ON THE INTRACOASTAL WATERWAY — On a recent Friday afternoon, Shawn Feeley cruised sun-sparkled Clearwater Harbor alone in his Yamaha center console, a wind-worn Trump flag flapping overhead.
When he goes home to Palm Harbor, Feeley, 40, always leaves it flying prominently in the driveway. It’s been there for two years.
Trumptillas, or Trump-themed flotillas, have cruised the nation’s waterways in force for months, earning wide attention. But it’s not just the organized parades. There’s a sense in Tampa Bay that Trump owns the ocean. Boats with Trump flags are A Thing. Boat flags for former Vice President Joe Biden, say those who spend a lot of time on the water, not so much.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jimmy Rogers, sales manager at Tom George Yacht Group, who said in past years you’d see the occasional Gators or Seminoles flag on the water. Now, he said, “If you’re at a sandbar, 50 percent plus have Trump stuff.”
Ryan Harrington, a full-time fishing guide in Tampa Bay who spends close to 300 days a year on the water, said that over the past six months, the flags come up as a topic of conversation with nearly all his clients. They’re just too prominent to ignore.
“I honestly cannot go a mile on the water without seeing a (political) flag,” and, he said, it’s “99 percent Trump flags. ... The larger the boat, the more chance of seeing a Trump flag.”
Feeley, from the deck of his rocking boat, said he believed the phenomenon — “It’s just thousands of Trump flags every single weekend” — is tied directly to the special appeal of this president.
“For me, it’s more like Trump risked his entire life to stand up for the country,” said Feeley, a contractor. “He didn’t need money. ... He didn’t need fame.” He did not think the flags would have caught on like this for another Republican candidate. What if Trump loses? “I’m still flying it. And I’m heading to the White House with the militia.” (After this story published online, Feeley contacted the Tampa Bay Times to say he was joking about joining a militia.)
Craig and Lisa Terry were celebrating their anniversary anchored in nearby Hurricane Pass under a “Trump: No More Bulls--t” flag, ice clinking in their cocktails. Despite their flag, Craig Terry, who owns a construction business, said he would never wear a Trump shirt or display a bumper sticker or yard sign at home in High Springs.
The water, however, is “neutral ground” where, he said, you can fly your Trump flag and “you don’t have to fear for your business. You don’t have to fear for your neighborhood.”
Terry, lounging in his Pabst Blue Ribbon swim trunks, said repeatedly his flag is not so much about “loving Trump,” the man, specifically. He talked instead about wanting to signal the things he’s against, laying out grievances with Black Lives Matter, the media and liberal “movements.” Lisa Terry said the Trump flag is an especially great way to make friends on the water.
Nearby, another couple lazed in the warm, waist deep water and talked about only flying their Trump boat flag when certain family members are around — just to annoy them.
If you’ve seen one of the Trump boat parades, then you know, it is a lot of boats. There are even more flags. If one Trump flag on a seafaring vessel is good, it would appear 10 flags on a boat is the stuff that makes America great (again).
The parades on the water are a high-visibility spectacle of support at a time when traditional rallies are tricky due to the pandemic. They chew up newscast b-roll and make for good photos.
The widest-covered news of the Labor Day weekend may have been five Trump boats sinking on Texas' Lake Travis. The sheriff said it was due to such an “exceptional” number of boats moving together that they “generated significant waves.” If you’re watching cable TV, it’s clear the battle for ocean supremacy is no longer Michael Phelps racing a shark, but the 2020 election.
Some see the parades as indicative of an enthusiasm gap between Trump supporters and those of Biden.
The Trumptillas began in Florida, the nation’s boating capital, and spread around the Gulf Coast where they happened off the Panhandle, Orange Beach, Alabama and New Orleans. They moved inland, to the lakes of South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arkansas. There was one on the Willamette River in Portland, Ore. and one off New York’s Long Island.
There were at least half a dozen boat parades for Trump around the country last weekend, and another half dozen planned for this weekend.
Tampa Bay saw a huge Trumptilla in June when the local Trump fleet cruised from Beer Can Island off Apollo Beach to the sounds of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin'. A huge-er one that sailed off Clearwater Beach in August may have broken a 1,180-boat world record. Guinness has yet to say.
If Trumpian sea shanties are ever written, the grizzled captains may sing of Carlos Gavidia, the Jupiter, Fla., resident who took to the water in Trump’s name out of spite.
Gavidia was annoyed when homeowners association rules against political flags forced him to take down his Trump banner, he told Sean Hannity on Fox News. So he renamed his boat TRUMP and spelled it out in block letters on the hull. He added an American flag and giant eagle and docked the 42-foot boat prominently behind his home. The rules didn’t say he couldn’t do that.
He used social media to organize the first known Trumptilla, sailing May 3 between Jupiter and Mar-a-Lago. Now Gavidia’s like an unofficial admiral of Florida’s Trump fleet, greeting fans at land-based captains meetups.
