On the Waterfront

Boating – and Yachting – in Coral Gables is Deeply Imbedded in the Community’s Psyche. With Miles of Intricately Carved Canals and Waterways, it is Part of the City’s DNA

By J.P. Faber

February 2019

For anyone who has not traveled the waters of coastal Coral Gables, your first journey into the maze of channels and canals that permeate the southern half of the city will be a revelation. At the entrance to the Gables Waterway, and in waterfront communities such as Cocoplum, Gables Estates, Gables by the Sea and Deering Bay,  hundreds of boats – some of astonishing size – line the waterfront properties. Hundreds more fill private marinas in the same communities; the public marina at Matheson Hammock alone has slips for 243 boats.

Just how significant waterfront living is to Coral Gables is illustrated by two facts. The first is that, all told, there are more than 40 miles of coastline in the city. This includes the Gables  Waterway, which snakes from Biscayne Bay all the way to the Biltmore Hotel. The second is that more than 10 percent of all Gables homes are on the water, some 1,600 properties, according to city estimates. “When George Merrick was originally planning Coral Gables he envisioned a Venice of sorts, where people would travel down these waterways,” says Lani Kahn Drody, president of Gables-based Lowell International Realty. “It didn’t turn out that way, but there are incredible opportunities for people to live on these waterways.”

The Gables Waterway

That opportunity comes with a price, of course. Because they are so rare, Gables waterfront properties with easy access to Biscayne Bay rarely sell for less than $22.5 million, says Drody. “For some people it is very,  very important,” she says.

Gables by the Sea

“Anyone who doesn’t take advantage of the water in South Florida is missing a huge opportunity,” says Armando Codina, the iconic developer and long-time Gables resident whose corporate headquarters are based in downtown Coral Gables. “I’m a workaholic so I can never spend enough time on the water, but it’s my greatest pleasure. I don’t socialize or hang out with beautiful people. I go boating.” The name of Codina’s 112-foot yacht, “What a Country” is his homage to the nation he came to as an immigrant from Cuba.

Codina’s friend and fellow Cuban émigré, Mike Fernandez, is also a Gables yachting enthusiast. His 180-foot Benetti – and earlier vessels – have taken him and his family across the world. His most memorable journey, he says, was a three-month cruise through the waters of Croatia, Montenegro and Greece. “Having been born on an island, salt water is in my veins. And a boat is a place that makes the family do things together.”

Suhel Skaff, who lives on the Gables Waterway, says boating has been a central part of his life since he moved here in the mid ‘80s. The retired builder owns a 42-foot Bertram –  “our best toy for a long time now” – and the largest boat that can clear the bridge downriver from his home. “It always was a big part of our family life. The boat was an island of joy for family and friends,  and always brought the family together to do something.”


The waterfront properties in Coral Gables – albeit enhanced the city’s cultural offerings and natural beauty – are a salient draw for residents who live here,  especially high net-worth individuals. “With some exceptions, Coral Gables is prominent in the yacht world because Coral Gables is becoming a known destination,” says Michael Moore, a Coral Gables attorney who specializes in marine law. “Coral Gables is now a brand.  It may not be the brand that Monaco is, or that New York or London is, but for yachting, it’s a brand.”

Michael Moore

Florida itself is the number one state in the country for boating and yachting, notes Phil Purcell, president and CEO of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. It has the most boat registrations in the country, and is number one in visits from foreign-flagged vessels. “Florida is the most important place in the world for boating,” he says, “and Coral Gables is a huge driver in our boating community.”

The overall impact of the marine industry on South Florida’s economy is huge. The most recent estimate puts it at a $12.5 billion industry here, producing between 136,000 and 141,000 jobs. “You have a diverse group of boaters from all over,  and a heck of a lot of entrepreneurs,” says Purcell.

By  “entrepreneurs,” Purcell means the titans of industry who live – and own yachts – in South Florida generally and in Coral Gables specifically. These include the CEOs of manufacturing concerns, logistics firms, software companies,  national apparel chains, health care conglomerates, banks, homebuilding companies, security firms, and so on. “If you look at who owns [the yachts], they are the job creators, whether they started a business or built homes,” says Purcell. “You shouldn’t say, look at that rich guy. You should say, look at that entrepreneur who’s part of our community.”

