The water route from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale includes, by John Kelly’s count, 39 locks. Pittsburgh is famously a city of three rivers; you start by taking one of them, the Ohio, to Paducah, Kentucky.
“You know the age of a river by how many bends, twists and turns are in it,” Kelly says. “And the Ohio has a lot.”
At Paducah, the Ohio meets the Tennessee River. You take the Tennessee down to northeastern Mississippi, where you reach the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a way to relieve commercial traffic on the Mississippi, the 234-mile waterway runs from the Tennessee to the Tombigbee River watershed, which runs to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay. Then you run the Florida coast, through at Key Largo or Key West depending on how you’re feeling, and up to Fort Lauderdale. (After so much inland travel, there has not yet been a desire to experience the delights of LaBelle, Clewiston and the Okeechobee Waterway.)
“It is a Tom Sawyer-like trip,” Kelly says. “People ask how long it takes; it depends on how lucky you get with the locks, but you don’t do it if you’re in a rush. The rivers are mostly undeveloped; every now and then you hit a little town where you stop for fuel and food, or to stay the night.”
When Kelly lived in Pittsburgh and owned a yacht, he wouldn’t do the entire trip, which can take up to three months. But he’d meet the captain in certain spots and watch for a time as river or waterway or Florida coast passed by. And always, the trip would end in Fort Lauderdale, for the reason yacht voyages so often end in Fort Lauderdale, because this is where you go to get things done.
Kelly had always boated; he and his family, including son Michael, enjoyed it first when they lived in Rhode Island.
“We have been a lifelong boating family,” Kelly says. “Since my kids were small and we were living in Rhode Island, we would start with a small runabout. It was typically going out after lobsters or going tubing or skiing off Chatham in Cape Cod.”
The boating didn’t stop when the family moved to Pittsburgh.
“There’s actually a pretty vibrant boating community there in Pittsburgh as well,” Kelly says. “As the kids got older, we got larger boats that could accommodate sleeping quarters for all of us.” Their last Pittsburgh boat was 70 feet. In 2007, they bought a condo in Fort Lauderdale.
When they started bringing the boat down to Fort Lauderdale for repairs and winter boating, they began to get to know the marinas and the boating community. Eventually, they got to thinking. John and Michael worked in different areas of real estate; with their love of boating and their approach to business, they thought they might have something to offer the boating community. They started looking around at marinas – not for boat repairs, but for one to buy. Eventually, they came to Bradford Marine.
Technically just over the line in Davie – a “Welcome to Davie” sign sits in front of the Bradford entrance – the marina is one of the most established in the Fort Lauderdale yachting community. It opened for business in 1966, the same year as the Miami Dolphins, and it’s been family-owned all that time. On most days, you’ll find a variety of yachts in its slips, including a few that are more than 50 years old. (On one recent day, the oldest boat in the yard dated to 1908.) The marina’s silver tugboat, Hero, is something of a New River celebrity and, though not overly glamorous, has even participated in Winterfest boat parades. Craftsmen, some who have been there decades, work in the various shops that spread out behind the offices.
The Kellys also bought the neighboring Billfish Marina, which will essentially be demolished and made part of Bradford. They’re committed. “We decided to invest in this community,” Kelly says, “because we love the community.
The plant updates and remodels planned for Bradford cut through pretty much the entire operation. Some are practical. Yachts are a lot taller than they were in 1966; roofs over slips need to be raised to accommodate every kind of vessel. Meanwhile, some of the office space has, shall we say, a certain Mad Men-style aesthetic.
There are new seawalls, which are these days a climate change-mandated upgrade in South Florida and beyond. Then there’s the bit out by the river that right now is mostly still a construction site. One big change is an upgrade to the types of services and amenities for those who are going to be spending a while at the facility, namely captains and crew.
“Our whole view of what we’re bringing is our family’s love of boating to the facility and really creating the home away from home for our captains, our crew,” Kelly says. That means a new fitness center, amenity area with resort-style pool, and a captain and crew lounge. Something that doesn’t feel like an industrial shipyard.
The goal isn’t to create a resort for the people who own the boats; they go to, well, actual resorts for that. The goal, says Colin Kiley, Bradford’s chief revenue officer, is to create a place that feels comfortable and familiar to the professionals who stay with the boat.
“It’s not to give them a five-star experience,” Kiley says. “It’s to give them a home away from home.”
It’s also good for business. Captains who are treated well in Fort Lauderdale will continue to reinforce why Fort Lauderdale is where boats should go for services.
But if they need to upgrade in some areas, Kelly also sees the need to maintain service in other areas. Walking around and looking at the yachts, you quickly notice how many of a certain vintage there are. Take one regular visitor, the Innisfail. The wood, 1939 Trumpy’s home port is Jacksonville, but its owners bring it down to Bradford for repairs. Originally commissioned by the Navy during World War II as a patrol boat, it’s hosted presidents and dignitaries.
“These are really historical vessels that require significant upkeep,” Kelly says. “They require tradespeople that know how these boats were built.” Innisfail was last at Bradford about a year ago to repair some bow damage caused by marine worms.
