Wild and Dirty

Hemmed in, polluted, under police guard, the New River is still as untamed as it gets in Fort Lauderdale

Zenga won't go so far as to say his New River swim last year was a political statement, but it wasn't just gonzo swimming either. "I did it because I thought it would be something for the river. When I swam, it wasn't that bad. I'll probably go back this year and do it and try to get more people to do it, hopefully to make a statement on the river so people's awareness of the river increases."

If the New River has lost most of its primitive form over the past 100 years, tales about its untamed and fickle history have become a cottage industry for boat tours, although some are almost Disneyesque in their tackiness.

Colby Katz
Colby Katz

Three times a day, the venerable Jungle Queen chugs upstream from Bahia Mar to Jungle Island, which is actually tree-thatched shore land between Riverland Road and I-95. There, guests eat barbecued ribs and chicken, watch a ventriloquist or singing troupe, and titter at monkeys in cages.

On a recent excursion, the Queen floated up the river past the homes and yachts of the fabulously wealthy. "The guy who owns this yacht is a NASCAR racer," the tour commentator said as he directed everyone's gaze to a crowded marina located just east of I-95. "He always races number 24." The passengers screamed with recognition. "That's why Jeff Gordon named his boat 24 Karat. "

A teenaged girl sitting with her friends whipped out her cell phone and called her father, who was shopping at Wal-Mart. "Who's your favorite race car driver?" she screamed. "I just seen his boat!"

If you're looking for a more primal excursion, you might want to wander into Shirttail Charlie's, a restaurant/bar that lies almost directly across the river from the teeming and gaudy Riverwalk, a collection of bars and restaurants that were the city's attempt in the 1980s to gentrify the downtown riverbanks. The restaurant's name derives from river lore about a Seminole Indian trader who plied his wares on the river about 100 years ago.

With its rough, rustic look, Charlie's seems a little lost in time, like a place where even Frank Stranahan could chill. The bar is gazebo-like, and its swinging, wooden shutters are hooked above the windows, which hold neither screens nor glass. It offers a perfect view of river traffic.

On a recent night, the captain of Shirttail Charlie's boat sat at the end of the bar, eating deep-fried fish fingers, sipping on a voluminous iced tea, and smoking. Dressed in sailor whites, Scott Hale looked the quintessential captain. His skin is deeply tanned with reddish overtones, and his blond locks brush back in a wave. He's boyishly handsome, and he knows how to turn on the charm when it's called for. He's one of several captains who split their time piloting Charlie's small boat. The restaurant uses the boat to convey customers over from the busy, northern side of the river and also to provide sated diners a little river tour. Charlie's and the nearby Downtowner Saloon and Steak House are the only restaurants on the south bank of the river.

"We're kind of like kindred spirits with the Downtowner, because we're on the wrong side of the river," Hale asserted. "They're looking for a younger crowd. We're more family-oriented."

The bartender spied some of the kids climbing up on a boat on a trailer in the neighboring boatyard. He yelled to them to stay off it. "If you want a boat ride, talk to the captain here!" he shouted.

Hale choked histrionically on his fish. "Not on my boat!" he sputtered.

In fact, Capt. Hale wasn't in the mood to work this night. He was willing enough to pilot the river. It's his role as floating party host he wasn't up for. And if you're not in the mood for that, well, you're not really doing your job.

"You've gotta have the right personality to stand in front of people," he said, wagging a fish finger to punctuate his point. His voice had the slightly nasally timbre that's ideal for cutting through background noise -- in this case, a bunch of screaming kids.

He insists on a party atmosphere on his boat, the kind of alcohol-soaked partying the rumrunners of old would appreciate. He regales his passengers with steamy river tales, punched up with Don Rickles-like insults and bad puns. And if he gets a dud or two on board, the kind of people who can't laugh even in the grip of a happy current, he threatens to change the name of the boat to Water Hearse.

The Jungle Queen pulled alongside Swing Rope Bend. A dozen small children scurried around the shoreline.

"Hey, we've got some kids playing Tarzan over here on a rope," the tour guide cooed. "Let's see if they give us a good swing."

With the timing of vaudeville pros, three of the boys turned their backs to the river, dropped their trunks, and mooned the Queen with wiggling butts.

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