No Bridges to the Bay

Is Coral Gables the Best Place to Own a Yacht? That’s What the Big Boaters Say

By Mike Clary // Photography by Jon Braeley

February 2020

As he stood at the helm, Captain Bill Wieteha eased the throttle forward and the 82-foot Viking motor yacht glided away from the dock in the Cocoplum Yacht Club, slipped past the mangroves and edged into the Gables Waterway.

Two decks below, powerful twin diesel engines quietly purred, barely audible as the boat slid out of the marina beneath a scattering of fluffy clouds and into a picture perfect winter day in South Florida. Minutes later the gleaming white craft cut through the deep water channel, and as Wieteha fed in the fuel, the boat jumped quickly out of the hole and was skimming across the sparkling blue-green water. For Blue Time — and for scores of other luxury vessels docked in Coral Gables — there are no bridges to Biscayne Bay.

Captain Bill Wieteha

“From here we could cruise the bay, head south to Ocean Reef, or pass by the Key Biscayne lighthouse into the Atlantic and be less than 50 miles from Bimini and the world’s best sail fishing,” said Wieteha. “We could be fishing within 45 minutes.”

In recent years, as yachts have grown larger and dock space has grown more expensive and more scarce, the profile of Coral Gables as a Mecca of high end boating continues to grow. In waterfront communities such as Cocoplum, Gables Estates, Gables by the Sea and Deering Bay, hundreds of private boats – from open cockpit fishing boats with a single outboard engine to mega-yachts with helicopter landings pads – are polished, fueled up and ready to go. Further up the Gables Waterway – on the other side of several of the 19 vehicular bridges in the City Beautiful – are docked hundreds more recreational boats used for fishing, cruising and fresh air getaways from the demands and stresses of the modern world.

“Coral Gables has all the things that people who are super successful want,” says Michael T. Moore, a Coral Gables attorney who specializes in marine law. “It’s a well-run city, with order, predictability, cleanliness, with the options that discerning wealthier family people find attractive.”

Boats are also getting bigger, more expensive, and more high tech. Yet the principle reasons for taking to the sea are the same as they’ve always been. “It’s a lifestyle,” says attorney Anthony de Yurre, a lifelong boater who owns a 52-foot Sea Ray Sundancer, docked on the Gables Waterway, that serves as a floating retreat for him and his family. “When I have an opportunity to get out on the water, I go. It’s like having a condo I can take to the Bahamas. That’s the real beauty of boating.”

In the vision of Coral Gables created by founder George Merrick in the 1920s, residents of the City Beautiful would use a network of waterways as streets, traveling the shaded watery passages in Venetian-style gondolas. His vision never became a reality due to the devastating hurricane of 1926.

But the 40 miles of waterways and expansive waterfront properties along Biscayne Bay have joined the iconic characteristics of a city renowned as a verdant island of tranquility amid South Florida’s hectic urban sprawl. “What’s really interesting to me about Coral Gables is the diversity,” says Tere Shelton Bernace, a co-owner of Shelton and Stewart Realtors. “This is a super welcoming place for people from all over. And the more that different people arrive, the more we become the same” – including a desire to be on the water.

Among recent clients, Bernace said, are those “from up north, from overseas, young families, semi-retired people stepping aside from their businesses, celebrities coming here instead of Miami Beach. And often one of the things they want is to have a large boat for their kids and grandkids.”

Boating is an activity that often begins as a hobby and turns into a passion. It can be both addictive and aspirational. A day – or a week – on the water can offer solace, relaxation and a sense of freedom. And it can create a desire for more. There is always a bigger boat, always another destination.

Blue Time is owned by Benjamin Leon III, the president and CEO of Leon Medical Centers, and his wife Lisa, who use the boat for entertaining, family vacations and competitive fishing. (With Wieteha at the helm of an earlier, 68-foot version of the boat, the Leons and Blue Time won the 2013 World Sailfish Championship in Key West).

The boat is, as Wieteha says, “pure luxury, the ultimate.” Built for about $7.5 million by Delaware-based F&S Boatworks, the vessel has a four-stateroom, five-head layout with a full-beam master suite equipped with a 75-inch HD television. Comfortable and roomy, yes, but also designed for fishing, with tackle storage in the 170-square foot cockpit, along with three large stainless-steel-lined freezers, bait wells and an Eskimo ice maker.

Blue Time, an 82-foot Viking motor yacht

The Boats

So, what is a large boat? How many Coral Gables properties can accommodate a large boat? What makes it a yacht? And how much does all this cost?

The definition of the largest boats, or luxury yachts, has changed – and for the bigger. Superyachts are defined as boats more than 75 meters (274 feet) and longer. Many are more than 400 feet long, and are owned by sheikhs, sultans and oligarchs. Smaller, but still super, are the boats of celebrities. Fashion designer Giorgio Armani owns a 213-foot, $60 million yacht that features a gym, cinema and guest accommodations for 12. Golfer Tiger Woods has a 155-foot yacht, called Privacy, reportedly worth $20 million.

The biggest yachts moored in Coral Gables are in the 120-foot range, about the maximum depth that local waters allow. This is the size range of the yacht owned by Gables developer Armando Codina (112 feet); the 180-foot yacht owned by Gables health care mogul Mike Fernandez uses the deeper water of his property on the open-bay edge of Gables Estates. “In the 1970s and 1980s, a 60-foot boat was big,” says broker Jose Rodriguez of Westport Yachts. “Now, our introductory boat is 112 feet, and our largest is 164 feet.” The prices: nearly $15 million for the smallest, $46 million for the largest.

“What we typically see in this business, say with up and coming superstars, is they start with a 70-foot boat, they have it for a year or two, their business booms, and then they move to a 112-foot,” Rodriguez says.

For those who can afford yachts of this size and are able to dock at their residence, Coral Gables is the ideal place to live, says Rodriguez, because of its location on protected Biscayne Bay. On days when the winds are from the north, or seas are rough, boat owners in Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach must navigate the Intracoastal Waterway to get to Biscayne Bay, or venture out into the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the access is direct. And from Biscayne Bay, says Rodriguez, “There are a variety of places to go to, and things to do. You can go to Ocean Reef, come out through Angelfish Creek, or Cape Florida, and go to Elliott Key [within Biscayne National Park]. It is a very pristine area to boat.”

For those who have passage to Biscayne Bay without negotiating a bridge, getting onto the water is relatively easy, as Wieteha demonstrated at the helm of Blue Time. As he piloted the vessel around the Gables Waterway on a recent Wednesday, Wieteha pointed out a variety of styles and sizes of docked watercraft, from a 36-foot Invincible Open Fisherman to a 50-foot Azimut. Also noticeable were many bayfront homes with empty tie-up space in the front, perhaps indicating that the boat was out on the water, or, as in many cases, that the owner prefers to buy or rent space in a marina, Wieteha said.

For those who dock their vessels in the river-like Gables Waterway, the no-wake journey through manatee territory can take 45 minutes or longer. With two bridges to pass under on the way from his dock to the bay, de Yurre says he is working with Coral Gables real estate broker Carole Smith to find another waterfront property. “I don’t necessarily want a bigger boat, but I want flexibility,” he says. “I am looking for no fixed bridges.”

The 115-foot yacht Mambo, docked outside this luxury home on Tahiti Beach, is owned by Jose Enrique Souto, founder of Cafe Bustelo and Pilon coffee. Mambo can accommodate up to 8 guests in 4 staterooms and can be yours for a little under the bargain price of $4 million.

The Properties

There are about 1,600 waterfront properties in Coral Gables, or about nine percent of all Gables homes, according to city estimates. That number includes those homes directly on the bay and those on the Gables Waterway, in locations where the depth of the water and the height of bridges combine to limit the size of a boat.

Houses that can accommodate big yachts sell for millions. In January, for example, there were 24 Coral Gables properties listed for sale that could accommodate a 112-foot boat, according to Bernace. Of those properties, only seven were listed for less than $7 million. The others were priced from $7.9 million to $55 million.

“For some clients it is very important to have no bridges to the bay,” says Bernace. “Some have yachts that won’t fit under a bridge with a clearance of seven to 21 feet. But a concern for many boaters is, how quickly can I access Biscayne Bay?”

The cachet of living on the water has only served to boost Coral Gables’ reputation among boaters, says realtor Carole Smith. “When I started out in business you used to have to sell Coral Gables,” she says. “Now people know. Now it’s like Santa Barbara. Very special.

“Part of what makes Coral Gables special is the city’s reputation as a safe harbor. The Coral Gables police marine unit patrols the city’s waterways and waterfronts, as well as 24 square miles of Biscayne Bay, according to Randy Hoff, the police department’s special projects manager. And although boats are often loaded with costly electronics, and often idle, sometimes for months at a time, thefts from vessels are relatively rare, Hoff said. “The biggest annual issue we have is hurricanes,” says Hoff. “We have such well protected waters that everyone wants to be in the Cocoplum mangrove area when a storm threatens.”

The Costs

The cliché is worth repeating: “A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into.” One rule of thumb is that a boat owner each year will spend at least 10 percent of the vessel’s purchase price on operating costs, dockage fees and maintenance.

With the purchase of a used boat, yacht broker Joel Brakha says, the new owner “is very excited and wants to do little upgrades. They have all these ideas: underwater lights, new props, a new blue stripe on the side, what I call the ‘since sickness:’ since I have the boat out of the water, I might as well do this.” Those optional upgrades, Brakha says, can add 10 percent to the purchase price in a hurry.

A big boat usually requires a crew, perhaps a captain and a couple of mates, and they have to be paid. Many, such as Wieteha, are fulltime employees. “There is always something to do,” says Wieteha. There are weekly tasks, including checking the electrical systems, testing the air conditioners, and waxing the outside of the boat. Once a week a diver comes to clean barnacles and algae from the hull. When preparing for a fishing tournament, Wieteha spends time checking the tackle, finding and loading bait, and, on the computer, preparing entry forms and securing dockage in away-from-home ports.

At sea, Blue Time has a voracious appetite for fuel. When the boat is running at 28 knots, the twin 2,600-horsepower engines burn 160 gallons of diesel an hour, Wieteha said. At $2.50 per gallon, that’s $400 for 60 minutes of motoring. Dock space is also expensive. At Cocoplum Yacht Club, for example, there are 177 slips of various sizes, ranging from 40 to 110 feet. All are privately owned. The smallest is valued at $390,000. The largest was listed for sale in January at $1.75 million. Owners also pay $1,100 each quarter in association fees.

Slips at Matheson Hammock Marina – in Coral Gables, but run by Miami-Dade County – are cheaper, but, alas, all 243 slips are rented out, and have been for years. The estimated wait time for a vacancy: three to five years.

Whatever the costs, most boat owners love being on the water. Brakha, a Coral Gables resident, is both a boater and owner of Interglobal Yacht Sales. He describes himself as a lucky man. “I’m blessed because boating is my hobby and I’m able to make a living out of it,” he says. “I live and breathe boats. I get out of work, and if there are two hours of light left in a summer day, I just jump in my boat – [currently a 50-foot Ferretti] – and go. No traffic, no horns. I don’t even listen to music. I just want to hear the wind, the splash of water. I unwind.” 

Looking North in the Gables Waterway opposite the entrance into Cocoplum Yacht Club