“We’ve got a skillset with our carpentry shop that goes back decades and understands how you actually repair,” he says. In this case, they sourced the wood from forests in Maine; the specific tree had to be a certain diameter. “These are our artisans, the carpenters who knew what needed to be done to have this boat restored in this one particular section, back to her original state.”
Nasir Ahmad, who runs Bradford’s paint shop, says wooden yachts can be some of the most interesting, tricky jobs.
“The wood boats are not that many – they’re so expensive and it’s such a long, drawn-out process,” he says. “It’s a lot of craft, you have to take the wood out, you have to get the carpentry department involved.”
Originally from Guyana, Ahmad came to work at Bradford’s paint shop in 1990. He started at the very bottom, learning the trade.
Wood boats have some issues, aluminum or steel boats have different ones, fiberglass boats have different ones still. “It’s a lot of processes to get to the finish paint,” Ahmad says. “Meanwhile you have to clean on a daily basis, because you want a nice clean job.”
With older boats in particular, you have to blend colors to make sure everything matches. “You have to have that finesse to blend it so that you wouldn’t see that transition from old to new.”
The same is true of the men and women who understand how yachts work and what they need. Bradford has apprentices, including one in the paint shop. (“He’s doing exceedingly well,” Ahmad says.) “We always look for a new hand to come in and learn. There’s just a tremendous amount of work.”
That’s because to be able to offer everything that every yacht might need, you’ve got to be prepared. Kelly is impressed by the diversity of services the industry offers.
“There is such an ecosystem that surrounds the servicing of boats of all different sizes,” Kelly says.
“In coming down here, what I felt was that there’s a lot of positive. It was that ecosystem. Fort Lauderdale and Broward County are huge beneficiaries of the marine industry from an economic impact perspective. And there’s nothing you can want for your boat from a services standpoint or new parts or changes made to your boat that you can’t get in Fort Lauderdale or Broward County.”
But in how it’s delivered, they found they could do something. When Kelly and his son were talking about doing business together – they’d been in different forms of special purpose real estate – they reckoned they could bring something to the market.
“The larger the boat, the more complicated a floating house it is,” Kelly says. A whole host of things that need to be maintained. He won’t name specifics, but they went to a lot of boatyards. When they decided on business together, there were ways they thought they could improve some of the facilities.
He appreciates the history of Bradford, and the way it was founded as a modern business at a time when State Road 84 still had a whole lot of green space on either side.
“They were real pioneers to have identified what could be possible with the development of the service capability further up the New River,” he says.
But what they found was that over the years, there had been atrophy.
“It could use a new injection of energy, of approaches, of systems, and that is where we started.”
The people who owned it were comfortable passing it on to the next steward. They knew from the beginning that they wanted to retain the name and the craftsmen, some of whom have been there for decades. Keep what’s great, make the upgrades – that was their plan.
If there’s a theme Kelly returns to, it’s the mixture of professional-grade service and a family’s passion for the water. “The big benefit of the family ownership that started all this and that continues in our particular case was that familial feel.” Owners you know, standing behind what their organization is delivering. Owners who are in it for the relationship-building long haul rather than the shareholder-pleasing short term.
“There are ways in which this industry can be improved to bring enhanced services,” Kelly says. “The owners of these boats and the people who work on these boats, the captains and crew, they’re used to technology being brought to bear in so many other aspects of their lives, but that really hasn’t happened in the marine industry.
“This isn’t mass produced. The bigger boats are pretty much bespoke, any manufacturer only builds a certain number of each one of these.”
Not everybody wants or can run a larger vessel. So on some level, it’s been viewed as a cottage industry. To an extent, Kelly reckons, that’s kept the industry grounded in the past.
“Every one of us in the industry needs to make sure we make the experience of having one of these vessels fun and relatively easy,” Kelly says. “If you’ve never experienced it yourself, it’s hard to know where the frustrations lie. It all started with that and so we married the two – the love of boating and the recognition that it’s important to see these facilities maintained.”
He remembers times when they’d come in from Pittsburgh with a problem on the boat. They’d get bids. “You then come back, the communication was lacking, it turns out the invoiced amount was much more than the estimate and it’s pointed out that it’s an estimate,” he says. Which to a point, makes sense. It’s a big, complicated floating house; projects are tricky. Nasir Ahmad, who runs the paint shop, says the average job takes two to four months; his department recently finished a job that took nine. Separation, adhesion problems below the paint, water coming in that you didn’t know about at first – you can’t always see from the surface what’s needed. And that’s just one department.
But Kelly reckons if your marina makes plenty of money, you absorb those costs. If his operation provides a quote, that’s what you get billed. If they didn’t estimate it properly, that’s on them.
“It’s basically taking the surprise factor out of owning a boat.”
It takes a while to do a job properly in yacht repair. You can’t rush it. But you can’t rush the 39 locks between Pittsburgh and Fort Lauderdale, either. The Kellys are used to patience with boats.