The channel with its steady traffic of big ships, its narrow confines, and its choppy water is one of the most dangerous pieces of water for kayakers in South Florida, knowledgeable people say.
"It's no place to go unless you're up for extreme adventure," says Michael Stillman, a Fort Lauderdale kayaking veteran and cofounder of East Coast Kayak Fishing, which runs a major annual fishing tournament.
Of course, that has never stopped groups of amateur paddlers, wave runners, and small-boat aficionados from testing the water, even as cruise ships or container ships plow back and forth between the port and the open sea. At its narrowest, the channel is just 450 feet wide, a churning, rockin'-'n'-rollin' waterway through which six or eight cruise ships in a row can maneuver during the course of an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.
The South Florida Kayaking Meetup was the group that planned the event for that morning, January 20, Tailpipe learned. The group is an informal collection of recreational kayakers, organized on the meetup.com website by a local enthusiast named Kai Story. Kai, as everybody calls him, generally plans the excursions, and he often rents kayaks to participants at $30 a day, according to people familiar with the group.
Of the eight people who showed up, only two of them claimed any significant ocean kayaking experience. The group got into the water near the Lauderdale Marina, on SW 15th Street, and moseyed south along the inlet channel, making a few stops along the way.
"Conditions were surprisingly calm," Kai wrote in a defensive online account of the excursion, which was forwarded to Tailpipe by a group member. "The water in the inlet on the way out was flat and boat traffic nearly non-existent."
When the group reached the mouth of the entrance channel, it turned left and began to navigate along the northern seawall.
Kai himself wouldn't talk to Tailpipe ("I've taken A LOT of unnecessary grief and stress for that paddle trip," he said in an e-mail), but excerpts and pictures from the group's meetup site, as well as the account of a witness, tell the hair-raising tale.
Instead of hugging the wall, as experienced channel kayakers recommend, the group drifted out toward the center of the channel. It was there that a paddler identified as Jack Bauer capsized. This was apparently an accident waiting to happen, critics of the operation say. Bauer's craft was a recreational kayak, not the more streamlined seagoing model; with its open cockpit and wobbly equilibrium, Bauer's craft was easily swamped in the choppy water.
Two fellow kayakers tried to assist Bauer, who was not wearing a life vest, and, exhausted, he was unable to climb back into his boat. He was hanging on to the end of a friend's kayak when the group noticed a tanker under tow by two tugboats, bearing down on them from the eastern end of the channel.
As the ship approached, it unleashed blasts from its foghorn; the tugboats, also sounding their alarms, tried to maneuver the ship sideways to slow its momentum. According to the Port Everglades Pilots Association, big ships generally navigate the channel at 6 to 8 knots not fast for a vessel but, for an exhausted kayaker treading water in its path, "moving death," according to kayaker Captain Jimbo, who runs excursions locally.
The ship's immediate options were either to run down Bauer and the two kayakers trying to assist him or to run aground on the south side of the channel, releasing thousands of gallons of crude into the ocean and probably shutting down the port.
"You can't stop on a dime out there," Capt. Bruce Cummings, co-manager of the pilots association, says with gruff understatement.
Enter John Estey, captain of a towboat for Sea Tow of Hillsboro and the hero of the hour. Pulling a disabled pleasure boat back to port ahead of the tanker, Estey quickly sized up the situation. Not only was Bauer "not doing very well," Estey says, but the kayakers were being pulled toward the ship by an outgoing tide.
Estey's towboat swooped in front of the bleating tanker, pulled up next to Bauer, and somehow Estey hauled him onboard. The two other kayakers scurried toward the wall with Bauer's kayak in tow. Estey estimates that by the time he got Bauer onboard, the freighter was about 75 feet away, a looming mountain of steel-encased petroleum, coming on strong.
"As I pulled away, the pilot and freight captain were screaming at me over the emergency channel," Estey says. "They were going nuts."
There's been surprisingly little aftermath from the incident. The Coast Guard, which never got involved that day, took no action, probably because there were no injuries, spokesman Luis Diaz said. ("No harm, no foul," said a man who runs a kayaking business.) The pilots association registered no complaint (it happens all too frequently, Cummings says), and the port administration took no notice.
But the story has resonated deeply with experienced kayakers, many of whom say they're still aghast at the heedlessness of the channel kayakers and particularly Kai. "It's outrageous that he took newbies into that inlet," one veteran kayak excursion leader says.
Kai himself responds to the furor with some agitation of his own in a written response to his critics. He says that the excursion announcement specified that only "skilled solo paddlers capable of self-rescue" should sign up. He says that safety issues were reviewed before launching. He also acknowledges that mistakes were made "and valuable lessons learned." He adds that kayaking always has inherent dangers. "Kayaking is not without risks regardless of any factors," he says.
What about his fellow paddlers on the excursion? "What an adventure!" enthused one member of the group online. Added another: "Honestly, I can't stop laughing! The tugboats screaming at us to get out of the way, Jack and his sandals..." They had a blast.
Jeff Bingham, a well-known kayak instructor who had adopted the moniker "Kayak Jeff," says there's a tendency in this state to downplay danger. "Everybody thinks that the water's not that cold, so what could happen?" Bingham says. "There's a false sense of security in Florida. My motto is: Adventure is closer than you think."
Tried and Untrue
The gang crisis in Los Angeles is getting so desperate, a research group commissioned by the city to look into the problem led off its most recent report, submitted in December, with this observation: "Los Angeles is to violence what Bangladesh is to diarrhea."
