Billowy clouds dot the sky as a Water Taxi catamaran—decked out in its signature mustard-yellow paint job and white railings—rounds the bend of Fort Lauderdale’s New River and comes into view. The double-decker craft is one of 13 boats in a fleet of seafaring shuttles that welcome more than 1 million passengers annually.
But it’s not just the paint job that might catch your eye. Today’s captain is Kelly McCarthy, one of many women who make the Water Taxi work, from dedicated captains to scrappy deckhands. In a historically male dominated industry, the Water Taxi employs, on average, 15 percent female captains and 35 percent female deckhands. These ladies are breaking barriers, working together to empower one other, and providing inspiration for women looking to get into a maritime career.
Founded by Maryland transplant Bob Bekoff in the late ’80s, the boats of the Water Taxi have been cruising Fort Lauderdale’s waterways for more than 30 years. When current owner Bill Walker purchased the company in 2007, he cemented it as a mainstay in the community. Since then, it’s grown from 35 employees to an average of 125 (depending on season).
Guiding visitors and locals alike through 10 stops along the New River and Intracoastal Waterway, the taxis—affectionately called “floating Twinkies” for their snack cake–like color scheme—run 363 days a year (the boats are only tied up on Christmas Day and during the Winterfest Boat Parade). Covering the majority of the Venice of America waterways, the Water Taxi’s hop on/hop off tickets encourage passengers to explore Fort Lauderdale.
“Not only are they a mode of transportation, but they’re an enormous economic engine for the community and they’re a job creator,” says Genia Duncan Ellis, president and CEO of Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale, Inc., and a Water Taxi annual passholder. “The female captains and mates are first rate. They’re skilled, professional, and unique. They’re an added value to an incredible engine.”
FLI caught up with the women of the Water Taxi. Read on for their stories, favorite stops, and local secrets.
The #1 Fan Kelly McCarthy
Kelly McCarthy has traveled the world, from Tahiti to England, on everything from sailboats to oil tankers. Hailing from Minnesota, she moved to California after high school to work on sportfishing boats. She has been in the male-dominated marine industry for decades, working her way up from cook to captain. In fact, she was the first female bosun in the National Maritime Union.
McCarthy and her family had been vacationing in South Florida for years. When her son graduated from high school in 2016, they decided to buy a condo in Pompano Beach and head south for the winter. One afternoon, she saw the Water Taxi dock at Bokamper’s and decided to inquire about any job openings. The serendipitous encounter led to her realizing that her new boss, Bill Walker, had grown up down the street from her husband.
These days, she divides her time between Minnesota, where she drives a tractor-trailer and manages her Thistle Stop Vineyard, and Fort Lauderdale, where she’s a Water Taxi captain.
In that role, McCarthy says her main responsibility is safety. “At the end of the day, we have people’s lives in our hands and we have to be able to act,” she explains, referencing a day when the taxi she was piloting lost its hydraulics during a tour. (Her mentor and fellow captain, Gina Bowling, came to her rescue.)
Regardless of gender, everyone works as a team, McCarthy says, adding that the crew even meets up weekly for happy hour at The Historic Downtowner and for breakfast dates.
McCarthy is happiest on the water and loves sharing her Fort Lauderdale knowledge with passengers. The only downside to working outdoors, she says, is getting her shoes wet when it rains.
A love for the ocean runs in the family: McCarthy’s son is following in his mom’s footsteps by working his way through the maritime ranks, while her husband is a captain on an oil tanker.
All About Kelly
Years at Water Taxi: 4
Favorite Stop: Hollywood (Stop H1 on the Hollywood Express Route). I love rollerblading on the boardwalk.
Local Celebrity Sightings on Board: I almost met Alicia Keys during the Miami boat show but missed her because it started raining.
Favorite Fun Fact: Wayne Huizenga’s connection to the local area and his philanthropic history.
Tour Tips: Pay attention and listen to the commentary. Live in the moment.
Favorite Water Taxi Memory: My husband and I just celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary and we chartered one of our boats. That’s how much I love where I work.
Best-Kept Local Secret: Kelly’s Landing. Order the New England clam chowder and lobster roll.
