TAMPA — As Memorial Day nears and summer approaches, the Tampa Bay area’s waterways are calling.
Answering that call will be a cadre of motorboats, sailboats, personal watercraft, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, people on skis, tubes and boogie boards, and swimmers and splashers. Starting this holiday weekend, there hardly will be room for fish in the water.
All that congestion can lead to bumps and collisions, groundings on sandbars and oyster shoals, and inebriated captains swerving in and out of channels.
For local law enforcement, the busy season on the water is underway.
“We will have additional vessels on the water, more than normal, mostly on the Bay,” said Hillsborough County sheriff’s Cpl. Steve Decatur.
Vessels from other agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Tampa Police Department and law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County also will be out in a big way this weekend, he said.
“We don’t want to tell people they can’t go out and have a good time, and drink and do what they want to do,” he said, “but they have to be responsible. If they go out to the islands and get liquored up and take the wheel, we don’t want them to do that.”
Boat skippers don’t need to do something wrong to be stopped by the law, Decatur said.
“We don’t need probable cause like a traffic stop,” he said.
“We can check the registration, and we will be looking for safety equipment and making sure the vessel is being operated safely and the operator is not impaired.”
Memorial Day is the biggest boating holiday of the year, he said. People get their boats out of storage and hit the waves, releasing all that pent-up winter cabin fever. The only event bigger is Gasparilla, he said, “when thousands of boats are congested in one tight area.”
Fish and wildlife officers also will be out, said commission spokesman Gary Morse: “This is a big boating weekend.”
The state has run public service announcements telling boaters they need “to remain aware of their surroundings and what’s going on not only ahead and aside, but behind them as well,” he said.
Special attention will be paid to personal watercraft operators, Morse said. He said many of the accidents involving personal watercraft come from those who aren’t familiar with the small but powerful vessels.
“In the hands of beginning boaters, personal watercraft can be particularly difficult to control in close quarters,” he said.
Personal watercraft are like motorcycles on water. They’re fun and fast, turn quickly and can squirt into and out of places bigger boats can’t.
But like their counterpart with two wheels, there’s a danger of going too fast or being reckless.
According to FWC statistics released Friday, there were 138 personal watercraft crashes with eight fatalities in 2013.
Pinellas County had the most deaths with three, and ranked third overall with 12 crashes. Eight injuries were reported.
Ranked first in the number of wrecks was Miami-Dade County with 28, followed by Monroe with 26.
In Hillsborough County waters, seven personal watercraft accidents injured eight, but there were no deaths. Pasco and Hernando each had one crash that caused an injury.
To reduce the numbers, the Personal Watercraft Industry Association has launched a public awareness campaign focusing on water safety. The association has come up with a Safe Rider program in which users are being asked to sign an online pledge “committing to the safe and responsible operation of their vessels.”
David Dickerson, executive director of the association, said in a recent statement: “Our mission is to advocate for a safe and enjoyable experience on any personal watercraft.”
The association introduced the Safe Rider program in 2013 with a nationwide call to action. It urges personal watercraft riders to, among other precautions, avoid aggressive maneuvers; stay a safe distance from other boats, swimmers and fixed objects like piers; and drive sober.
John’s Pass Wave Runners manager Mike Scharf said everyone who rents a personal watercraft gets a 10-minute course on how to safely operate it, where to go, what to do if something goes wrong and other tips.
“Everybody gets a full orientation, whether they’re driving it or riding on it,” he said. “Everybody who steps foot on a jet ski gets a sit-down before they leave the dock.”
The clientele ranges from locals who come by once a week or once a year, he said, “to people who have never seen water before. They are wondering where the seat belts are, where the brakes are.”