Depending on what you’re after, you may have to dig through piles of other people’s junk. But that’s all part of the fun at the Dania Beach Marine Flea Market.
OK, I admit it: I’m a sucker for a marine flea market. There is something about piles of boating gear, corroded and often useless, that reaches deep into my psyche as well as my wallet. But until I visited the Dania Beach Marine Flea Market, well, I still had my training wheels.
Known to insiders as just Dania, it’s the chance to empty out a dockbox, a garage, or a warehouse. It’s an opportunity to make a few bucks in the process, or spend a few for something you never knew you always wanted. It’s a mob and a scene and a giggle and, most of all, it’s a gathering of the boating clan.
Held just south of Ft. Lauderdale in early spring, it transforms a 26-acre parking lot into one of the world’s largest nautical flea markets. The event lasts four days, attracts more than 1,000 vendors and, though the promoter declines to release attendance figures, let’s just say that anyone with a boat south of the Mason-Dixon Line is probably there.
Item: An absolutely pristine mahogany fighting chair on a gleaming pedestal, and it bears the legendary name: Rybovich. Worth thousands of dollars, the owner wants just a few hundred. Asked why, he answers succinctly, “Divorce.”
From humble beginnings with just 56 vendors and two rows of spaces in 1979, the Marine Flea Market has grown geometrically every year. Started by Al Behrendt as a way to help boaters unload some of their gear, it now provides, according to Behrendt, “The ideal atmosphere for buyer and seller to engage in friendly—and sometimes intense—bargaining.”
Who are these sellers? Some are just ordinary John Does whose wives have given them The Ultimatum: Empty all the detritus from a lifetime of different boats out of the garage, or move into that same garage.
It’s also an opportunity for manufacturers, boatbuilders, and suppliers to unload their overstocks and seconds. One vendor that has been there for more than ten years is boatbuilder Regal Marine, which, though located hours away in Orlando, brings a truckload of gear to sell, including engine parts, deck hardware, and anything else that has gathered dust since the last flea market.
The ticket booth opens an hour before the show doors on a Thursday, and there is a long line of buyers willing to wait an hour in the hot sun for the first crack at the best gear.
Item: An interesting bronze fitting of unfathomable use and unknown origin has a price tag of five dollars. “What is it?” an onlooker asks.
“Five bucks,” replies the seller.
“No, I mean, what does it do?” is asked again.
“I don’t now,” replies the seller with finality. “And it’s still five bucks!”
Literally acres of parking spaces are filled with hopeful sellers, some of whom have neatly organized and priced their wares on tables or tarps, while others have simply dumped boxes of gear on the ground, leaving it to buyers to root through the corroded and often greasy piles. Both groups do very well.
At 9:00 am the gates open and, like the Oklahoma Land Rush, buyers sprint along the aisles trying to snatch up the cream of the deals. It isn’t long, however, before the pace is more relaxed as the sun rises high, the asphalt heats up, and feet, in deck shoes and sandals, grow tired.
The deals stretch for miles and from A (anchors) to Z (zincs), with everything in between. Money is the lubricant that greases this flea market and it changes hands at all levels from pocket change up to serious Ben Franklins. A mobile ATM machine does as much business as the Budweiser beer girls in their short-shorts. From teak deck chairs to glass fishing floats, shift levers to shackles, business is steady from open till close each day.
There is a give and take, an ebb and flow, between buyers and sellers. Like professional wrestlers or rug merchants in ancient lands, there is enough acting to earn an Oscar. A buyer offers ten bucks for a scratched Lucite porthole with a $20 price tag but, judging from the seller’s response, you would think that the buyer is trying to acquire his only daughter. His eyes roll, he bemoans the high price of the gasoline it took to bring this wonderful porthole to the swap meet, he does everything but beat his chest and sob. The buyer stands quietly, watching. At the end of the performance, the seller holds out his hand for the ten spot, asking if the buyer wants a second port for the same price.
Item: A beautifully fabricated tuna tower stands alone and naked on the asphalt. “What boat does that fit?” asks a buyer.
“Whattaya got?” asks the seller with a cagey smile.
The buyers range from weathered charter-boat skippers to boat owners of all shapes and sizes to husband-and-wife teams looking alternately at anchor chain and embroidered purses. There are also vendors without a space, using cardboard signs on their backs as sales tools: “Bertram 31 running gear for sale” reads one, obviously aimed at propless and shaftless Bertram owners.
Whether you’re looking for a 300-horsepower outboard, fishing floats for backyard décor, or a set of pink docklines, you’ll find it at Dania. Florida is fishing territory, so it’s no surprise that many of the vendors lean heavily toward angling. Gold Penn International reels as big around as Volkswagen hubcaps gleam in the sun, while other tables are piled with lighter tackle of all sorts. Spools of fishing line in every weight are stacked high next to row upon row of lures and jigs, neatly arranged by fluorescent color and all “absolutely guaranteed” to be irresistible to fish.
Item: One inventive team of sellers rented a space but had only a few items on display at opening time on the first day. The team subsequently raced around the flea market buying as many bargains as they could, then returned to their space and doubled the prices for unwary, late-arriving buyers.
With cars filling the parking lots and lining the streets, savvy buyers arrive with carts or wagons in tow so they can carry their finds and continue browsing without having to return to their cars. These wagons display an interesting amalgam of flea market purchases: reels, scuba tanks, coral-crusted antiques, and nautical paintings.
Opening day is always crowded as serious shoppers dig through the piles of gear, Friday is a little slower, but Saturday and Sunday bring a fresh surge of weekend boaters unable to sneak away from work during the week.
As the palm-tree shadows lengthen on Sunday afternoon, there is another burst of serious bargaining as vendors start taking offers on the remaining gear that they don’t want to load up and carry home. It’s a last-minute spasm of bartering when an offer that would have brought laughter on Thursday is accepted gladly.
The 2014 Dania Beach Marine Flea Market will be held March 13-16 at the Mardi Gras Casino parking lot. www.daniamarinefleamarket.com
Here are a few more fertile hunting grounds for bargain sniffers.
Palm Beach Marine Flea Market: Antique collectibles, various nautical odds and sods, and over 100 new and used boats on display. www.flnauticalfleamarket.com
Pompano Beach Nautical Flea Market: Avast ye scurvy dogs! No dogs allowed. The Web site helpfully directs you to nearby kennels though. www.nauticalfleamarket.net
Gigantic Nautical Flea Market: The most literally named flea market on Earth has over 200 vendors. It’s also in the Keys so pack a bathing suit. www.keysrotary.myevent.com
Nautical Flea Market at Annapolis: You mean they do these things outside of Florida? Sure do. This one is in conjunction with the Bay Bridge Boat Show. www.usboat.com
The Rockport Yacht Club Nautical Flea Market: A nice, spring alternative in the Lone Star State, this show is in its second decade. www.rockportyachtclub.org
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.