Miami Beach Tows Away Two Dozen Dinghies

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This past week's Miami International Boat Show drew more than 100,000 people and was declared by sponsors as “the start of what we hope to be a long and successful run.” 

It wasn't much of a success, though, for Canadian tourist Adam Ponette. Though Ponette sailed to town in a well-maintained and Florida-registered, mid-30-foot sailboat, Igloo, he says he almost lost his life – when his dinghy was towed from the public dock on South Beach.

Indeed, Ponette's dinghy was one of around two dozen that have been towed in recent months under two Miami Beach ordinances that – among other things – limit the amount of time you can tie up to 20 minutes. Like many others, Ponette had to pay a boat tow company $300 (until recently, it was $50) and return five to six miles to his moored sailboat in the dark in a small rubber boat in two- to three-foot waves. “I was terrified,” he says. “It was very dangerous out there, and I had no other way of returning to my wife and my boat.”

Beach commissioners passed a law in May 2015 to discourage local live-aboards in the Collins Canal and some other areas from tying up to public seawalls. As part of this initiative, the city began to strictly enforce another law that limited dockage at the boat ramp adjacent to Maurice Gibbs Memorial Park.

The city then conducted something it called — no kidding — "Operation Dinghy Sweep" last July 18, and eight dinghies were towed away. Two more small boats in Collins Canal were noted for later towing, and one guy was arrested for defacing a sign.  One of these vessels, a Boston Whaler-style dinghy with an outboard motor, was clearly worth $1,000 or more.

Since then, Chris Smith, owner of the contracted towing franchise, Sea Tow, indicates that about one boat a month has been towed by his operation.

That firm's president, Joe Froenhoffer, says three boats were towed from the dinghy dock on Monday.

A spokesman for Miami Beach Marine Police said the force has been “extremely lenient” on enforcement. “From late December to February, we know a bunch of the cruising community boats are here, people who aren’t aware of the strict enforcement. We don’t want to be jerks, towing their boats at 21 minutes.”

He further stated that in this case, “the dinghies had been there for several hours, tied up with locks and cables; the owners intended to leave them for a long time.” He also pointed out that one of the dinghy owners spoke to them, saying he had been tying up all week at the dock for more than 20 minutes without being towed.

Time limits are “strictly enforced” among those who live on boats near where Ponette's dinghy was moored, the spokesman said. .

Sea Tow’s local franchisee, Chris Smith, explains that Ponette's dinghy and the two others towed had been there overnight, which Ponette and the police have indicated was not the case, and that police wanted them out. Discussions with Froenhoffer, Smith, and the police indicate there have been about two dozen boats towed since the law came into operation, including the three recently taken from the dock.

The problem is that some Miami Beach waterfront homeowners have been pressing the city to put a stop to anchoring. The state Legislature prohibited Florida municipalities from enacting anchoring ordinances in 2009. 

Though Smith suggested that boats coming to the area can tie up on mooring balls at the Miami Yacht Club a few miles away on Watson Island, the club says those balls belong to the City of Miami. A man who answered the phone at the city's Dinner Key Marina said those balls were probably placed there illegally and have nothing to do with the city.

Smith stated that his firm would have towed Ponette back to his family's sailboat in Sunset Lake, close to the Venetian Causeway, for $350. Ponette states that they did not even suggest this to him, merely giving him some vague directions to return the six miles to his boat. Ponette’s dinghy is nearly new and worth about $1,000, not counting the value of the new Honda outboard on it. This is clearly not a "derelict" boat — the types of boats the city wants to get rid of — by any stretch of the imagination.

Ponette admits he was guilty of violating the 20-minute limit and agrees something has to be done about trashy boats anchored about, as opposed to people who are traveling and touring the country. He has discussed this with police since being towed.

They agreed with his comment that they are here to serve and protect. His next question to them was this: “If you are here to serve and protect, why did you put my life at risk that night by towing my dinghy away in those conditions?”

They had no response for him.

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