Ahoy, Yacht Lovers

The Boat Hustle Is Alive and Well

Three years ago, Hurricane Wilma clobbered the 46th Annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, not only putting show sites through a brutally destructive storm blender but sweeping away millions in lost business for exhibitors. Now, as a flotilla of yachts and superyachts churns down the Intracoastal for the 49th annual show opening this week, there's another storm brewing. Call this one the Recession of '08.

People in the boat business, some of whom do more than 30 percent of their annual business during the five days of the Fort Lauderdale show, are of two minds about the way hard times affect the market. Either the family boat is the first thing to get dumped — or it's the one beloved item passionately clung to, through thick and thin, by wave-skimming dreamers.

Henry Schoone, an independent boat broker from Fort Lauderdale, who does business as Schooner Yachts, puts it bluntly: Look for straight-ahead cash deals. If you want to buy a boat right now, don't count on getting financing, he says. A boat is the last thing a bank wants to lend money for during a huge credit crisis.

"Boats are mobile, and they can depreciate very quickly," Schoone says. "Think about it. If you stick your car into salt water for a while, what'll happen?"

Still, says Dane Graziano, senior vice president of Show Management, which operates the boat show, boat fanatics are holding onto their boats — and buying new ones. Like always.

"It's their lifestyle, their luxury," Graziano insists, adding, "This is a fabulous time to buy a boat."

All the sailors and would-be sailors, those dudes (and dudesses) with the characteristically dreamy, horizon-searching gaze, will be out in force this weekend for what's ballyhooed as the world's largest boat show. There will $3 billion worth of boats and merchandise on display, according to Show Management, though Tailpipe is still trying to figure out how they arrived at that sum. (The 'Pipe pictures a haunted-looking accountant with an adding machine toting up the price tag on each item, from 99-cent Allen wrench to $65 million superyacht.) Last year, the figure was $2 billion. Quite the jump in a gloomy economy.

Boat fanatics will sit in speedboat cockpits, rest their hands on sailboat tillers, and walk gingerly through the yachting Big Boys — like Christensen Yachts' 163-foot Casino Royale, a 007-themed yacht with Bond girls embossed on frosted glass, a carved roulette wheel, and mahogany fixtures with inlaid marble and granite (and it's not for sale).

But how many attendees will be opening their checkbooks to buy a boat? Hard to say.

Ask me next week, says Ariel Perez, sales manager for Sea Vee Boats in Miami. "Anybody who tells you there hasn't been a slowdown in the industry can't be living in today's world," Perez says. "Everything we build is built to order, and right now we have an eight-month backlog. But we're used to having a year and half of backlog."

Mike Oblosky of Dania Beach-based Intrepid Power Boats, says the market is still strong for high-end boats. "There's been a slight dip in boats of less than $350,000," he says.

Christensen and other superyacht manufacturers, on the other hand, are doing just fine.

And so is the German-born Schoone, who has carved a lucrative niche for himself in the European and Middle Eastern markets.

Schoone, 51, with combed-back blond hair and a yachtsman's squint (though he's not a recreational boater himself), handles phone calls in the dining room of his Coral Ridge home. He's got a client in Germany, hot to take advantage of his strong euros to score an American bargain. Right now, he's got his eye on a 25-footer for which he'll pay $50,000. In cash. You can almost feel the antsiness of the owner's agent on the other end of the line. There's a $1,000 deposit on the boat, he tells Schoone, from a guy in the Ukraine — who hasn't been heard from in several weeks.

Yes, there are bargains, Schoone says. "In a financial crisis, there are better deals."

He just shipped his third boat to Dubai this year, even though that nation's currency is pegged to the dollar not the euro. One of those boats went for $1 million, without the customer even eyeballing his purchase. "It's unbelievable that someone would spend a million dollars like that," Schoone says.

So it goes for Schoone, who advertises in European newspapers but gets a lot of business by word of mouth. "I was talking to a German dentist who said he'd have the price of a boat in my escrow account in less than an hour," he says. "Thirty-five minutes later, there it was. He had his banker in the dentist's chair." Then the banker bought a boat.

In the boat business, as elsewhere, the spoils go to the well-prepared and the in-the-know.

The Grief of Strangers

It was one of the bleakest scenes Tailpipe ever participated in: a funeral service for a baby who had been dead for more than two years.

The baby, named posthumously Shanice Denise Osbourne, was the focus of a troubling case that had anti-abortion activists in South Florida out in force. There were speakers there from local pro-life groups, including the Tailpipe's favorite blowhard evangelist, O'Neal Dozier (the guy who once said that homosexuality was "something so nasty and disgusting that it makes God want to vomit") of the World Wide Christian Center in Pompano Beach — where services were held prior to the funeral.

Also stepping up was Alan Keyes, the former Republican presidential candidate and sputtering, hopelessly outmatched antagonist to Barack Obama in his U.S. Senate run in Illinois in 2004.

