Clearwater, with boundaries that touch the Gulf of Mexico, the Intracoastal Waterway and Tampa Bay, promotes itself as a spectacular destination for boating, and the city provides a long list of amenities to attract boaters. But safety apparently has not been at the top of that list. It took a recent boating tragedy in St. Petersburg to persuade Clearwater to fix two hazards in its waterways that some city officials have known about for years.
It is difficult to fathom why Clearwater officials would be so determined to protect the public from things not likely to cause serious injury — balls and Frisbees tossed in public parks, for example — yet fail for years to light a jetty that has caused serious, even deadly, accidents.
The 7-foot-tall rock jetty was built in 1975 and extends from the north end of Sand Key Park hundreds of feet into the gulf. It protects Clearwater Pass, a heavily used boat channel between the Intracoastal Waterway and the gulf, from filling with sand washed off the beaches.
The jetty has no above-water lights and has only a below-water light at its tip. The boat channel in the middle of the pass is lighted, so boaters well within the channel and familiar with the approach to the channel are unlikely to hit the jetty. However, inexperienced or careless boaters, or visitors unfamiliar with the area or boaters approaching in bad weather conditions risk hitting the jetty in the dark.
There have been many accidents in narrow, congested Clearwater Pass through the years, and some of them have involved the jetty. The St. Petersburg Times reported that in 1998, two men died when their boat hit the jetty at night, flipped upside down and landed on the rocks.
In 2006, Clearwater Beach developer Roland Rogers was launched onto the sharp rocks when he wrecked his boat against the jetty. He recovered from his injuries, but after that accident, the Clearwater Marine Advisory Board asked the city to put lights on the jetty so that it could be seen at night. But the city did nothing.
Advisory board members who lobbied for the lights were frustrated by the city's inaction and brought the subject up again after an Oct. 2 boat crash in St. Petersburg. Seventeen-year-old Paige Alyssa Davison was killed when the power boat in which she was riding with four teenage friends crashed into a concrete jetty that extends into Bayboro Harbor from Albert Whitted Airport in downtown St. Petersburg. Though several boats have crashed into that jetty at night in recent years, it never was lighted. After the Oct. 2 accident, Gov. Charlie Crist, who is from St. Petersburg, asked the U.S. Coast Guard to install lights on the Bayboro jetty.
Publicity about the accident and a story in the Times about Clearwater's unlighted jetty led to a discussion of the issue at Thursday's Clearwater City Council meeting. The city's marine director, Bill Morris, mentioned that three boats have crashed into the city-built and city-owned jetty in the 11 years he has worked for the city.
During the discussion, Morris revealed another unaddressed hazard to boaters: the concrete base of an old railroad trestle turnstile that sits hidden just below the surface of the water in Clearwater Harbor near the city's Seminole docks. The 85,000-pound chunk of concrete is unmarked and unlighted and has been struck repeatedly by boaters.
So why wasn't it marked or removed? And what else is out there that could cause death, injury or damage to boats but is being ignored by the city?
City Council members decided Thursday to take money out of reserve accounts to install yellow flashing lights along the Clearwater Pass jetty and remove the old turnstile. The decision took only minutes.