Matheson Hammock’s Marina

“Coral Gables doesn’t have the heavy industry,” says Moore. “It doesn’t have the big boatyards,  the big refit yards and the big repair yards. But this is where the rock stars live. They live in Coral Gables, or they aspire to live in Coral Gables.”


The lure of yachting, says Moore, is not difficult to understand. “The yachting world is a world of people that like to get out on the water, leave their troubles behind, and have enough money to do it,” he says. And Coral Gables fits perfectly, not only for the prestige of its name and neighborhoods, but for its location on Biscayne Bay.

“We are lucky to have access to Biscayne Bay, the Bahamas, to be so close the Keys – there are so many destinations,” says Capt. Jon C.  Emory, who lives in Gables by the Sea, and who currently captains two 39-foot vessels for Gables residents; previously he captained a 66-foot boat for 10 years. “When you get up to Palm Beach you have a completely different ecosystem there. You have the Intracoastal but you don’t have Biscayne Bay, which gives you myriad options even on windy days.”

Emory, who also runs a charter business called FishingSanSalvador (his favorite fishing destination), says he “grew up fishing and boating” with a charter captain father and relatives who made their living fishing. “It’s a lifestyle here. There are just so many boating people in our community.”

Coral Gables’ relationship with the water doesn’t stop with individual boaters, but extends to its institutions. The University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School, located on Key Biscayne, is considered one of the premiere marine research and education facilities in the world, on the cutting edge of areas that include hurricane prediction, aquaculture, coral reef restoration, and shark behavior. While most of the donations made to UM by Gables residents go to the entire university rather than just Rosenstiel, says Dean Roni Avissar, the Gables marine community works with the school in other ways. One is through SeaKeepers International, a global non-profit headquartered on Aragon Avenue near Books & Books. Through Seakeepers, yacht owners can volunteer their vessels to help in certain marine research missions.

Coral Gables is prominent in the yacht world because Coral Gables is becoming a known destination. Coral Gables is now a brand. It may not be the brand that Monaco is, or that New York or London is, but for yachting, it’s a brand…

Michael Moore, Coral Gables attorney and chairman of Seakeepers

“We have one program called Citizen Scientist, in which lay people can do data collection or instrument deployment,” says Another Gilbert, programming director for SeaKeepers. The other way that larger vessels can help is to carry researchers to their destinations, such as  “taking a scientist and his team to the Bahamas for shark tagging,” says Gilbert.

Attorney Moore, who is also the chairman of SeaKeepers, says the real benefit of the larger vessels that call Coral Gables home is their economic impact. “Yachts cost a lot of money to maintain and operate,” says Moore, who estimates that the average yacht costs 15 percent of its purchase price to maintain annually. That quickly adds up when you have boats that sell for $5 million to $40 million. “The piece that most people don’t get is that this money doesn’t go off into cyberspace. It goes into somebody’s pocket. And that person is somebody offering goods and services in Coral Gables.”

Crew staffing alone adds significantly to the local economic kick. “A kid out of high school can get on a boat and make 40 grand a year right off the block,” says Purcell. “An average captain in the 80 to 100 foot range gets a six figure salary. A steward can get 75 to 100…  if you have a yacht with four to eight crew members, that’s a couple of million in economic impact just sitting there.” And then there is the economic impact of having so many citizens of substance drawn to live in the Gables. “You start realizing that it’s the entrepreneurs who are in those boats,” says Purcell. “It’s a who’s who of the world and they become part of your community.”

For the boaters, it’s more about having a home where you can keep your boat, so that you can have immediate access to the gin-clear waters of Biscayne Bay. “Once you get you used it you never want to stop,” says Gables Waterway resident Suhel.  “When you go into any of the waterways you see things from the waterside you don’t see from the road. To see the Miami skyline from the water is spectacular and if you don’t see it you’re really missing out.”