Miami-Dade County

Irma forced this iconic windsurfing business to close. Now they could lose even more.

For three decades, tourists and locals have sought out the Rickenbacker Causeway and Hobie Beach for windsurfing, and the company Sailboards Miami was as constant at the spot as the easy surf and shallow waters off the coast.

Then came Hurricane Irma.

Since then the business has been closed, and a portion of the beach off the causeway remains shut down to cars and might not reopen until next May. And Sailboards Miami’s future as a windsurfing business has been left adrift.

Before the storm hit, the company’s owners, Ovidio and Karen DeLeon, were seeking a new contract with Miami-Dade County to continue operating as a windsurfing business for at least another two years.

In the months after the storm, as the owners were still assessing damage and recovering, the windsurfing contract was awarded to another company. In total, DeLeon estimates the business has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and says he feels like Sailboards Miami wasn’t given a chance to recover from Irma before losing his business.

“We built this space that nobody wanted. Nobody wanted this spot for so many years and all of a sudden we just get disposed like we’re not good any longer,” DeLeon said.

The bigger loss in DeLeon’s mind, though, is to the windsurfing community and the high-profile enthusiasts the sport has attracted over the years. Sailboards Miami has been in Miami since 1982, through the “Miami Vice days” as they describe it, and worked with the crew of “Marley and Me” for the film’s windsurfing scene.

Notable clients have included people like Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Secretary of State John Kerry and race-car driver Juan Pablo Montoya. Nancy Rios, who competed for the United States in sailing during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, did some of her training along that stretch of Biscayne Bay and on Florida’s west coast.

“There is not such a place laid out the way this one is. A place such as this will never happen again,” DeLeon said about the location, noting the favorable winds and shallow water in the area.

On a recent sunny afternoon DeLeon still cracked some jokes and smiled as he sifted through equipment deciding what he will keep, sell or discard. The trailer attached to his bright yellow and white 1983 Grumman Olson van is mostly empty, with a few pieces of maintenance equipment and some spare masts and sails.

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Ovidio DeLeon cleans up his Sailboards Miami trailers on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

The couple said they’ve accepted that windsurfing might become a less inclusive pastime with Sailboards closing, but they’re still frustrated with the county’s process.

“Wouldn’t the county want to make a priority of making sure your number one location maintain itself accordingly?” Karen DeLeon said. “I feel beat up. I feel like we’ve been bounced around.”

In January 2016, after decades of being managed by the county’s public works department, Sailboards Miami and other causeway concessions began being managed by the parks department. The DeLeons said they wanted to take that chance to negotiate for a longer contract but they received a two-year special-events permit.

The county bid for concessions services at the site this past summer but the process ended when a bidder, Light House Beach Equipment Rentals, was found to have a conflict of interest. The process started over in August and was set to be awarded before Irma threatened South Florida.

County parks spokeswoman Victoria Galan said that the process was about getting the best return on investment for the county and that the department appreciated the decades of work from Sailboards.

“They’ve been great vendors. They’ve done great things for the sport and the causeway,” Galan said.

As far as the closure of Hobie Beach and other access points off the causeway, Galan said that environmental and structural engineers are still evaluating the area and it remains closed for “the public’s safety.” She said that construction and repair work in those areas will begin in April.

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Ovidio and Karen DeLeon have run Sailboards Miami off Hobie Beach, just past the Rickenbacker Causeway, for decades teaching windsurfing and offering an attraction for locals and tourists. Hurricane Irma caused that stretch of the beach off the causeway to be closed, likely until next May, but beyond the storm’s impacts on their business they were also passed over for a Miami-Dade County contract to continue their windsurfing business. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

County officials also said the contract with the eventual winner of the windsurfing bid, Sea Sun and Sports, has not officially been executed.

And with that sliver of hope, supporters have sent emails and petitions to county commissioners asking for the beach to be reopened sooner and asking for Sailboards Miami’s contract to be reconsidered.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez received the majority of those emails and said he also hopes that section of the beach can be accessible sooner than later. Suarez said he understands why county staffers proceeded the way they did, but wonders if it might have been better to leave the concession as it was.

“You’ve got people who have been performing well and people are happy with the service and then the county decides that even though we haven’t done it for however many years we’re going to put it out to bid,” Suarez said. “It makes sense from a government standpoint but there’s also a saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ 

Supporters like Adam Locke, a windsurfing advocate who has protested in the past over the closure of Virginia Key Beach, think keeping the beach closed and replacing Sailboards is a huge mistake.

“Losing Sailboards Miami is more than just losing a concession. Now that they’re gone I think there’s going to be a great deficit,” Locke said. “They’re an icon. I doubt that anybody can come in and do the job they’ve done.”

The operators of Sea Sun and Sports said they feel equipped to do the job, while saluting what Sailboards has done over the years. Their company has focused primarily on other watersports — like paddleboarding, kayaking and renting beach equipment — and they’ve been on the causeway for about 10 years.

“We’re excited about this new start and the opportunity to add windsurfing to our activities,” said Fred Lebaz, an instructor with Sea Sun. DeLeon has “added a lot to the windsurfing community because he’s been there for 30 years. He told us that if we need anything, he’ll be willing to help.”

In their North Miami home office, the DeLeons keep plaques and clippings of numerous appearances in magazines for windsurfing enthusiasts and commemorations for Sailboards Miami’s impact. In 2009 Ovidio was nominated for the National Council of La Raza’s ALMA Award for sports, alongside athletes like Carmelo Anthony and Alex Rodriguez.

“It’s been a great adventure,” Karen DeLeon said as she surveyed the wall of awards in their office.

The DeLeons said they’re proudest of their record of making windsurfing easy to learn for a diverse group of people. The company has brought students from poorer neighborhoods to learn windsurfing and also worked with young volunteers that they called “Vid’s Kids.”

One of those students is Nixon Alcantara, who learned how to windsurf and started working with the company when he was 16.

In three separate stints over 13 years he worked for Sailboards Miami and said the job kept him out of trouble and helped him find a father figure in Ovidio.

“They taught me so much and, honestly, they saved my life,” Alcantara said.

When the company lost the bid and got hit by the storm it lost its employees and they have moved on to other jobs or retired. In Alcantara’s case he’s studying for law school and hoping that the business can continue in some way.

“I felt like one day my kids were going to learn to windsurf there, and it would be with Karen and Vid,” he said.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3

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