Miami-Dade County

July 12, 2014

Safe boating efforts build after tragic crash on July 4th

There’s momentum building to how recreational boating can be made safer after the tragic Fourth of July crash on Biscayne Bay.

Since the Fourth of July boating crash on Biscayne Bay — the worst in Miami-Dade County in recent memory — members of the recreational boating community have launched an informal but passionate campaign to try to prevent similar tragedies.

Four people died and several others were seriously hurt when a 32-foot Contender broadsided a 36-foot Carrera, then struck a Boston Whaler following holiday fireworks. The skipper of the Contender, 23-year-old Andrew Garcia and two of his passengers, Kelsie Karpiak, 24, and Victoria Dempsey, 20, were killed, along with Carrera passenger Jason Soleimani, 23.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is in charge of the investigation, said evidence of alcohol was found aboard the Contender. No charges have been filed.

The accident happened about 10:30 p.m. off Coconut Grove’s Dinner Key, despite a heavy on-water law enforcement presence. Witnesses described a chaotic scene, as hundreds of boats zig-zagged across the bay in a race to reach local boat ramps and marinas after the fireworks.

Veteran Miami sportfishing captains Bric Peeples and Terry Claus are friends of the families of the accident victims. Both are parents of young adults and both are on a mission of prevention.

“What we have now isn’t working,” Peeples said. “I’m tired of people having to bury their kids.”

Added Claus: “I don’t feel safe out there. It’s a free-for-all.”

The two have taken to Facebook with their manifestos for safer boating in Biscayne Bay, which have garnered hundreds of “likes.” Peeples has enlisted the help of local maritime attorney Bruce Marx and Washington, D.C., boating and fishing lobbyist Jim Donofrio. Claus says he is contacting representatives of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and members of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Tops on their safe boating wish list: a night-time speed limit or idle-only zone on bay waters from Stiltsville to Government Cut.

“That’s the easiest and fastest solution to this,” Claus said. “It’s like a manatee zone. If you can do things to protect manatees, why not to protect human life?”

The two captains also are calling for mandatory licensing and on-water education for recreational boaters; harsh penalties for boating under the influence; a change in lighting requirements for recreational boats so that skippers can easily discern approaching vessels from the bright lights of Miami; and a daytime idle-only zone around the popular Mashta Flats sandbar off Key Biscayne where boaters anchor and party on weekends and holidays.

The Key Biscayne Village Council already has imposed a 12-acre no-motor zone in a portion of the area, but the captains say careless boaters still throw big wakes around the edge of the sandbar.

Other boaters have some more ideas for curbing mayhem on the water.

Cory Offutt, who owns TowBoatUS Miami, proposes a campaign to “shock and educate boaters into safe boating,” he said.

Offutt is writing letters to the mayors of Miami and Miami-Dade County, Gov. Rick Scott, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Fish and Wildlife Commission demanding that signs be posted at every marina and boat ramp in the county reading: “Seven deaths on Biscayne Bay this year: will you be next?” and pointing out the hazards of alcohol, excessive speed and improper lighting.

“As a boater, it just gets worse and worse,” Offutt said. “Miami is one of the best places to boat. But they get drunk. Our community just parties so much, there’s just a disregard of common sense. They’re able to buy those big boats and have no training. They don’t know how to drive it; they don’t know the dangers. It’s so ridiculous. People don’t go out boating to die.”

Boater Carlos Levay of Miami said he agrees with suggestions for boater licensing and stiffer drunken boating penalties. A frequent visitor to the Key Biscayne sandbar, Levay enjoys rafting his 42-foot Sea Ray together with boats of family and friends for picnicking and partying. But he said they stayed away on Independence Day.

“It’s not the drinking. Everybody drinks,” he said. “It’s just that everybody is so irresponsible. I have one beer, maybe two, and I stop. I’m responsible for my boat and the people on board.”

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