Crime & Courts
Sandbar party spots adding to dangers in Tampa Bay area waters
MADEIRA BEACH -
When the weather’s right, few places exude summer like the sandbar that lies between Sand Key and Treasure Island. With a panorama comprising uninhabited Eleanor Island to the southeast and John’s Pass Bridge to the west, the stretch of sand, barely wide enough to stretch a volleyball net across, has become a popular place to drop anchor.
Many south Pinellas County boaters head for the sandbar instead of Fort DeSoto or Sand Key because it takes less gas to get there, and it’s legal to bring booze and pets.
Expect the party to heat up for Memorial Day weekend, when the sandbar is expected to draw lots of boats. Those who come like to crank up the music, play in the shallows and drink heavily.
Such sandbars and spoil islands are becoming hot party spots around the area – and a growing concern for law enforcement. They tend to encourage excessive and underage drinking. People can easily become dehydrated, spending hours in the sun – often without enough water. And if somebody gets hurt, the isolation that draws people to the sandbars can also delay medical attention.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has been called out numerous times to the spot near John’s Pass in recent years as word has spread – mostly in response to fighting and underage drinking. It’s not like restaurant or beach bar, where bartenders are required to check IDs and cut off people who’ve had too much to drink.
With Memorial Day weekend unofficially kicking off the summer boating season, law enforcement officers say they’ll be paying attention to these sandbar hangouts as part of their efforts to keep people safe.
It’s a big job, though, because Florida is ground zero for calamity on the water.
The state reported 662 boating accidents last year, the most in the United States and nearly twice that of California, the state with the second-most accidents, at 365, according to numbers the U.S. Coast Guard released last week. Florida had 50 deaths and 398 injuries related to boating last year and nearly $7 million in property damage.
The picture’s not much brighter for Pinellas County, which had the fourth-highest number of boating accidents in the state last year with 49 accidents and three fatalities – trailing Monroe, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Hillsborough County ranked 10th with 16 accidents and two fatalities. Pasco County was 19th with 11 accidents and no fatalities.
Multiple factors account for the heightened danger in Pinellas.
“The reason that Pinellas is one of the Top 5 in boating accidents is majorly due to the fact that it’s a high concentration of boats on the water,” said Officer Baryl Martin, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“You put a lot of vessels in a small area and, unfortunately, accidents are going to happen.”
The state agency is among several patrolling the waters throughout the Tampa Bay area and partners with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Coast Guard and the Treasure Island Police Department.
“People aren’t paying attention,” Martin said. “They’re out there having a good time.”
The sandbar near John’s Pass has become so popular that a local restaurant offers a delivery service by boat. On weekends, the Boardwalk Café stays busy pretty much all day ferrying food and beer out from John’s Pass.
“We saw how many people were out there, and said, you know, there’s an untapped market out there,” said co-owner Jesse Brookman.
The sandbar near John’s Pass isn’t the only trouble spot in Pinellas County, which has 47,680 registered boats. Each weekend, boats pull up to spoil islands near Weedon Island Preserve, Honeymoon Island State Park, Anclote Key and other areas.
The hazards of increased boat traffic, though, are worth the risk for many area boaters.
On Sunday, the popular spoil island near Weedon Island will host the sixth-annual Memorial Day Sandbar Concert, featuring live bands playing on a 24-foot pontoon boat.
“This is basically a neighborhood event,” said Hal Hammer, a musician and one of the event’s organizers. “We’ve never had an accident or fight or an altercation or disturbance.”
Even still, law enforcement will be out in force.
“We monitor them any time they’re out” on these spoil islands, said Sgt. Brad Millican of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s Environmental Lands and Marine Unit.
Law enforcement officers keep an eye out for excessive drinking, which is a major factor in Florida’s high boating accident rate and played a part in 17 percent of the state’s boating fatalities last year, according to the Coast Guard.
If a boat driver gets too intoxicated, there’s often not another person on board who knows how to operate the vessel – a problem not so common on dry land.
So far this year, things have been calm at the sandbar, Millican said. Of course, the summer boating season is just getting started.
No matter where boaters choose to congregate, the key to reducing accidents is education, law enforcement officials say.
“We’re not out there to write tickets,” Martin said. “The FWC’s main concern is the safety of the public and of wildlife.”
With the waters likely to be especially crowded this weekend, people should take basic safety precautions, such as making sure they have enough life jackets for everyone onboard and that the driver avoids drinking alcohol, Martin said.
“The key to anything is to pay attention,” he said.
Tribune reporter Keith Morelli contributed to this report.