The comedy duo churn their way east up the south fork of the New River. The slick and handsome straight man, a 112-foot Westport yacht, gets led along by the stumpy, blue-collar guy who does all the work, a 26-foot Dusky tugboat from Cape Ann Towing and Salvage. At The Wiggles, a bit of river north of the Davie Boulevard Bridge that comes by its nickname honestly, tugboat captain Michael Knecht gets on the radio. A boat’s coming the other way. This could get interesting.
Three radios hum in the tug. One’s tuned to channel 9, the Fort Lauderdale river channel; one’s on 16, the general information channel; and one’s on 67, which the tug and yacht captains have picked for their communication. Until they get to the river’s mouth, the yacht captain is in the tug captain’s hands.
They follow a well-traveled path. Before Fort Lauderdale was a beach town, it was a river town. When Frank Stranahan and a handful of others set up shop, they didn’t need the ocean; they built their businesses and their lives on the banks of the New River. When land booms and a population explosion began the momentum towards what would become our modern city, tourists came to the beach but industry came to the river. Later, when the city decided to reclaim the neglected river for the people’s enjoyment, many in the boating industry wondered if there would still be room for them.
The New River holds secrets. If you don’t know what you’re doing, currents will pin you to the east side of the Davie Boulevard Bridge. A stretch not far from Wayne Huizenga’s house is deceptively shallow. Beyond The Wiggles sits The Ducks – named, well, because lots of ducks live there. There’s the wind, which can be particularly tricky downtown now that Fort Lauderdale has a proper skyline of tall buildings that make gusts stronger and less consistent. There are the tides, which depending on the size of the boat might matter and might not.
By the time Knecht leads the yacht into The Wiggles, he’s already radioed ahead on channel 9 to let anybody on the river know he’s coming. Nobody responded, but now this other boat appears, heading the other way. Knecht gets on the radio again – now the other guy responds – and with a few quick exchanges the other boat makes way in a wide spot while tug and yacht shimmy through.
Around Little Florida, he radios ahead to the William H. Marshall Bridge bridgekeeper. A waterfront Old Florida home in Riverside Park, Little Florida gets its name from its peninsula-shaped backyard jutting out into the river. Captains passing the home radio ahead and explain where they are via Florida geography; the captain explains that he’s by Little Florida at about Fort Myers. At Key West, the river turns and heads north, to where the north and south forks meet and flow into downtown. On the south bank, across from Little Florida, sits Lewis Landing Park.
Before yachts, people made big money along the New River thanks to a somewhat different product.
“There were men in the early 20th century becoming millionaires growing tomatoes,” Patricia Zeiler says.
The dredging and land booms of the early-to-mid 20th century would turn Fort Lauderdale into a place of tamed waterways and pleasure boating, but that earlier place and its residents looked different.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of inhabitable land,” says Zeiler, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. “The New River was their highway; the front doors of their houses opened onto the New River.”
It was an old neighborhood. Evidence of human habitation dating back to 200 to 300 BCE has been found around Lewis Landing, Zeiler says. When the first white settlers – the Lewises – turned up in the 1790s, they survived and made a good living doing something the Tequesta had done for millennia. Before boats and before tomatoes, they farmed coontie on the banks of the river.
Funny plant, coontie. Process it incorrectly and it’s lethally poisonous. Process it correctly and you’re in business.
“It was Caribbean flour, because no wheat could grow here,” Zeiler says.
Royalists who fled South Carolina when their side lost the Revolutionary War, the Lewises had listened as Spanish explorers in the Bahamas spoke of el Rio Nuevo, the New River, named because unlike the great rivers of Europe, it shifted and moved. Not long after they arrived on the river and began farming – they also likely introduced citrus, which is not native, to the area – other settler families came. Settler William Cooley became the magistrate, which is how Seminole leaders came to him asking for justice for a chief who had been shot by two white soldiers. Cooley got them before a judge, but according to Zeiler, the judge was unsympathetic. “Why,” he asked, “are you bringing me these two white men who murdered a Seminole, who is less than a black man?”
Seminoles blamed Cooley, and that’s where the story gets well known. Cooley was out on a shipwreck – salvage was another business of his – when a Seminole war party arrived at the family riverside home. Nobody – not Cooley’s wife nor his children nor their tutor – was left alive.
