Mega-yachts squeeze through tight channel to reach boat show berths

02/06/2014 6:26 PM

02/06/2014 6:28 PM

Moving some of the largest yachts to their berths on Miami Beach’s Indian Creek Waterway in advance of next week’s Yacht & Brokerage Show produced some tense moments and plenty of churned-up mud and sea grass in Biscayne Bay on Thursday. But none of the 100 or so vessels moved in so far collided or ran aground.

“The biggest ones are in the show,” said Andrew Doole, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Show Management, which produces the annual expo. “Everybody’s in safe and sound that was supposed to be here today.”

With another 350 or so yachts to berth before the show opens Feb. 13, the company has employed six tugboats from Steel Marine Towing as escorts to help them around a narrow dogleg in an unmarked, unnamed east-west channel north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The channel, normally 100 feet wide and at least 12 feet deep, has been pinched by metal pilings and silt curtains erected by a contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a sea grass restoration project in mitigation for PortMiami expansion. In one particularly tricky section that’s only about 50 feet wide, big yachts must navigate very close to the barriers to have enough water depth to transit the area.

On Thursday, a procession of six of the largest yachts — led by the 164-foot Arianna — made the trip from the Intracoastal Waterway to the east-west channel at high tide with calm winds in early afternoon, either escorted or towed by several tugboats.

The trip was slow and tense, with plenty of back-and-forth discussion over marine radio among yacht captains and tug skippers about how best to maneuver the huge, lumbering craft around the barriers without getting stuck and damaging hulls or propellers.

“My [testicles] are getting bigger now,” said one unidentified yacht captain after his boat made it through the squeeze safely.

Captain Art Sapp, piloting a small escort tugboat, said calm breezes helped matters quite a bit.

“There’s not much wind,” Sapp said. “If there were winds from the southeast, it would be setting them into that turbidity curtain.”

The procession left a layer of brown mud and grass on the surface of the bay. Sapp said he saw at least 25 manatees in the area Thursday morning, but the endangered mammals apparently got safely out of the way of the approaching yachts.

To move the rest of the big boats into their slips will require continued tug escorts and extra bridge openings at 63rd Street in Miami Beach this weekend.

When boat show officials and other marine groups first learned of the Army Corps project several weeks ago, they discussed filing a lawsuit to try to force removal of the pilings narrowing the channel, but the city of Miami Beach’s legal staff balked at going to court. Boating groups then tried negotiating with the Corps to remove the obstacles temporarily, but Corps officials said that would cost too much taxpayer money.

Captain Dan Kipnis, chair of the Miami Beach Marine Authority, said the city is working with the Coast Guard to designate the waterway as a permanent navigation channel after the sea grass project is completed and — hopefully — in time for the 2015 Yacht & Brokerage Show.

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