The Rising Star Amanda Coleman
Boating on Lake Erie sparked Amanda Coleman’s love for the water. Searching for a career at sea, she found it at American Cruise Lines. During her winter off-season break in 2020, she traded Ohio’s snow for Fort Lauderdale’s sunshine. Looking for a seasonal job, she heard Water Taxi was hiring and applied. Then the pandemic shuttered the cruise industry, and Coleman decided to stay on full-time at Water Taxi.
As a deckhand, she strives to create an unforgettable experience for her passengers. The company’s career training program also allows her to work on acquiring the mandatory sea hours she needs for her captain’s license while she works as a deckhand. Plus, she says, the hands-on training she has received from the experienced captains is priceless.
“Every time I walk into work and see the other females I work with, they give me inspiration,” Coleman explains. “I tell myself every single day how lucky I am to be surrounded by these amazing people. I learn so much from them. It gives me goosebumps even talking about it right now.”
No longer a newbie, Coleman is paying it forward and stepping into her role as mentor to the newer crew. “I like to be that person to say, ‘Don’t be scared, you got this. We got this together.’”
A self-proclaimed “Water Taxi lifer,” Coleman says she’s the happiest she’s ever been, thriving on the Water Taxi’s culture of teamwork, family, and female empowerment.
All About Amanda
Years at Water Taxi: 2
Favorite Stop: 15th Street Fisheries (Stop 3 on the Fort Lauderdale Route). It’s touristy, but all the locals also go there, too
Favorite Fun Fact: The Bonnet House is my favorite story to tell. We’re able to visit it today because of Evelyn, a wonderful woman in history.
Tour Tips: Take advantage of the hop on/hop off service. It’s a great way to see so many parts of Fort Lauderdale.
Favorite Part of the Job: Creating an experience for my guests. When people choose to stay on the boat and hang out with me, that gives me such happiness in my heart.
Favorite Water Taxi Memory: I saw a manatee give birth in front of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park.
Best-Kept Local Secret: The Intracoastal. Everyone wants to go to the beach and sometimes they forget how many waterways we have. The Intracoastal is a hidden treasure.
The Team Player Zoe Zanidakis
Zoe Zanidakis’ hometown of Monhegan, Maine, sits 12 miles (and about an hour boat ride) off the state’s idyllic coastline. And because she grew up in a rural fishing community as a seventh-generation islander, Zanidakis has been boating since childhood.
After selling her boat (which she used for lobster fishing in the winters and fishing charters in the summer), Zanidakis opted for warmer weather, making a stop in Cape Canaveral before moving to Fort Lauderdale to be closer to her brother. While taking classes at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale, she saw an advertisement for the Water Taxi. Her brother, who is also in the industry, knew Bill Walker, so he suggested she apply for a job. The rest is history.
Zanidakis touts that the Water Taxi is ultimately the best way to see Fort Lauderdale because you get to experience the city’s intricacies that you can’t see by car, including the wildlife, the working port, and the lavish homes.
Coming from her tightly knit hometown, she’s found a similar feel with the Water Taxi crew—sharing vital common threads like a love for the ocean and the spirit of working together to get things done. Her passion for working on the water is matched by her drive to empower her crew, especially her fellow lady deckhands and captains.
“It’s been a great learning experience working with some outstanding female captains and crew,” she says. “To work with all the people, especially the young women who are up and coming, has been a real pleasure.”
All About Zoe
Years at Water Taxi: 2
Favorite Stop: 15th Street Fisheries (Stop 3 on the Fort Lauderdale Route). I know people who work there, and I like going there myself to watch the boats come in.
Favorite Water Taxi Memory: Learning how to drive the Z-drive boat. I feel very accomplished learning that skill. It has 360-degree steering, one propeller, one engine, and a forward throttle. It’s fun to operate.
Best-Kept Local Secret: The Downtowner and The Maxwell Room—it’s the coolest. If those walls could talk! I also like the breakfast at Southport Raw Bar. The fried oyster omelet is outstanding.
The Newbie Mary Suppa
A childhood fantasy of working with animals turned reality when Mary Suppa earned her marine biology degree from Nova Southeastern University. For 16 years she worked with a range of marine animals—from beluga whales to seals—at both Sea World and Miami Seaquarium.