In later years the story would be told as one of wanton murder as opposed to a more truthful interpretation of an increasingly desperate people, willing to fight. But the result was clear.
parties continued up and down the river, and the settlers soon left. Major Lauderdale’s men arrived in 1838 and the Seminoles largely moved farther inland. There would not be a white civilian population along the New River again until 1893.
When they arrived, they came ready to work. In 1896, Henry Flagler’s railroad crossed the river. In little more than a decade, a busy little downtown had sprung up in the former pioneer outpost. “Where the river met the railroad,” Zeiler says, “was the heart of Fort Lauderdale at that time.”
Growth-minded Frank Stranahan and his determined, social justice champion wife Ivy have over the years become the kind of unofficial parents of Fort Lauderdale. But to find the father of the Fort Lauderdale boating industry, you need to look across the river from where the Stranahans lived and did business.
Ed King built the Stranahan’s house, as well as the New River Inn and several other prominent early buildings that still stand today. The inn was a feat – the first hollow-block concrete building in Fort Lauderdale, made with a mixture from barged-in beach sand. But Ed King’s original profession was boatbuilding. He built his boatyard across from the New River Inn on the river’s south bank, and a boatyard of some kind has stood on that site for more than a century. The current boatyard’s now closed, however; developers plan to build luxury apartments on the site.
Captain Knecht calls hello to a pair of kayakers as he turns past the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and enters downtown. At the Andrews Avenue bridge, he waits.
“This,” he says, looking up at the faded pink piece of infrastructure, “is the slowest bridge on the river.”
Eventually it raises, and everybody gets moving. Today’s skies are calm, so no tricky winds blow between the buildings of this city skyline that has sprouted up within a generation. Knecht came to Fort Lauderdale less than 20 years ago – he moved here in 1999 – but in that time, the art of leading yachts through downtown has changed quite a bit. Without tall buildings, winds are consistent, so you don’t have to think about them as much. A windy day in a condo canyon, on the other hand, tests the mettle somewhat more.
On the other side of downtown, near Frank and Ivy Stranahan’s home, the river gets crowded again. A couple boats coming the other way announce their presence on channel 9 – a catamaran and a small yacht, Jolene.
First comes the catamaran, which makes way for Knecht to glide by with no drama. Jolene, however, will be a bit bigger.
Phil Chinnock knew what the changes meant. As he sat in a city meeting in 1985 listening to plans for the city’s new “Riverwalk,” he could see what it would mean to Fort Lauderdale, to the New River – and to his West Las Olas business.
“That’s probably a very nice location for a hotel,” he said in an exchange noted by the Fort Lauderdale News, “but it’s in the middle of my boatyard.”
City commissioner Bob Cox tried to help. “You’ll be retired and have sold out to a hotel and restaurant, which is worth more money anyway,” the commissioner said.
By the mid-1980s, city officials and boating industry leaders were among a select few groups of people who ever gave the New River a second thought. Over decades, it had come to the same fate as many other urban American rivers, from the Hudson to the Cuyahoga. Neglected and unloved, with polluted water and unsafe, empty banks, it was not a place you’d want to linger with a date or a fishing pole. In 1967 Paul C. Loveland, president of the newly formed New River Civic Association, put it bluntly.
“The once beautiful New River,” he told the Fort Lauderdale News, “is an open sewer.”
Around that time, plans to reimagine downtown Fort Lauderdale began. They became firmer in the 1970s and started showing big results in the 1980s. The year before Chinnock and Cox attended the meeting, downtown’s impressive Broward County Main Library had opened, part of an ambitious menu of public buildings and spaces designed to create a modern downtown. Now city leaders turned towards the largely ignored river with an audacious plan – a riverside path, anchored by a performing arts center, that would bring life back to the river. For many people at the time it all sounded pie-in-the-sky – but at the same time, what the heck, right? Why wouldn’t you want a better river?
But boating industry leaders such as Chinnock rightly surmised that change was coming. A pleasant, entertainment-based riverside area wouldn’t necessarily have room for functional, industrial-looking boatyards. And of course, the land would be too valuable.
Cataloguing three decades of changes to Fort Lauderdale takes some work. The Riverwalk happened, of course, as did the Broward Center and a nightlife district in once-decrepit Himmarshee. More recently, the downtown residential boom began in earnest. Bob Cox’s prediction wasn’t quite right – the Symphony luxury condominium, not a hotel, now sits just about where Phil Chinnock’s boatyard once stood.
