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Travis McGee, Fictional Castaway

Three weekends ago, Bahia Mar marina was overrun with bikini-clad boat girls, silver-tongued yacht brokers, and some of the world's most dazzling watercraft gathered together for the 38th annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. Amid the sleek sloops and tubby trawlers, one world-famous vessel was notably missing: the Busted Flush, a 52-foot houseboat owned by fictional detective-hero Travis McGee.

The Busted Flush never actually existed, except in the imaginations of Sarasota author John D. MacDonald and his many readers. But for more than 30 years, literary pilgrims have come to Fort Lauderdale from across the country and around the globe looking for slip F-18, the exact spot at Bahia Mar where the rawboned, philosophical McGee parked the houseboat he won in a Palm Beach poker game.

To call Travis McGee a detective-hero isn't quite right. Throughout 21 mystery novels, he labeled himself a "salvage consultant" and sallied forth from the Busted Flush to retrieve lost souls and stolen fortunes or save modern-day damsels in distress. It was to the salon or sun deck of his live-aboard barge that McGee repaired in the evenings with a flagon of Boodle's gin, watching the sun set over the Intracoastal Waterway and lamenting the "perpetual farting of the great god Progress" represented by high-rise condos, traffic jams, and the runaway exploitation of Florida's natural beauty.

While readership of the Travis McGee mystery series continues to grow -- 32 million copies are now in print -- bookworm visitors to Bahia Mar may be fewer today than in the past. Thanks to a $10 million renovation, readers who do show up have a tougher time finding the tarnished bronze marker erected in front of F-18 ten years ago after MacDonald died at age 70 from complications of heart surgery.

Back then the marina ran a sightseeing boat named after the Busted Flush and kept a goodly stock of MacDonald's books on hand at the dockside canteen. Today the books are missing from both the hotel gift shop and the marina convenience store, and a random poll of dockhands reveals an almost nonexistent knowledge of McGee, the Busted Flush, or slip F-18's physical location or place in the literary firmament. It's a state of affairs that has some fans dismayed.

"Over the years there's been a marked turnover in marina management, and I don't think potential employees list the books they read as part of their application," says Jean Trebbi, executive director of the Florida Center for the Book. "Unless you get the right person, you almost feel like you're on the wrong property. You would think that now when there's local ownership there would be more interest in promoting it as an integral part of the property." Trebbi refers to Bahia Mar's acquisition last year by Florida Panther Holdings, Inc., a company led by hometown billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga.

Dick Graves, who used to be Bahia Mar's senior vice president for marketing, traveled from Weehawken, New Jersey, to Fort Lauderdale last month to "genuflect and pay respects" to Travis McGee and attend America's biggest boat show. He says he was taken aback by the condition of the F-18 shrine.

"A little tattered and a little worn," Graves notes. "At the very least they need to put some brass polish to it. When I was there we had custom-made flags that said 'home of Busted Flush and Travis McGee.' People kept stealing 'em. We even cut the halyards off the flagpoles, but people would get ladders and steal them anyway. We always did a lot to promote Travis McGee. It was smart business. More than that, we were just into that sort of thing -- the ritual, the local lore."

Current General Manager Kevin Quirk says he's also tried to promote MacDonald's maverick hero but has run into a hurdle McGee himself would have bitterly relished: an increasingly legalistic modern world. Quirk attempted to rename a Bahia Mar restaurant "Travis McGee's," he says, "but too many lawyers got involved." An idea to name a drink after McGee also went down the drain due to "liability problems."

"We still get letters addressed to Travis McGee, and people still come by looking for the slip, but the interest has sort of dwindled down," Quirk notes unhappily.

Like much else in South Florida, slip F-18 is an oddly artificial construct. When MacDonald launched his best-selling series in 1964 with The Deep Blue Good-By, there wasn't even an F dock at Bahia Mar, much less a real-life boat slip labeled F-18. As the marina expanded, an F dock was coincidentally created, but none of the dock numbers corresponded with the fictional slip.

"Interested readers would prowl that property looking for it, and get very frustrated and disappointed," Trebbi recalls. She persuaded MacDonald to support the idea of a small plaque honoring Travis McGee and the Busted Flush. (MacDonald originally chose Fort Lauderdale as the setting for his books because he didn't want fans pestering him at home in Sarasota. Contrary to popular belief, he never was a Bahia Mar resident.)

On February 21, 1987, marina personnel painted over the numbers at slip F-602 and officially renamed it F-18 at a dedication ceremony attended by about 250 people. Fans flew in from Texas and New York, then-Fort Lauderdale mayor Robert Cox lent a hand, and the event garnered live coverage by a radio station in California.

The McGee mini-monument was the first one established by the Literary Landmarks Association, a nonprofit literary group that has since memorialized 27 other spots around the country. (Those include the house in Philadelphia where Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Raven" and Isaac Bashevis Singer's apartment building in Miami Beach.) Trebbi's Florida Center for the Book, a Broward-based Library of Congress affiliate, cosponsored the ceremony.

Neither organization could afford to pay for periodic maintenance, so the task fell to busy Bahia Mar workers. Today the digits F-18 are gone from the dock. The plaque has gathered some rust and mysteriously moved a few feet from where it was bolted into concrete in front of F-602. (It now stands on a whitewashed concrete podium in front of the slip next door, F-604, beside a storage box filled with trash and missing its hinges.) According to long-time Bahia Mar employee Carol Nossett, the changes may have taken place during the 199495 renovation. Nossett estimates that one or two tourists per month visit the site.

Quirk, who numbers himself among the millions of Travis McGee fans, says he's pondering some new ways to bring the legendary name back to the neighborhood. "I've been thinking that maybe in recognition of the ten-year anniversary we'll paint the numbers back on the dock," he says.

When Ballantine Books reissued the Travis McGee series in 1994, South Florida writer Carl Hiaasen wondered in an introduction whether McGee might have cast off the dock lines at Bahia Mar and put South Florida astern long ago. He answered the question by quoting some of McGee's own words:

"Tacky though it might be, its fate uncertain, too much of its destiny in the hands of men whose sole thought was grab the money and run... it was still my place in the world. It is where I am and where I will stay, right up to the point where the Neptune Society sprinkles me into the dilute sewage off the Fun Coast.

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Sean Rowe

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