Miami Beach

‘Absolute hazard’: Fatal boat crash renews calls to put lights on jetty off Miami Beach

The water surrounding Miami Beach is full of obstacles: Jet skiers zip around speedboats and yachts, children lounge on inflatable rafts and passengers jump off tour boats blasting music as they cruise between the island and the mainland.

People and boats aren’t the only potential hazards. At the tip of South Beach, a thin strip of rocks juts roughly 1,000 feet into the ocean off Government Cut channel near PortMiami. At high tide during the day, the end of the north jetty slips below the waves, a dark shadow obscured by turquoise water. At night, the unlit rocks are even harder to see.

Following a boat crash on the north jetty that killed three people last weekend, Miami Beach officials are renewing their calls for increased safety measures to keep vessels from hitting the rocks. City officials are also taking a look at other marine safety issues, including speeding and accidents around Monument Island near the Venetian Causeway.

The mayor’s office is pushing for new restrictions in the water off Monument Island, which is a designated watersports area where boaters and jet skiers can legally go up to 35 mph. Police say they often go much faster and that accidents in the area have resulted in serious injuries. Residents also complain about jet skiers crashing into their docks.

On Wednesday, the City Commission passed a resolution urging the U.S. Coast Guard to study how it can make the jetties more visible. In addition to the north jetty, another jetty off Fisher Island runs south of Government Cut. Separately, the mayor’s office is talking to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about making the area around Monument Island a slow speed zone.

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View of the north jetty off Government Cut at high tide. A fatal boat crash on the jetty has renewed calls for more safety measures. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

After Marlins star José Fernández crashed his boat on the north jetty in 2016, City Manager Jimmy Morales sent a letter to the Coast Guard, which has authority over channel markings, asking for a safety review of the area around the jetties. The Miami-Dade County Commission also called for increased safety measures, and the county’s Marine Patrol Unit recommended that lighting be added to the jetty.

The Coast Guard evaluated the existing navigation aids in the channel, which include color-coded lighted buoys and lighted markers, but ultimately determined that adding lights on the jetties wouldn’t make the area safer and could confuse boaters.

Local elected officials, who have no authority over the jetties, are once again leaning on the Coast Guard to study the area.

“I understand that they have a study system that tells them whether something is dangerous,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said at Wednesday’s commission meeting, “but I think when you have six people who have died, six lifeless people ... that they ought to either re-evaluate the system they’re using or just decide that that’s enough of a neon sign where they need to do something to make it safer.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez also called on federal agencies to do more.

“Something has to be done there,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “This is one too many tragedies.”

Gimenez, a longtime boat owner, said the jetties are easy to miss. “I’ve been out there at night. You can’t see them,” he said.

The crash on Saturday night killed Christopher and Elisaine Colgan of Lighthouse Point and Jennifer Munoz Cadavid of Fort Lauderdale. A fourth passenger, Troy Forte of Juno Beach, was injured when the boat flipped onto the north jetty.

That’s the same spot where José Fernández and two companions, Emilio Macias and Eduardo Rivero, died in 2016. State investigators determined that Fernández was speeding, drunk and high on cocaine when his boat crashed. They concluded that external factors unrelated to the waterway had caused the accident.

Chief Crystalynn Kneen, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation into the causes of the most recent accident will “help inform any Coast Guard determinations” about whether another waterway analysis is needed. She said that the next scheduled assessment is planned for 2022.

The Coast Guard’s 2017 report included state data showing that 107 boating accidents had occurred in the area near Government Cut since 1998, not including the Fernández crash, and that nine involved a vessel hitting the jetties or underwater rocks that might have been the jetties. The accidents resulted in five injuries and no fatalities. State investigators said that they did not believe navigation aids were a factor in any of the crashes.

Some veteran captains and marine-safety advocates agree that the existing marine beacons marking the channel are enough to keep boats from hitting the jetties, which were built in the early 1900s to protect the entrance to the harbor.

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A speed limit sign marking the watersports area around Monument Island. Mayor Dan Gelber wants to make the area a slow speed zone. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Others believe the jetties pose a danger to boaters. Jonathan Nitkin, a veteran captain with the Biscayne Bay Pilots who steers ships in and out of PortMiami, said he thinks the unlit north jetty poses “a major, absolute hazard” for recreational boaters at night, regardless of how experienced they are or whether they’ve been drinking.

When the Coast Guard conducted its study of the area following the Fernández crash, the agency got input from boaters and marine law enforcement agencies. Nitkin, who was then the chairman of the Biscayne Bay Pilots, urged the Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the jetty, to put lights on it. He said he was “saddened” by their decision not to illuminate the rocks.

“We could keep it [just] navigational buoys for people who are trained mariners or we can make it safe for all Joe public who knows nothing and that’s what we need to do,” said Nitkin, who has worked as a harbor pilot in the port for 30 years. “We’ve got to come up with a better solution, a safer solution for the masses that are boating out there.”

‘An entertainment district on the water’

The north jetty isn’t the only challenge off the coast of Miami Beach.

City officials are also taking a look at safety issues in the water around Monument Island, which is also known as Flagler Memorial Island, a popular area for tour boats, recreational boaters and jet skiers.

On Thursday afternoon, jet skiers sped past a group of sunbathers floating on a yellow raft and children suntanning on an inflatable flamingo. Music blasted from a brightly painted tour boat as passengers drank and danced on board. On the island itself, a trash can overflowed with bottles and red drink cups.

“This has now become a party area and these boats are doing this 24/7,” said Michele Burger, Gelber’s chief of staff, who had gone out to survey the area with the police department’s Marine Patrol. “This has become a bar scene, an entertainment district on the water,” she added.

Ian Robinson, the Miami Beach police captain who oversees Marine Patrol, said speeding is also an issue. “We have a lot of Jet Skis or WaveRunners, personal watercraft ... driving recklessly around there, endangering safety,” he said.

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Boaters enjoy the sunny weather in the water off Monument Island. Police say speeding is a problem in the area. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Residents of the closest Venetian Islands, Di Lido and Rivo Alto, complain that they can hear the music in their homes and that jet skiers crash into their docks.

“From Friday at 5 o’clock til Sunday at 11:30 at night you can’t even be in your backyard,” said Darren Zakreski, a Rivo Alto resident whose backyard faces Monument Island. “There are people docking there all night blasting music and of course music travels across the water.

“Everybody deserves a good time, but this has gone beyond that,” Zakreski added.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

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