“The boating industry has always been a big part of the Fort Lauderdale economy, but we’re seeing that economy change and diversify now,” says Jack McCabe, a Deerfield Beach-based real estate consultant. “It’s a fine line that city and county commissioners will have to determine moving forward – whether to preserve boatyards through zoning or quite possibly the end of these boatyards as they sell out to developers offering multi-millions of dollars for their land. What we may see happening is that the land closer to downtown … will get redeveloped. And we may end up seeing those boatyards moving farther or farther away, or terminating their business.” In the years that followed those early Riverwalk meetings, Fort Lauderdale saw both.
Captain Knecht and the captain of the Jolene are on the radio, choreographing the dance they’re going to do to get past each other with no drama. By the time they make visual contact, the moves are all worked out. Jolene slows down, but that’s not necessary.
“Jolene, you don’t need to stop,” Knecht says into the radio like a man authoring a response to Dolly Parton. “Roger that,” says a female voice. “Jolene standing by.” The tug pulls the yacht forward, past a stopped Jolene. “Thanks for the hold,” Knecht says into the radio.
The tug motors on, taking the yacht parallel with the suitable-for-yacht-owners shops and restaurants of Las Olas. Captain Knecht sits back. From here, the ride to the New River’s mouth should offer few challenges.
In 2015, the company that owns the property asked Apex Marine to vacate its New River boatyard – the land that was first made a boatyard by Ed King. South Florida development giant the Related Group is now developing the site into phase two of the New River Yacht Club luxury apartments. That follows the recent trends of development on the river; Water Taxi’s headquarters remains, as does the adjacent Riverfront Marina. Other than that, you’ll find little else of the industry on the banks of the downtown New River.
But that’s downtown. Up the river’s south fork, out by the interstate and Marina Mile, boatyards and marinas get sold to people wanting to make money in the marina and boatyard business. Earlier this year, Fort Lauderdale Boatyard and Marina, the sprawling complex just east of I-95, sold for $14.1 million. The buyer: a marina group that plans to invest in upgrades to the facility.
Phil Purcell believes Fort Lauderdale will always have advantages built in, starting with geography. “Think of the whole United States,” says Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. “When you think of Seattle or San Diego – wonderful boating towns, but think of Florida. It’s this pier off of America. Fort Lauderdale’s in this really sweet spot off the end of this pier. It’s a jump off to the Bahamas. It’s a jump off to the Caribbean. Equally important, we can jump to Europe.”
Beyond that, if developers want to build downtown condos along the New River, well, maybe yacht owners might like to own some of those condos while keeping their yachts further up the river. Fort Lauderdale, Purcell says, offers the sorts of amenities that yacht owners enjoy.
And up the south fork, it offers the sorts of expertise that yacht captains require. “If they need electrical bids, they can get three competent companies that are world-renowned to give them bids,” Purcell says. “The level of expertise that resides in this region is far greater than anywhere else.
“What started off as some little things on Marina Mile when they dug out to fill in 95, that created opportunity to build yards. Those yards (have) the craftsmen and world-renowned fixers of product.”
Those good-paying, blue-collar jobs that America supposedly no longer creates? Go out to Marina Mile and have a look around. In Frank Stranahan’s time, Ed King made his money building boats and residential buildings. Today, both of his lines of work are still happening on the New River – only now, they’re happening on different ends.
Knecht’s tugboat passes what captains on the radio call “the girls’ school.” In 1925, Francis Abreu built the Needham Estate for Broward Hotel manager John Wesley Needham. In later years it would be both a finishing school and the John Robert Powers Modeling School – and at some point, the nickname stuck.
At mile marker eight, the tug and yacht halt. Somewhere on the deck of the looming yacht, ropes are untied and fall into the water. Knecht pulls them up and hollers goodbyes to the crew, who wave. Then he gets on channel 67. “I’m all clear at the bow,” he says. “Thanks for the work, Captain Albert. Have a good voyage.”
This journey to the river’s mouth started at the bustling Fort Lauderdale Boatyard and Marina. In the busy winter months there will usually be another yacht waiting here to go the other way, but on this late summer’s day he turns around to make the journey back up river on his own.
As the yacht heads east towards the ocean, Knecht heads west towards more work. He glances over his shoulder at the departing yacht. “He knows all about the Caribbean,“ he says of Captain Albert. “He knows all about the Med. I don’t know squat about those places.
“But I know this little piece of river.”