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Tell Tales: Devolution

Navigating an inlet has become and outlet for boater stupidity.

March 19, 2021
Steve Haefele illustration
“The first wave the boat encounters knocks the people up front senseless. The second fills the bow with water, and the third rinses a young woman into the sea.” Steve Haefele

It’s pathetic. Boaters are dumber than they used to be,” my pal Bill grumbled in disgust.

Bill was planning a trip south and had been searching online for local knowledge about South Florida’s inlets. Instead of finding that information, he’d discovered some videos starring boaters challenging Charles Darwin’s theory about the survival of the fittest.

In one video, a bowrider—an inshore design—is heading at speed out of Baker’s Haulover Inlet in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. The first wave the boat encounters knocks the people up front senseless. The second fills the bow with water, and the third rinses a young woman into the sea. The skipper slows and turns beam-to in the breaking seas, almost swamping the boat while the woman is swept away.

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This video is brought to us all by a bevy of click-hungry amateur movie producers promising the top-10 worst, biggest and craziest experiences aboard boats in Haulover Inlet. According to one budding producer, the action really heats up on weekends after drinks are served at the nearby sandbar. It’s not all broken boats, bones, mayhem and maydays, though; one producer explains that people beat the hell out of their boats and guests for amusement. “It’s sorta like a roller coaster,” he says.

As a kid, I watched boats run Baker’s Haulover. It was called Haulover because that’s what people, including a fellow named Baker, did with their boats before man-made inlets were punched through the barrier islands. The boats were mostly wooden workhorses from the charter-fishing docks. They were typically 40ish feet and skippered by old salts who took it slow and easy. Exercising caution was the only sensible option.

Boatbuilder and racer Dick Bertram and designer Ray Hunt changed all that with the Bertram 31. The first Bertram 31 Convertible I saw was negotiating Haulover on a sour day in the early 1960s. Dick might have been the one putting the brilliant deep-V hull through its paces for a customer. Boatbuilder Don Aronow would follow, giving birth to multiple performance brands from his shops on nearby 188th Street. Haulover was a convenient testing ground.

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Haulover is narrow and long as inlets go, a shape that fortifies its potential given the right conditions. When water pours out of Biscayne Bay and meets incoming ocean swells, seas can become steep and break. While Haulover can be challenging, nautical nabobs are more likely to vilify St. Lucie Inlet or Jupiter Inlet. I’ve been in and out of them all, and I’d give Jupiter Inlet the title for the nastiest. In my opinion, it’s not Haulover’s design that causes problems; it’s the boaters. They treat it like an amusement park.

Running an inlet is all about good timing and reading the seas, not ignoring them, punching the throttle and holding on. Or not. In the video, the young woman washed from that bowrider was lucky. The sea all but swallowed her, except for a single arm she used to wave something in the air. It took a fellow on a personal watercraft two rescue attempts to retrieve her—because he first had to save her cellphone.

Good God. If Darwin was right, we’re doomed.

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