Hurricanes left many 18th century Spanish galleons on the ocean floor off the coast of what is now Stuart, Florida. Once laden with untold amounts of gold and silver, their skeletons resulted in naming the region “The Treasure Coast.” Today, boaters are discovering a treasure trove of activities in the friendly city nestled at the mouth of the St. Lucie River.
Originally dubbed Potsdam by a local landowner hailing from a town in Germany bearing this name, Stuart was renamed in 1880 in honor of Homer Hine Stuart Jr., a local landowner who donated property to be used as the railroad depot. Incorporated in 1914, it was named the county seat in 1925.
Stuart is hailed as The Sailfish Capital of the World, as this particular species of billfish is abundant in the ocean off Martin County and fishing these pristine waters is legendary. For centuries, residents fished in order to eat, and many built their own boats to do so. Commercial and sport fishing became a livelihood for many locals, and a passion for visitors who came to the area each winter to fish.
Of particular interest are the families of Port Salerno, a small fishing village located on the Manatee Pocket just south of Stuart. Originally named Alicia, a stop on tycoon Henry Flagler’s railroad, Port Salerno eventually grew into its own. By the 1920s, the port boasted eight fish houses packing out bounties of fresh catch to points all along the east coast. Aspects of this fishing village’s heritage survive, most evident during the annual Seafood Festival each January (portsalernoseafoodfestival.org).
The area’s shipwright history continues today, as more than a dozen custom boat builders call Stuart home. Their hand-crafted skiffs are sport fishing works of art.
Of the area’s most renowned is G. Curtis “Curt” Whiticar, founder of Whiticar Boat Works, who came to Stuart in 1917 from New Jersey with his parents to hand-line commercial fish during the winter months. He began building small boats at age 14, and by age 23 he had designed and built the Shearwater, a 33-foot single screw vessel in which to navigate the problematic inlet and meet the demands of hardcore fishing. In 1938, Curt’s father had his son build him The Gannet, a 38 footer. Mr. Whiticar would love to tell you that story and others firsthand if you visit the original Whiticar Boat Works on the Willoughby Creek.
The local appreciation for and preservation of crafts built in the area have attracted the builders and owners of Rybovich boats to stage a rendezvous Oct. 12-13 at Sunset Bay Marina and Anchorage (sunsetbaymarinaandanchorage.com). The marina boasts 198 slips, 69 mooring balls and amenities such as wi-fi, free bicycle usage, a marina bus, a Captain’s Lounge overlooking the harbor, and Salty’s Ship Store with everything a boater needs. The event includes a parade of classic Rybovich boats at noon on Sunday. The best vantage points will be under the Roosevelt Bridge, along the Downtown Riverwalk and at Sandsprit Park, where the rendezvous will depart.
During the main boating season, the marina also hosts the local arts council’s Waterfront Wednesdays, a weekly gathering where artisans, authors and musicians line the Riverwalk from noon until sunset.
Besides being drawn to the area for fish and finely crafted boats, many modern mariners first discover Stuart as students of the Chapman School of Seamanship (www.chapman.org), founded by the late Charles F. Chapman and the late Glen D. Castle in 1971. The school has trained more than 20,000 students, growing from a single vessel to a modern campus of classrooms, labs, dormitories, and a large training fleet of both power and sail vessels offering inshore and offshore training programs.
Sailors also come to learn the ropes in the area at the U.S. Sailing Center at Martin County (www.usscmc.org). The beautiful facility on the Indian River offers recreational, competitive and beginner sailing lessons for children and adults. It is one of three Community Sailing Centers sanctioned by the U.S. Sailing Association, the national governing body of the sport of sailing.
However they discover Stuart, boaters find plenty to do once they arrive. Two City Shuttle buses whisk visitors to visit 50-plus locally owned shops, premier galleries and fine restaurants along the scenic streets (www.historicdowntownstuart.com).
Outdoor shows and productions at the historic Lyric Theatre (www.lyrictheatre.com) provide regular entertainment. Stroll the Riverwalk to catch a glimpse of the sunsets over the St. Lucie.
To explore local pirate lore, Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge (a National Landmark U.S. Lifesaving Station), boating building traditions and other local history, visit Martin County’s Elliott Museum (www.elliottmuseumfl.org), the downtown Heritage Museum (www.stuartheritagemuseum.com), and the Maritime & Classic Boating Museum (www.mcbmfl.org).
The latter, located in Indian Riverside Park in Jensen Beach next door to the U.S. Sailing Center, features three exhibition pavilions stuffed to the gills with collections of refinished antique boats and engines (namely the area’s own Evinrude motors); models and marine art. There is also a research library, classrooms, auditorium, museum store and café.
As a lifelong mariner, Judy writes about her favorite boats, people, pooches and ports of call throughout New Jersey, the Carolinas and Florida. Residing in Stuart, Fla., Judy manages Salty’s Ship Store at Sunset Bay Marina, paints pillows and fishes with her husband Dan. Contact her at [email protected]