Speakers lined up at a recent Tarpon Springs City Commission work session to paint a vivid picture of the dangers boaters face on a narrow, busy stretch of the Anclote River near the Pinellas-Pasco line. Describing that section as "like the wild West," they helped convince city commissioners to favor a slow speed/minimum wake zone on that part of the river — a need tragically illustrated by a fatal boating accident in August.
More than 640 people signed petitions calling for new rules after former City Commissioner Michael J. Billiris, 59, was killed when his boat crossed paths with 21-year-old boater John Palasky on Aug. 10 and ended up wedged into mangroves. The accident is still under investigation, but it fueled calls for a no-wake or low-wake zone on a mile-long stretch from Marker 32 to Marker 17.
The Anclote provides easy access to the gulf, so it is often crowded with recreational boaters, and it passes popular Anclote River Park, which has boat docks, a beach and convenient launches for personal watercraft. The river also is plied by commercial sponge boats, fishing boats, tour boats and charters that dock upriver at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks.
The boat channel is narrow and deep, with a rapid current at tide changes. The channel can test any boater's skill, particularly when it is crowded and irresponsible boaters, some reportedly speeding as high as 60 to 70 mph, are in the mix.
Tarpon Springs police Chief Bob Kochen pointed out a hazard that hasn't gotten attention: Fuel stored at some docks within 500 feet of the channel. If a boat veers out of the channel, it can crash into those fuel docks with potentially explosive impact.
Kochen said state records show 35 accidents on the Anclote between 1998 and 2009, with three fatalities, 26 injuries and $148,000 in property damage. But residents say some accidents are not reported.
Kochen is concerned there are no speed controls at all from Marker 32 to Marker 17 — a concern heightened by the high volume of boat traffic, the varied types and sizes of watercraft, manatees in the river in the winter, fuel docks close to the channel and the potential for large wakes. He asked the commission to support safety measures and offered several options, including a slow speed/minimum wake zone, an idle speed/no wake zone, a river speed limit or speed/wake zones limited to certain time periods or excluding commercial vessels.
Some commercial boat operators object to stringent speed controls that slow their ability to reach the gulf. There is already a no-wake zone upriver. In a no-wake zone, boaters may use only enough speed to maintain steerage — estimated by Kochen at about 2.5 mph. It takes 24 minutes to travel 1 mile at that speed, he said.
Commissioners acknowledged the commercial boaters' needs but wisely concluded that safety should trump all other concerns. They decided on a slow speed/minimum wake zone, pointing out they could implement the tougher no-wake zone in the future if necessary.
However, the commission's decision does not immediately implement the slow-speed zone. The Anclote also flows through Pasco County, so Tarpon Springs and Pasco officials must agree on the new regulations. Then the request will be heard by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and potentially the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before being approved or denied by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Those agencies hopefully will see the clear need for controls on the Anclote. One speaker said last week that conditions on the uncontrolled stretch are like "taking down the traffic light at Keystone Road and U.S. 19 and saying, 'Everybody go for it.' "
Everyone on the river and along its banks is at risk until something is done.