Why I Will Never Sail in Florida Again
17 May 2016
We were aground on a low-low tide on the waterway between Marco Island and Naples. We had bumped mid-channel, and a few boat-wakes later we were lying on a muddy shoal outside the channel's edge. We dropped the hook and waited for the tide to rise.
Good samaritan boaters came by offering help, explaining that, yeah, this area now shoaled to 3.5' in the channel at low tide. We replied that the tide would lift us soon enough, so thanks anyway. We waited. Then came a FWC boat, light flashing. The officer informed us that we were anchored in the channel. (We were not.)
"You'll have to move."
"Oh, because of that... that fin thing." He waved his hand at my hull.
"You mean my keel?"
This enforcer of the waterways, in his flashy power boat, didn't know the names for the parts of a boat. We needed to call Tow Boat "or something," he said.
The irony of it. Unlike every other boater who approached, this officer whose salary is paid by my taxes, had not come to offer aid, he had come to hassle us.
It was emblematic of our 2015-16 season in Florida, our first and last in the "Sunshine State." Though we met many, great people and enjoyed some lovely scenery, I will never go back. Florida has a big problem when it comes to boats. They want them there. And they don't. They can do something about it. And they can't. Boaters are innocent victims caught in the middle. And boaters deserve exactly the treatment they are receiving.
On two occasions this winter, a joint "operation" involving the Coast Guard, the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) and the Sheriff's office, conducted patrols of Boot Key Harbor, the largest anchorage in the Keys, and a place where we spent some time waiting out a particularly bad winter season. They randomly boarded boats and issued citations and fines where infractions were found. Imagine the sight of these flashy patrol boats, lights flashing, sliding through a dark anchorage of 300+ boats filled with cowering retirees. Now, Aria is an impeccable boat, seaworthy, and well-appointed with all the proper offshore safety gear, far exceeding Coast Guard requirement. I am a law-abiding citizen. Since when am I afraid of law enforcement?
I'm afraid because enforcement is uneven and laws unclear - a consequence of having three agencies, overlapping in jurisdictions, each trying to justify its own existence. Does the stern light need to be above your head, or not? Do I need paperwork on my dinghy, or is a decal sufficient? Must my boat name be on the dinghy? It's like the IRS. Ask a different person; get a different answer. I was boarded in the harbor by FWC while on a mooring and fined $90 for not having a valid flare, though I carried a Coast Guard certified flare replacement light I had purchased at this year's boat show. "I've never seen that," he said, waving his hand dismissively at the device, and wrote the fine anyway.
Would three agencies descend like SWAT teams on a Florida campground? Of course not.
One night I was fined for not having a flare on my inflatable dinghy. A flare in an inflatable? I now carry a flare, yes, and I am certain that I am less safe because of it. But this is not about making us safer. This is empire-building by ambitious agencies answering to a constituency that really doesn't want boaters in their state.
And here's the kicker: The boaters brought this on themselves. We met way too many people whose boats never moved, who were simply squatting in some anchorage as a way to live off-the-grid, on-the-cheap. Their boats are unseaworthy, with masts stepped, bottoms fouled - basically campers afloat.They take up residence in someone's backyard and then flood the sailing forums with self-righteous rants about their perceived anchoring "rights." They sound like homeless people fighting for their chosen bench in the park. Is it any wonder that draconian anti-anchoring laws have now been passed in Florida - laws that unfortunately sweep good boaters in with the bad?
Florida is a beautiful state, filled with lovely, lovely water for boaters, divers and sportsman. But for me, in its present form, it cannot overcome a toxic mix of irresponsible boaters, over-agressive law enforcement and a generally hostile boating environment. This will take decades to sort out, if it ever can be. I'm not bitter about this. The world is filled with great places to sail and I have a great boat and crew to take me there. I'm just sad, actually - sad to say, "No, I won't be back."
And, yes I am aware that this is music to the ears of many Floridians.