Miami-Dade County

Slow-boat speed zone in effect for Fourth of July

Commanding Officer Michael Cortese of the Miami Coast Guard addresses boating safety at the Miami Beach Coast Guard Station on Thursday, July 2, 2015.
Commanding Officer Michael Cortese of the Miami Coast Guard addresses boating safety at the Miami Beach Coast Guard Station on Thursday, July 2, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A year ago, the waters of Biscayne Bay turned deadly. A three-boat crash on the Fourth of July killed four people and turned a post-fireworks celebration into chaos.

The crash led to additional patrols and the mapping out of new limits for boaters on other popular holidays including Columbus Day and Memorial Day.

Now, for this Fourth of July weekend, water cops are rolling out new crackdowns that include how pleasure boats can tie up together and a temporary slow-speed zone.

The Coast Guard and marine police want to prevent another tragedy during a time when hundreds of boaters are bobbing in Biscayne Bay among swimmers, smaller craft and plenty of beer.

“We know that people party. The Fourth of July is big day in America. It’s a very long day,” Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press said Thursday. “We’re not out there to ruin anyone’s day. However, we are out there to ensure that the folks that are out there, good people who just want to go out and enjoy the day, that they go home safe to their families.”

Here’s what boaters will face:

The Coast Guard will enact a slow-speed zone from 7 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday from Black Point Marina to the Julia Tuttle Causeway to cut the chance of boating accidents during the Fourth of July celebrations.

The speed limit for the weekend within the slow-speed zone is 15 knots, slightly more than 15 mph. Usually no speed limit is enforced unless posted.

Law enforcement officers will patrol through the evening, Commanding Officer Michael Cortese of the Coast Guard in Miami said. Speeders will be fined up to $1,000.

The Coast Guard, along with Miami Dade Fire and Rescue and the Key Biscayne Police Department, announced the slow-speed zone Thursday morning to keep boaters safe over the Fourth of July weekend.

“Our objective with this speed restriction area is to minimize any accidents for folks trying to get to and from the heaviest congested marinas, folks trying to get from the high-density recreation areas, and to keep people safe as they leave the various fireworks festivities in the area throughout the evening,” Cortese said.

According to Cortese, the July Fourth holiday is one of the busiest recreational boating weekends of the year, meaning the likelihood of an accident is much higher.

Miami-Dade County led the state in number of boating accidents in 2014. According to the 2014 Boating Accidents Statistical Report released in May by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Miami-Dade had 79 accidents last year, killing 10, injuring 47 and causing $2.2 million in property damage.

The deadliest was the crash last Independence Day.

“I can’t even describe it,” Heather Hanono said at the time. “It was horrible.”

Around 10:45 p.m., following the annual fireworks show, a 32-foot Contender center-console boat crashed into Hanono’s family’s boat. The first boat then spun out of control and hit a third boat, according to FWC.

Four were killed in the crash: Hanono’s boyfriend Jason Soleimani, 23, Andrew Garcia, 23, Victoria Dempsey, 20, and Kelsie Karpiak, 24. Two others were critically injured.

All of the people on the first boat were thrown into the water, adding to the chaos of the crash.

In addition to the slow-speed zone this holiday, other precautions will be in effect. Press, the Key Biscayne police chief, says there will be zero tolerance for boating under the influence.

A new rafting ordinance, enacted in May, will be strictly enforced this year. The law states that only five boats are allowed to tether at any rafting area. Rafting groups must also maintain 30 feet from other rafting groups. The two outside boats cannot put out anchor lines, which will allow emergency boats to move quickly through the area.

Boaters also will face some uncertain weather. Forecasters predict a 20 to 30 percent chance of rain and scattered thunderstorms through the weekend. Press says boaters in the ocean should anticipate rough seas.

“If a storm pops up, and you’ve got a 17-foot boat in eight- to 10-foot seas, that’s a very dangerous combination,” he said.

The Coast Guard says all boaters should take basic precautions as well: life vests, working navigation lights, float plan — and good judgment.

“We’re begging people to get smart this weekend,” Press said. “As big as the bay is, it’s remarkable how close-quartered it is when you have boats going in every direction. It’s just Murphy’s Law, unfortunately.”

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