Nothing the city has done in 20 years about its exploding gang wars has seemed to work, the report states. "After a quarter century of a multi-billion dollar war on gangs, there are six times as many gangs and at least double the number of gang members in the region." Some 700 gangs with about 40,000 members now plague the area, and nothing the police or prosecutors have tried seems to be working. General suppression efforts cracking down "cannot solve this problem," the study group asserts.
Why should it matter to South Florida readers that L.A.'s gang problem is spinning out of control? Tailpipe brings it up because of the lead from a South Florida Sun-Sentinel story published recently that nearly made him choke on his morning bagel:
"Los Angeles knows a thing or two about gangs and how to combat them. That's why West Palm Beach police are borrowing a tactic that has helped: gang injunctions."
Sure enough, last week the West Palm Beach City Commission voted to emulate Los Angeles by trying out something called "gang injunctions." Boynton Beach plans on following suit.
There's no denying that gang activity is rising in Palm Beach County, and law enforcement there has been slow to respond. But all of a sudden, these local towns are fighting back by saying, with a straight face, that they think Los Angeles has the answer to fighting gangs.
Which is like saying that you want to improve the local environment by borrowing a page from Love Canal.
You see, this Tailpipe spent many years adding to the pollution of L.A., and he can tell you that at least part of the gang problem in that fair city is exacerbated by its get-tough police force, which for years figured the best way to deal with anyone with a gang tattoo was with a nightstick upside the head.
Gang injunctions, an L.A. invention, only reinforce the notion that police are more interested in harassing gang members than fighting gang crime. You see, under an injunction, named gang members not only can't engage in activities that are normally against the law (like gangbanging); they also can be arrested for otherwise legal things like standing together on a street corner.
In L.A., a close examination of the fine print in a gang injunction showed that two gang members couldn't, legally, be seen in public together. And they were brothers. So it's no wonder that civil libertarian types take a dim view of such injunctions.
Some law enforcement folks do too. In Pasadena, for example, a California city that's a lot closer in size to West Palm Beach than Los Angeles is, Chief Bernard Melekian has enjoyed years of effective control of gangs, and he hates gang injunctions.
"They're short-term solutions. A band aid... I don't believe in them," says the chief, even after gang violence flared up in his town recently after years of record low levels. But he admits that they're popular with politicians.
"It's become the rage now that gang violence is flaring up again," he says. But even if an injunction allows West Palm police to round up all 40 named gang members, "You just create 40 opportunities for promotion" in the gang, Melekian says.
West Palm Beach police Capt. Daniel Sargent says he's aware of the criticisms of gang injunctions, like making it illegal for family members to be seen together in public. And he says that, with only 40 problem gang members in the Ace Click gang that they're looking at, the department should be able to avoid some of the pitfalls. West Palm's is a small problem that he doesn't want to grow into a big problem. "We don't have any national gangs operating in our city, knock on wood," Sargent says. "Some L.A. gangs have actually reached Miami. We don't want them to come up here."
And, Tailpipe has to admit, Sargent sounds like the kind of guy who has his eyes wide open about the problems police face in West Palm.
But should South Florida cities really be taking after the town with the worst gang problem in the nation?
An old friend, Malcolm Klein, a retired USC professor who is renowned for his expertise on gangs, was doubtful. When the 'Pipe told him what was happening here, he said, "Anyone in South Florida who thinks that injunctions are going to solve gang problems is whistling 'Dixie. '"
You've heard of the six degrees of separation? Well, in South Florida, we've got two or three degrees. All roads lead to... Dan Marino, who, when it comes to pitching and schmoozing, makes Donald Trump look like the corner deli man.
Check this out. NFL Hall of Famer Marino and hip-hop star Kanye West hosted Beach Bowl Weekend at the Miami beach club/restaurant/nightclub Nikki Beach as part of the Super Bowl XLI festivities. It was supposed to be the kind of high-glam, weekend-long event that celebs and rich football fans would hunger to attend. Invited celebrities included Ludacris, Nelly, and Jermaine Dupree, with wannabe plutocrats shelling out $750 a ticket for evening events and $200 for daytime barbecues.
When the party was over, the hosts were supposed to settle up with the management. But the little black tray came back to the cash register $628,000 short.
Brothers Jack and Lucia Penrod, Nikki's owners, are understandably steamed.
According to court docs, filed two weeks ago in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the sponsors of the event were the retired Dolphins' former agent and longtime business manager, Ralph Stringer, and sports marketer David Samuels, who has brokered deals that put Marino's face on boxes of Nabisco Wheat Thins and in commercials for Kraft Cheese. Also named as a defendant is mattress magnate and Marino pal Michael Fux, a backer of the affair. None of them could be reached for comment.
The Penrods claim that they gave the party sponsors the discounted rate of $956,000, because they guaranteed that 2,500 people would attend. It's unclear how many people did show up one of the things the Penrod brothers asked a judge to order is a full accounting on attendance and door receipts but apparently it wasn't enough to cover expenses.
Stringer and Samuels did pay a required $200,000 deposit in four installments but asked the Penrods for an extension a few days before the first event on February 2, because, they said, they'd "had difficulties selling event tickets." The Penrods agreed but only on the condition that they got half of the cash made at the door on both days at the end of the night. On the Monday after the Colts beat the Bears, Marino's crew gave the Penrods $78,696. Then the bucks stopped.
All of this leaves Tailpipe in a state of anxiety. So it's come to that, has it? Is Marino (who is not named as a defendant) so overexposed that he can't even draw a respectable crowd of celebrity-hound Super Bowl fans?
As told to Edmund Newton