Less than a month after Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boat crash on a rocky jetty off Miami Beach, the U.S. Coast Guard is taking another look at whether more should be done to warn skippers about the unlit breakwater.
The federal agency recently launched a review of the channel markers and navigational aids that guide boaters away from the jetty where Fernandez died in the predawn darkness of Sept. 25 while on his 32-foot powerboat. Two passengers, Emilio Macias and Eduardo Rivero, were also killed. Investigators have not revealed what they think caused the collision.
“Any time we have an incident like this, we try to take a step back and make sure we’re doing everything right,” said Cmdr. Brian Huff, waterways management chief for the Coast Guard in the Miami area.
Fernandez’s death in the well-traveled waterway sparked widespread calls for authorities to light the jetty, which juts more than 1,000 feet into the water off the tip of South Beach. Another jetty sits to the south, and together they flank the end of the Government Cut channel as it heads inland toward PortMiami and Miami’s harbor.
Any time we have an incident like this, we try to take a step back and make sure we’re doing everything right.
Cmdr. Brian Huff, U.S. Coast Guard
An online Coast Guard survey is part of the review, and it encourages the public to weigh in on whether the channel markers are adequate around Government Cut. “Do you feel the aids to navigation (buoys, lights, daybeacons, ranges) in this area are clear and understandable?” the survey asks. “Are the aids to navigation in this area clear and understandable during nighttime operation?”
The Coast Guard gave the channel’s navigational aids a thumbs-up late last year during a routine review of the area. There are flashing channel markers just off the end of each jetty that designate safe passage in and out of the harbor, but there aren’t lights placed on or next to the jetties themselves.
Following Fernandez’s death, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a West Miami Republican seeking reelection, sent a letter urging the Coast Guard to consider some sort of hazard warning for the jetty, given that area’s reputation as a dicey spot for local boaters.
This week, a top Coast Guard official, Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, wrote Rubio to say the agency is beginning another navigational review, with a focus on whether the jetties need additional illumination.
“We share your concern for ensuring safe navigation,” Thomas wrote. His letter also noted that the November 2015 review found Government Cut’s channel markers, including flashing buoys near the jetties, “met the needs of the mariner.”
Huff touched on a similar theme Friday, noting that accidents are rare on the Government Cut jetties and that the lighted channel markers offer boaters a clear course away from the hazards.
You can get a little disoriented. All of a sudden those jetties, which are not lit, blend into the dark night.
Boat owner Bruce Marx
“Hundreds of boaters go out of that inlet day and night without incident,” he said. Huff noted that markers and buoys aren’t there to identify “every shoal or obstruction.” Instead, boaters must use a combination of charts and navigational aids to steer a safe course — a practice even more crucial at night, when jetties and other hazards can be difficult to see.
He also noted that even if a light were placed on the jetty, it could be a challenge to keep it there. The spit of rocks wasn’t designed to house a light, and also connects to one of the most popular beaches in Florida. “People walk out there, and you have to worry about theft,” he said.
Fernandez, 24, was found dead after his SeaVee powerboat, the Kaught Looking, flipped onto the northern jetty early that Sunday morning. The vessel was discovered around 3:30 a.m. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the crash, but has declined to share details about the probe, including toxicology reports on the three men who died on the boat.
Bruce Marx, a Coral Gables lawyer who often steers his 31-foot Contender through Government Cut on fishing trips, is urging the Coast Guard to consider placing lights on both the north and south jetties. He said that as an experienced skipper, he knows the navigational aids well enough to steer clear of the jetties but can see why they would pose a danger to more casual boaters.
“I’ve done it in all sorts of moon phases. You know they’re there. So you take caution,” he said. “But I’ve also got more sea time at night than a lot of the folks who are running around there. You can get a little disoriented. All of a sudden those jetties, which are not lit, blend into the dark night.”