There are hundreds of people on boats and they've got no place to go."
Ultimately, he says, "a few wealthy homeowners are interfering with the right of all citizens using the water legally."