However, approaching a new decade in her life made Suppa reevaluate things. After years of being away from her family taking care of the animals, she decided to change fields completely. Back at home in Fort Lauderdale, several friends mentioned the Water Taxi, and she found that the job checked a lot of boxes: It was outdoors, on the water, and allowed her to share her marine knowledge with others.
Suppa says the welcoming crew at the Water Taxi has made her feel at home. With no prior boating experience, Suppa’s training started with Water Taxi classes on the basics, like terminology and knot tying, before she made it onto the boats to shadow fellow deckhands. Deckhands are challenged with numerous tasks including boarding guests, ticketing, being a lookout for the captain, helping dock the boat, leading tours, and even making drinks (on the larger boats that have full bars). Coleman’s ultimate goal—to become a captain—will take her another year. In the meantime, she’s grateful to have Captain Zoe as a mentor and is soaking up everything, from docking tips to how to handle the wind and current.
“Anyone can learn the skills that you need,” she says. “I think whether you’re a male or female it’s more about your attitude that’s going to help you succeed at the end of the day.”
All About Mary
Position: Deckhand in training
Years at Water Taxi: 7 months
Favorite Stop: Hollywood (Stop H1 on the Holiday Express Route). It’s my hometown, the route is very scenic, and I’m a huge Jimmy Buffett fan.
Favorite Fun Fact: Fort Lauderdale is the yachting capital of the world, and while you’re on the Water Taxi, you see it firsthand.
Tour Tips: I encourage people to spend time on the boat but also get off and explore the stops.
Favorite Water Taxi Memory: We saw a pod of dolphins, and for some passengers it was the first time for them, and that was cool!
The Veteran Gina Bowling
Gina Bowling has been with the Water Taxi almost since its inception. In search of a part-time job after college, she applied for a Water Taxi posting she saw in the newspaper. With no previous maritime experience, she credits Bob Bekoff for taking a chance on her and giving her the opportunity to work her way up in the industry, from washing boats to captain. Bowling took current owner Bill Walker on his inaugural Water Taxi tour.
As a young deckhand, Bowling had a dream to become a captain—but she didn’t have enough money to pay for school. A Water Taxi captain stepped in to pay for her education, refusing her offers to repay him. That stuck with her and instilled a desire to help others. Now a mentor, she thrives on guiding and empowering the new crew members. She explains that even in a male-dominated industry, she has never stopped moving forward.
“If you can do it, I can do it,” she says. “I always outran and out-biked the boys. I’m that kind of girl. I’ve always been about girl power. We can do anything the boys can do.”
In late 2020 Bowling was diagnosed with cancer. She continues to fight the disease today. “I’m staying positive,” she says. “I have a lot of great support in my life, a lot of love.” And she continues to mentor from afar, helping to guide her stepdaughter, who is also a part of the Water Taxi crew.
All About Gina
Years at Water Taxi: 32
Favorite Stop: Bokamper’s (Stop 10 on the Fort Lauderdale Route). That’s where my wedding reception was. I’m also a sports girl, and there are lots of TVs.
Local Celebrity Sightings on Board: Kevin Bacon, Alex Rodriguez, Greg Norman
Narration Notes: I like to talk about nature, like our sea turtles and manatees. I also know the history of the mansions and people love it. The historical facts are fun too: The Army Corps of Engineers built the Intracoastal. It starts in Virginia and runs south. And the original inlet was where Bahia Mar is, and in the 1920s a hurricane closed it up. That’s around the time they were also building Port Everglades.
Tour Tips: Save time to enjoy the whole experience.
Water Taxi Map Key
Fort Lauderdale Route
1 Riverside Hotel and Stranahan House
2 Shops and restaurants on Las Olas
3 15th Street Fisheries
4 Hilton Marina and Convention Center
5 South End of Bahia Mar
6 Beach Place and Fort Lauderdale Beach
W Seville Street On Demand Whistle Stop
7 GalleryOne Double Tree
8 Birch State Park and Park & Ocean
9 Shooters Waterfront
10 Bokamper’s Sports Bar & Grill
Hollywood Express Route
4 Hilton Marina and Convention Center
H1 Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, boardwalk, and beaches
• Esplanade Park
• Riverfront Plaza
• Huizenga Park
• Laura Ward Park
• Smoker Park
• S. Andrews Business District East
• S. Andrews Business District West
• Tarpon River