Shanice was born 27 months ago in a Hialeah abortion clinic. The mother, then 18 years old, told police she went back to the clinic where an abortion had been allegedly performed on her, complaining of stomach pains. She subsequently gave birth to the baby, telling police she could hear the newborn crying for five minutes.

After receiving an anonymous tip, police searched the clinic, but they did not find the body. A second search, eight days later, turned up a dead fetus in a plastic bag. Witnesses told police the bag, which included the umbilical chord and dirty medical supplies, had been thrown on top of the roof of the clinic so police wouldn't find it.

The Hialeah clinic has since closed down.

The office of Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce A. Hyma determined the fetus — which was linked to the mother by a DNA test — had developed for 22 weeks, two weeks short of the 24-week cut off when abortions are no longer legal. The medical examiner declared the cause of death to be "extreme pre-maturity" and manner of death "natural."

A Miami-Dade grand jury is considering possible murder charges against clinic operators.

Pro-life activists organized the funeral this month, when the medical examiner released the baby's remains. Speakers discussed the need for tighter abortions laws — preferably a reversal of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case. Keyes said man's laws should not supersede God's laws. Abortion, he contended, is probably the most important issue facing the country in the upcoming election.

That seemed a fair statement Tuesday morning in a church where the apparent grief of strangers mixed with rank political messages that seemed irrelevant to the child being memorialized. Gospel music played to a sea of mourners, mostly wearing black, many tearing up at the ceremony. A line of attendees placed red roses on the tiny white casket before it was lowered into the ground.

Lost in the details of the tragic events was the mother, now 20 and a Broward County resident. On the advice of attorneys, she declined to talk about the case. She was at the funeral, however, surrounded by her new friends in the pro-life community. She tearfully placed the final rose on the little coffin.

Don't Mess with the Dragon

In times of economic crisis, the crime rate rises. Sure. But why does the riffraff keep picking on the Blazing Paddles dragon boat team?

Dragon boats are wooden affairs that seat 20 people. A drummer sits up front and bangs a drum to keep all the paddlers in rhythm; a steerer pilots the boat by using a long paddle like a rudder.

A few months ago, members of the Blazing Paddles team chipped in to buy a brand-new boat — for $11,000. The thing was 45 feet long, and they struggled to find a safe place to put it. A friend offered an empty house on the Davie canal — a model home for a community that was never completed due to the housing bust.

Shortly afterward, someone broke in and stole 50 brand-new PFDs (life jackets) from the house. Those suckers cost about $85 apiece. Then, about two weeks ago, the paddlers showed up to pull the boat out for practice only to find that someone had fired 25 rounds through the lock on the door. The gunfire sprayed the boat. Holes pierced the hull. It's expected to cost $6,000 to repair.

A team member named Kristin Ferrari said that if anyone has information about the crimes, please email blazing_paddles@yahoo.com or see paddleorbepaddled.com. The team might name the boat after the tipsters (or at least give them a free cruise down the Intracoastal).

Kristin dug for a silver lining. "At least we have street cred now!" she said. "We're going to fix it and paint it — and paint bullet holes right where the real ones were." That ought to make them look fierce on the water — especially against their arch rival: a team called Puff.

Rep. Chicken

Supporters of Republican congressional candidate Allen West, who seeks to unseat Democratic U.S. Congressman Ron Klein, say their opponent is chicken. He's been ducking out on scheduled face-to-face debates. "I don't think Mr. Klein likes to be onstage at the same time as Allen," says Mike McCrady, West's campaign manager.

Klein represents a district which snakes along the Atlantic coastline from Jupiter to Hollywood. He took office in 2007 after beating Republican Clay Shaw.

At a debate earlier this month in Coral Springs, the crowd booed Klein. McCrady says he arrived late at the next one and ducked out early. Then Klein backed out of a debate in Boca Raton, saying that he had a meeting to attend in Washington.

"We scheduled the event way back in August," says Peter Lebowitz, a Republican organizer of the Boca stand-off. "I doubt they ever intended to be there."

Lebowitz restructured the event as a town hall meeting with West. The Boca Pointe Republican Club will eat the $3,000 cost. "Klein figures he's got this big Jewish vote down here — they'll vote with their eyes closed," says Lebowitz, a 77-year-old retired businessman.

Lebowitz likes West because the retired lieutenant colonel promises to look out for his constituents as if they were his troops. But Klein? "He's a wimp," Lebowitz says. "Losing a fight is one thing, but I don't like getting knocked out in the dressing room. I want to get in the ring."

The super-busy Klein says he sent Lebowitz his regrets a week before the debate, adding that he looked forward to "discussing the critical issues that face our community at many other public forums."

There may be a trend here. Another Democratic incumbent representing part of Palm Beach County, Tim Mahoney, skipped a debate in West Palm last week to duck news cameras after admitting to multiple extra-marital affairs.

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