CLEARWATER — Speeding boaters.
They zip around the regulatory signs posted along the Intracoastal Waterway. They throw up walls of water that erode marina supports and bang against docked vessels. They endanger traveling boaters who actually obey the rules.
Tired of it, Clearwater officials reached out to the state for help, which has come up with a plan that it hopes will stop the scofflaws in their tracks: an expansion of the "slow speed, minimum wake" zone in the Intracoastal Waterway near the Memorial Causeway Bridge.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold a public workshop Thursday to present and receive comment on its proposal for the Memorial Causeway. The agency is also proposing a wake zone expansion for the area of the Dunedin Causeway, where there have been similar complaints.
"People are cutting in and out of the channel to get out of the (low wake) zone, " said FWC planner Ryan Moreau.
Added Clearwater harbormaster Bill Morris: "While we have an existing wake zone, we are trying to expand it just so people would slow down."
For Clearwater, FWC officials say, the proposal would update wake zone boundaries originally adopted when a lower, narrow drawbridge connected the mainland and the beaches. The problem of speeding boaters has grown since the 74-foot-tall Memorial Causeway Bridge was completed in 2005, providing enough width for boats to legally speed under the high arc by traveling a few feet east or west of the narrow low-wake zone.
Under current rules, the low-speed zone starts 500 feet south of the Memorial Causeway Bridge and continues to the Seminole boat docks north of downtown. FWC has recommended lengthening the slow-speed zone another 715 feet to the south; the north boundary would stay the same.
Under both the Clearwater and Dunedin bridges, the state also wants to widen the slow-speed zone east and west, encompassing the entire bridge spans rather than just a narrow portion.
Clearwater's request seems to authenticate the concerns of critics of the $2.8 million Clearwater Harbor Marina, who said that waves from the wide Intracoastal Waterway would gradually damage the marina.
So far, Morris said, the damage has been minimal, limited to a few outer pilings.
The city installed state-of-the-art wave attenuators. However, Morris told the City Council last year that boaters often cruise at high speed before throttling down abruptly at the low-wake line, causing waves as high as two feet to continue to batter vessels tied to docks just outside the attenuators.
The city's marina advisory board last year recommended that Clearwater ask the state to widen the wake zone.
For the last six months, FWC personnel in Tallahassee remotely monitored Intracoastal boat traffic from cameras mounted on the docks. While they were at it, agency officials decided to review boat rules throughout the rest of Pinellas County, too.
FWC officers who patrol Honeymoon Island complained that small vessels tend to speed around the narrow wake zone under the Dunedin Causeway Bridge. "It causes a little bit of a safety issue for our officers that folks would be cutting through this area so fast," Moreau said, "so we thought it would be prudent" to also expand the wake zone there.
As part of the countywide review, FWC is also proposing changes to its 20-year-old maps and rule language for clarity.
"The only thing that's changing is how it's worded so it's more clear and concise so boaters and law enforcement can understand where the zone is going to be," Moreau said.
Any input or new ideas that the public presents at Thursday's meeting would undergo an internal review for possible incorporation into the FWC's plan.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected]