Surfer Dudes Unite

The beach at Virginia Key has always been a home to outcasts. When Muhammad Ali trained in Miami in the 1960s, he swam there because it was the only place blacks were permitted. Since desegregation, the beach has been an on-again, off-again favorite of gays and nudists. A generation of party animals remembers the half-mile strand through a fond haze of marijuana and bonfire smoke.

Most people don't know it, but Virginia Key beach is also the favorite destination for hundreds of South Florida windsurfing aficionados. The Atlantic waters offshore are considered one of the nation's top spots for the sport, owing to the absence of surf break near the beach, the warm weather, and a rare combination of wind and geography.

"When the conditions are right, it's as good as it gets anywhere," says Tom James, editor of Winter Park-based Windsurfing magazine. "There's nowhere in this country like it. Virginia Key reminds me of a famous beach in Maui called Kanaha, and that's the only thing you can really compare it to. On the inside of the reef you've got a long stretch of calm water, which gives you a long runway to get going on before you hit the waves on the outside of the reef."

James says this helps explain why, when the City of Miami closed Virginia Key beach on January 10 to save an estimated $112,000 in annual lifeguard salaries and maintenance costs, windsurfers from Islamorada to Palm Beach kept showing up anyway, risking arrest rather than quit surfing there.

But they didn't stop with open-air civil disobedience. Almost three months after the beach shutdown, South Florida windsurfers may be on the verge of persuading city hall to reopen the beach on a limited basis, for the exclusive use of their own kind. The pursuit of this goal has transformed the formerly quiet, disorganized subculture into a savvy special-interest political force that would make the National Rifle Association tip its hat.

The ferment began three days after the beach closure, when an irate Miami windsurfer named Nancy Lee wrote to Gov. Lawton Chiles, complaining that the loss of the public beach was "due to a shortage of funds due to the mismanagement of [city] officials." Chiles faxed back the same day, saying he'd referred Lee's letter to Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, chairman of the state oversight board now directing Miami's recovery from a $68 million budget deficit. "Buddy and I believe Miami will solve the crisis," Chiles noted.

Two days later Lee got a letter from Miami Mayor Joe Carollo. Carollo wrote: "While I understand your frustration at closing a prime windsurfing spot, I hope that you too can understand the anguish behind the many tough decisions we are now forced to make in order to save our city...."

Unmollified, Lee filed an official complaint with the city on January 29, insisting that the closing of Virginia Key beach not only cramped the style of 3000 local windsurfers but also violated the city's comprehensive growth master plan. The heart of her argument: a 1982 deed that transferred the south end of Virginia Key from Dade County to the city.

"The City agrees to keep the property open to the public, provide maintenance and a level of services equal to or exceeding that which was provided by the County," the deed reads. "In the event the city does not use the property as a public park, or conveys or attempts to convey all or a portion of the property, then the property described herein will revert back to the County."

Lee demanded a response from the city within 30 days, threatening to sue otherwise.

Meanwhile, windsurfers at Virginia Key dodged the cops, kept sailing, and tried other stratagems. At noon on February 20, two dozen showed up outside city hall with their boards, hoisted their sails, and started chanting for justice. "We got some press out there, Channel 6 and the Herald and a few other people," recalls Adam Locke, a protest organizer.

Another organizer, Michael Spiegel, walked inside city hall and confronted Mayor Carollo during a city commission meeting. Carollo promised a private powwow with the surfers.

The following Monday, February 24, Spiegel, Locke, and a windsurfing attorney named George DeFabio got their audience with the mayor. "We explained that people travel here from all over the world to windsurf Virginia Key, and that they'd closed the beach right in the middle of our prime season," Locke recalls. "To make a long story short, the mayor said that if we could satisfy the city attorney about the liability, he would see what he could do about getting the beach reopened for nonmotorized craft, at least temporarily."

Next stop: a March 6 sit-down with City Attorney A. Quinn Jones III and three of his assistants. It was a big disappointment for the fledgling politicos. "When our two attorneys went in to talk to their four attorneys, they wouldn't talk to us unless we withdrew the complaint Nancy Lee had filed," says Locke. "They wouldn't even talk to us off the record."

On March 12 approximately 80 noisy, suntanned windsurfers met at the Bayside Hut tiki bar and restaurant on Virginia Key, near the beach. Locke spoke, whipping the crowd into a froth. DeFabio and his law partner, Leonard Fenn, updated the crowd on recent events. Membership applications to the South Florida Boardsailing Association were passed around. The group had muddled along for years as an informal, disorganized collection of enthusiasts. Not any more; hours after the meeting the S.F.B.S.A. became a nonprofit Florida corporation, complete with bylaws and 140 highly vocal, pissed-off, dues-paying members -- a politician's dream, or nightmare.

"Windsurfers are a very tight-knit group, very passionate about their activity," says James, the Windsurfing editor, explaining why attendees of the March 12 meeting were ripe for politicization. "Windsurfers, as opposed to regular surfers, say, are better educated, maybe ten years older on the average, and have a higher household income. It's sort of like the snow-skiing crowd."

What the newly selected board members didn't mention to members of the S.F.B.S.A. was that, behind the scenes, they had interceded with Nancy Lee and persuaded her to withdraw her formal complaint against the city. Leaders of the increasingly focused windsurfing bloc realized that civil disobedience, public protest, and media manipulation were now behind them. It was time to rein in renegade members and present a united front. The day of the lawyers was at hand, the endgame.

A second meeting with Miami city attorneys ensued, quietly, the day after the Bayside Hut summit. DeFabio: "It was extremely positive. We discussed the liability aspects very narrowly, and made them understand that there wasn't a problem, because of past Florida case law and various U.S. Supreme Court decisions about people who drown in unguarded water. We satisfied them that they would have zero legal exposure as long as they post signs saying 'Swim at your own risk.' They acted convinced. I think we're on the fast track now."

Or so he hopes. Jones, the city attorney, was due to issue a formal legal opinion this past week, but hadn't done so by Friday. He didn't return phone calls seeking comment. Mayor Carollo did call, promising to meet with Jones this week. "Do I want Virginia Key open? You better believe it," says Carollo. "It gives Miami a major recreation area, and it gives us the prestige of having one of the top ten windsurfing locations in the country. We will do everything humanly possible to see that it happens soon. If the city attorney will give us a legal opinion that lifts all liability from the city's shoulders, I certainly would be happy to see the windsurfers back out there at Virginia Key, as long as it's not going to cost the city dollars we don't have."

Until city commissioners approve the idea of giving limited launch access to nonmotorized craft, the windsurfers must continue dodging handcuffs. Some in the rank and file fear they will be double-crossed by the stiff suits at city hall. The city, they fear, is dangling the promise of a reopened beach to lull them away from a separate but related issue: Miami's planned rezoning of portions of Virginia Key for commercial development.

But if such was the nefarious intent of bureaucrats, the scheme backfired last Wednesday when dozens of windsurfers showed up once again at city hall, this time to protest the rezoning. Miami's planning and advisory board lacked a quorum and so was unable to vote on the Virginia Key rezoning question. Jack Luft, Miami's planning director, stayed behind to tell windsurfers and others in the audience that the rezoning is little more than a technicality auguring no ill for windsurfers and other nature lovers.

The surfer dudes, newly attuned to the tricky currents of local politics, say they'll be sure to keep watching.


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