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Miami Beach’s boating community fights for their home on the water

Caplin News

Elena Novikova and her husband Constantine, alongside their 28-year-old daughter Anastasia who has down syndrome, have been living an unconventional life for almost a decade now. Their home isn’t a cozy apartment in the heart of the city, but rather a 45-foot sailboat.

“It all started nine years ago,” Elena Novikova reminisced. “I remember it was August 1 when we moved onto the boat.”

Originally hailing from Siberia, Elena’s husband’s family had always owned boats. When they moved to Miami Beach, the allure of the ocean and the desire for a more natural lifestyle led them to purchase their own vessel. “We looked for about half a year until we found our dream boat,” Elena explained. “Nobody can tell us to go away, it is our home.”

A woman helps a girl off a boat.
Milena Malaver
Caplin News
The Novikova family attempts to help Anastasia onto the dock during a low tide.

They love their life on the water but, recent developments have cast a shadow over their idyll. The removal of a public dock has made accessing the shore increasingly difficult, especially for Anastasia because of her physical disability.

For decades, Miami Beach boat dwellers relied on a city-owned dock situated on Dade Boulevard as a crucial means to reach the mainland for their diverse needs. However, last month the city severed their access to the dock, which is located just across the street from a Publix near Sunset Harbour.

On Dec 13., Miami Beach commissioners, responding to urgency voiced by Commissioner David Suarez, voted to permanently close the dock. This decision has had a profound impact, as dozens of people used to tether their dinghies there.

Sea dwellers are outraged. Though the city allows docking at a nearby marina off Purdy Avenue, that platform is inadequate during low tide, and they can only be docked for 20 minutes before, they say, their vessel might be towed.

State law in Florida offers protection to boaters, granting them the freedom to moor anywhere unless specific legislation dictates otherwise. Legally, municipalities lack the authority to force them to move.

Marco Vidal, a full-time boat captain and longtime resident of Miami Beach, sheds light on the impact of these developments on the boating community and the need for dialogue and understanding from elected officials.

Vidal’s life revolves around the water. Balancing life in a North Beach apartment with time on and his boat, his days are spent working with clients on the water, ensuring their safety and enjoyment. “It’s very convenient for me to stay on my boat when I finish late or have to go back home,” Vidal explains.

His intimate connection with the ocean spans decades, from a career as a photographer in Cuba to being a captain on Miami Beach.

The recent removal of public docks has left the boating community reeling. Vidal recounts the shock and confusion that ensued when the docks were suddenly taken away without consultation or explanation. “It was a surprise for all of us,” he recalls. The loss of access to the docks has posed significant challenges, especially concerning waste disposal and accessibility.

Addressing concerns about waste disposal, Vidal explains the various options available to boaters, including compost systems and designated pump stations. However, the recent crackdown by authorities on waste disposal practices has added to the community’s frustration and stress.

Last month dozens of boaters claimed to have been raided by water police during the night and had their waste system checked. Only two tickets were given out that night for improper waste management. Vidal says in all his years of living on the boat he has never been raided before.

Despite efforts to engage with elected officials, including commissioners and the mayor, Vidal describes a lack of meaningful dialogue. “Most politicians speak from both sides of their mouth,” he remarks. While some officials have shown willingness to listen, others have remained steadfast in their opposition to the boating community’s concerns.

For Vidal and many others in the boating community, moving back to land is not a viable option. “Once you get used to the water, you don’t want to move back to land,” Vidal asserts. “It’s something that gets into your blood.”

As tensions escalate between the boating community and local authorities, Vidal emphasizes the need for a middle ground. “We need to find a solution to the problem,” he urges. “We don’t live in a third-world country. We need them to talk to us.”

In response to the removal of the dock, the sea dwellers have banded together to create the Miami Beach Boaters Association. They hope to protect their rights as residents of Miami Beach.

People stand on a dock.
Courtesy of Miami Beach Boaters Association
Caplin News
Members of the Miami Beach Boaters Association at the now-closed dock located on Dade Boulevard.

Carlos Leon, who has been living on a sailboat since 2020 alongside his wife Jana and their German Shepherd Apollo, has been leading the group and says he has made various attempts to voice members’ needs to the Miami Beach mayor and commissioners.

“It’s been really hard,” he said. “We try to carpool with the dinghies so multiple people can go out at the same time and buy what they need. It’s really not fun.”

Leon has made various claims of Commissioner Suarez harassing and mocking the boaters.

“The city has been harassing us and attacking us,” says Leon, who recently started a group called the Miami Beach Boaters Association to fight the city’s actions. “It was the only port that we had for a long stay.”

In a recent report by the Miami Herald, commissioner Suarez can be seen in newly released body-camera footage telling Leon he isn’t “man enough” and grilling a marine patrol officer about boating laws, which is emblematic of Suarez’s confrontational approach as he pursues an ambitious agenda during his first year in office.

And there’s more. Leon describes instances where the commissioner targeted him and his wife on social media, even contacting his employer to undermine him. Such actions have created a climate of fear and uncertainty among boaters.

The Leon’s dog Apollo has garnered a social media following with almost half a million followers on TikTok and 160,000 on Instagram, but the fact they have such a recognizable pup is now a cause for concern with all the negative attention on boaters.

“The people who like us recognize us,” said Jana Leon. “But were afraid that the people who don’t like us will also recognize us.”

Commissioner Suarez claims boaters have a negative environmental impact on Biscayne Bay.

“Their sewage goes directly into the bay, as does their pet’s waste,” he recently wrote on Instagram. “Some of their pets also harass nesting native birds on Monument Island while also leaving their feces to rot. Others anchor their dinghies, illegally to our seawall to take naps on public land.”

Suarez did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

The boaters claim they do not release their waste into the bay but rather most of them pump out their waste at designated marinas.

Jennifer Rehage, an FIU professor of the Earth & Environment Department, explains that living on boats has less environmental impact than living in a house.

“If you compare a sailboat to a house, a sailboat has a much lower environmental impact since they often use wind and solar power to power all of the energy demands,” she says. “A household taps into the energy grid.”

As the battle for access and recognition rages on, the boating community remains steadfast in their commitment to fight for their rights and livelihoods.

The story was originally published by Caplin News, a publication of FIU's Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media, as part of an editorial content partnership with the WLRN newsroom.

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