He’s since attended the president’s Republican National Convention speech on the White House lawn, hosted former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, embattled Trump adviser Roger Stone and Internet provocateur-turned-GOP congressional candidate Laura Loomer on his boat and become prominent enough to qualify for his own scandal. He surrendered to police on Sept. 1, charged with threatening his neighbor’s life over text, a second-degree felony. He pleaded not guilty.
Campaign consultant Susie Wiles, Trump’s field general in Florida, said the Trumptillas are a volunteer effort. They are not organized by the campaign, but “we’re gratified to be able to be a part of it.” That includes having Trump and his surrogates amplify the boat parades to their social media followings. Bondi, for example, stalked the Tampa Bay flotilla from a helicopter and posted video of it to Twitter.
“Thank you. We love our boaters!” Trump tweeted when he saw a Pinellas County boat parade during Memorial Day weekend.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was arrested in August for allegedly syphoning money from a crowd-funded campaign to build a border wall. According to the indictment, some of that cash paid for a boat named “Warfighter,” which sailed in a Fourth of July flotilla co-organized by Brian Kolfage of Miramar Beach. Kolfage was arrested with Bannon.
Wiles noted how easily the boat events come together and how boaters get competitive. “One of the early ones was in my area (in Jacksonville),” she said, “and a lot of the emails and texts that went around were, ‘they had 1,200 boats in X place, we need to have 1,500 boats’.”
To visualize that, picture a MAGA-fied Gasparilla invasion. Tampa’s annual pirate flotilla is about the same size.
Does it mean anything? Yes. It means many boats are flying Trump flags. Beyond that, it’s like trying to gauge the outcome of a presidential election based on a tally of yard signs, or interpreting the will of Poseidon.
A Washington Post opinion columnist recently parodied political boat analysis, writing that “the degree to which you have the boats behind you is the true, correct metric for how much success you will have as an aspirant to the nation’s highest office. Polls mean nothing. Even votes only mean so much. Boat parades — mean everything.”
Let’s explore anyway.
“By no means are (Trump’s) boat parades ... an indicator he’s going to walk away with it,” said Reggie Cardozo, a Democratic strategist who lives in St. Petersburg and flies a Biden/Harris flag from his 22-foot center console. “But to me what it shows is organization. Whether that’s organic from supporters or the campaign that’s feeding it, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you want to call it, we haven’t seen that yet for Biden.”
Whether it’s flotillas, car parades or thousands of people lining a motorcade route during a presidential visit, Trump supporters make themselves visible. Cardozo expects Biden’s campaign will have its own show of force “sooner than later.”
“Politics is all about timing,” he said.
The phenomenon is enhanced by the number of vessels on the water these days. Boating has been a popular quarantine pastime.
Vacation money was shifted to buying something to take the family on the water, Rogers speculates. He has the numbers to back it up: 2019 was a banner year for boat purchases in the Tampa Bay region, and his sales are up 50 percent this year. Don’t believe him? Try finding a parking spot at a boat ramp after 11 a.m. on a weekend.
Are boats partisan? Florida, a swing state, leads the nation with nearly 1 million registered boats, but No. 2 Minnesota is about as reliably Democratic in national elections as it gets. No. 3 Michigan went to Trump in an upset in 2016.
The congressional boating caucus is made up of 83 Republicans and 58 Democrats. U.S. representatives Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, are members.
There are 12 million boats registered in the U.S., which means that even thousands of Trump flags on boats would represent a small fraction.
Of those 12 million, the National Marine Manufacturers Association says 62 percent are owned by people earning less than $100,000 a year. How much less than $100,000, they don’t know — but spokesman John-Michael Donahue did note that 95 percent of boats on the water are modest enough to fit on a trailer, holding that as evidence that the “vast majority are affordable products, available to the vast majority of people.”
Trump’s own boat was, for most, the opposite of affordable. Despite reportedly not caring for boats or the sun, he bought a 280-foot yacht originally commissioned for a Saudi arms dealer for $30 million in 1987. Calling it the “ultimate toy,” he named her Trump Princess. It had a helipad and a pool surrounded by bulletproof glass. Facing financial difficulties with his casinos, he sold the Trump Princess in 1991. He later commissioned plans for what would have been the world’s largest superyacht, but it was not completed.
In campaigns, boats have been a bad omen for Democratic presidential contenders. John Kerry had the “swift boat” controversy over his military service. Gary Hart’s infamous cruise aboard the Monkey Business with Donna Rice scuttled his career. Al Gore took a four-day campaign tour down the Mississippi on a riverboat in 2000, cranking the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar.
But the only flotilla to sail for a candidate pre-Trump appears to be the Nixon boat parade featuring John Wayne off the California coast in 1972. Nixon won.