The Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force is circulating a petition to prohibit certain bridge openings.
In December 2015, a Siesta Key-based sailboat skipper was waiting during a beautiful day for his turn to access Sarasota Bay under New Pass Bridge.
Then, the ride turned choppy.
“There were so many boats there I had to put it into reverse,” said Marvin Quin. “You’re going against the current and the dynamics of the boat are terrible (in reverse). You don’t have a bow. You have a stern.”
The prop fell off in the strong surf and he lost control of his boat. The bow collided with the bridge base, and the 65-foot mast clipped the bridge. The current took the boat under the bridge. Fortunately, no one was injured.
“Boats were scattering. It was quite an experience,” he said.
That’s why not everyone agrees with Longboat Key’s push to change bridge-opening policies for New Pass Bridge and Longboat Pass Bridge. They say it would make an already dangerous pass even more risky to traverse.
The bridges open in 20-minute increments on demand and whenever needed for training, testing or maintenance. The Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force is circulating a petition to prohibit bridge openings for training, testing and maintenance from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., among other short-term traffic fixes.
Three captains at the Bird Key Yacht Club, with a combined 185 years experience at the helm, say it would be a critical error to limit openings even more. All say they take their vessels out at least three times a week.
The Bird Key captains say they oppose any policy that would reduce the number of bridge openings.
Lew Lawrence, 79, of Bird Key, has been sailing for 70 years and now skippers a 34-foot sailboat. He said dredging at New Pass this summer was welcome but it will soon shoal over. Then, the risk mounts again.
Quin, 69, who has been sailing for 55 years and now skippers a 37-foot sailboat, said the safety issue is most acute with sailboats.
“In a sailboat, especially, trying to maintain the stability of the boat while the current is pushing you toward the bridge, is uncomfortable,” Quin said.
Rob Harlan, 78, of Bird Key, has been sailing 60 years and pilots a 20-foot powerboat. Harlan said he, too, would urge the U.S. Coast Guard not to change its bridge-opening policy.
“It would be a big mistake to limit openings during daytime,” Harlan said. “You’re limiting boaters to a very confined area. It’s very poor policy.”
Going from the Gulf of Mexico into Sarasota Bay, or any other similar waterway, means facing surging waters when the tide turns, the skippers say.
Control isn’t an issue for boats going opposite of the tide. But when the tide is surging from behind, it can accelerate collision chances considerably, Quin said.
Sailboaters will circle in the narrow channel while waiting for the bridge to open, but a big boat will soon find any holding pattern crimped by lack of space.
Boat captains time the bridge opening while moving from Sarasota Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a lot trickier trying to access Sarasota Bay from the Gulf.
“Sailboats don’t go very well moving forward,” Quin said. “They go far worse going backward.”
Rod Elkins, USCG bridge management specialist at the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami, and Lt. Ashley Holm of Ports and Waterways Safety Management Department in St. Petersburg, said they are aware of the petition. But they doubt circumstances have changed since Coast Guard last declined a policy change request from Longboat Key.
“Seeing as there was a decision not too long ago, I don’t believe conditions would have changed that drastically to have changed the decision,” Holm said.
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