The rocky jetty where José Fernández died in a boat crash rises subtly in the night off South Beach, an inky silhouette above ocean waters dark enough to obscure where the sea ends and the horizon begins.
Sunday’s death of Fernández and two companions on a speedboat in a violent collision with the unlit jetty is bringing unprecedented attention to the spit of rocks off Miami Beach’s Government Cut channel, and the dangers they can pose to both casual and experienced mariners.
“It’s like a land mine,” said Jack Garcia, a retired commander from Miami-Dade’s marine-rescue squad. “At high tide, the tip of the jetty goes underwater. At night, you’re not going to see it — even if you’re looking.”
Veteran captains and marine-safety advocates said existing channel markers offer enough guidance for skippers to avoid the rocks. While the jetty itself lacks lights, a series of flashing marine beacons nearby outlines one of the busiest channels in South Florida. Straight and well-marked, the channel is wide enough to accommodate cruise ships while still providing ample buffer from the pair of jetties flanking the entrance.
“If you follow your chart, you’re not going to hit them,” said Richard Pfenniger, an officer with the U.S. Power Squadron boat-safety group.
The circumstances of the Fernández crash remained unknown Monday as authorities continued their investigation into the death of the 24-year-old star Marlins pitcher and companions Eduardo Rivero, 26, and Emilio Jesus Macias, 27. The three were out on a 32-foot, open-air powerboat that Fernández owned and, according to his Instagram account, took on regular fishing trips off Miami and to the Bahamas. A Coast Guard crew discovered the wrecked boat, a center-console SeeVee, at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
Whatever the cause of the accident, it occurred on rocks that have a reputation for catching boat operators unaware. A summary from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of marine accidents off Government Cut includes several similar jetty collisions, though none was fatal.
“Vessel #1 was heading westbound at approximately 0500 hrs. on this date, into the Government Cut, with three people on board when it collided with the north side of the jetty, and ran aground,” read a summary from the Feb. 15, 2012, incident report. “No injuries were reported at the scene.”
A flashing red light sits about 100 yards southeast of the cut’s northern jetty, the closest waypoint for the Government Cut channel. Round the light and safe passage awaits. But Garcia said the opening often proves too tempting for small-boat operators eager to head toward shore rather than extend their journey just a bit more into open water.
“People cut that all the time,” said Garcia, who retired from the county fire-and-rescue department in 2014. Underwater rocks extend the jetty’s danger for boats that opt not to give the obstruction a wide berth. Along with grounding a boat, Garcia said submerged rocks can cause a mechanical failure that might lead to a loss of steering and an out-of-control vessel.
He recalled his county rescue boat heading out multiple times to the northern jetty, which sits farther out in the sea than the one to the south. “We’ve had people doing the same thing” as Fernández — running into the rocks, he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the jetty, which was built at the turn of the 20th century to protect the entrance to Miami’s harbor. But it’s the U.S. Coast Guard that generally makes decisions on navigational aids — the series of buoys, channel markers and lights that match up to the charts that boat operators are supposed to follow when underway. With the popularity of electronic charts powered by GPS technology, boat operators can track their movements in real time on a digital chart.
On Monday, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Miami Beach station said the agency conducted a routine review of Government Cut’s navigational aids in 2015 and found them to be adequate. Shortly after Sunday’s accident, Coast Guard crews also confirmed all of the lights in the channel worked properly.
“There are two lit buoys, red buoy number 12 and green buoy number 11, that mark the mouth of the channel for Government Cut indicating safe passage for boats coming into and leaving Government Cut,” Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Kelley wrote in an email. “Boaters are advised to go between the buoys when both coming in and leaving the channel.”
Kelley noted the Coast Guard doesn’t control the jetty, “nor is it mandated to light the jetty.” Susan Jackson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said any decision to add lights to the jetty would be made in conjunction with the Coast Guard and local authorities. She said the results of the investigation into the accident that killed Fernández will likely play a role in any next steps.
“Probably following the investigation, with more information, people will be able to figure out if there is a need” for more navigational aids, she said. “If it’s something we need to sit down and discuss.”
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said it makes sense to at least look at making the jetties easier to see for boat operators who stray from the prescribed course. “Clearly it is difficult at night to see that,” he said. “It’s not that visible.”
Capt. Cory Offutt runs the TowBoat US operation out of Miami, and he said his boats head out to the Government Cut jetties several times a year for rescues. “I wouldn’t say fairly regularly. But it does happen,” he said. “Boaters run into the jetty. They don’t see it. And they run right into it.”
Offutt said even experienced boat operators can be deceived by what they see on the water, which is why it’s important to use navigational aids to find the way. “Anytime I go in and out,” he said, “I’m looking at the chart. That’s just prudent seamanship.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.