By 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July, the bacchanal at Nixon sandbar just off Key Biscayne is in full swing. A few hundred feet from the sprawling waterfront mansions of Harbor Drive, dozens of women in bikinis gyrate atop boats, strangers with supersoakers generously squirt rum into one another's mouths, and a half-dozen different house beats blare simultaneously from loudspeakers.
In the waist-deep water in front of the loudest boats, a group of nine young women gathers for a picture. Holding mugs and beer cans, they wrap arms around sun-kissed shoulders while laughing and squealing for the camera.
"You have fun — that's all you do!" exclaims Jessie, a 20-something with bright-pink lipstick, hot-yellow nail polish, and generous curves spilling out of her black top.
Wading through the water a few feet away, a stocky, middle-aged man holds a red plastic cup in his left hand. He has a clipped brown goatee and prominent sideburns. He's shirtless but wears a black bandanna that says "Bad Dog" — a kind of Hell's Angel at the beach. The Angel, who later says his name is Juan, flashes a big grin and grabs a handful of Jessie's right breast. Then he immediately releases it and does the same to her left, as if shaking hands. She smiles.
Next, without hesitation, Juan moves on to another young woman nearby, also voluptuous. She's wearing a zebra-printed top. This time he squeezes the left first and then moves to the right. She isn't fazed either.
"Hey, I'm gifted!" Juan exclaims. "All girls like me to grab their tits. Watch this!"
He drifts several feet to his right, eager to prove his talent once again. Two other young women are locked in a close embrace and don't notice him approaching. Again Juan reaches with his right hand and grabs a left breast, then a right. Startled, the woman turns and lets out a shriek. She smiles and playfully grabs Juan's arm. Thirty seconds later, she's dancing, waving her arms back and forth above her head to the pulsing beat.
"Do you guys want to do the beer funnel?" Jessie shouts above the music.
Less than nine hours later, the holiday fun transforms into a marine hellscape. After spending the day at the sandbar, a 32-foot powerboat with five 20-somethings on board zips toward Dinner Key through the inky night. It's about 10:35, and suddenly the boat smashes into a 36-footer carrying a family of eight, spins out of control, and careens into a third vessel, a Boston Whaler. Blood from a half-dozen bodies pours into the water. Rescue workers pull out survivors and search for bodies floating in the ocean like kids' toys in a bathtub.
One week later, authorities had yet to determine the reason for the crash, but the devastation was clear. Four were dead and three critically injured, including one girl who remained in a coma. A half-dozen families were shattered.
"I've been doing law enforcement for 25 years," says Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) spokesman Jorge Pino. "I've never seen anything like that."
The July 4 crash instantly became the highest-profile — and deadliest — boating tragedy in recent local memory. But in South Florida, where a culture of hedonism routinely coincides with famously lax boating regulations, it wasn't the first. The area's second most notorious tragedy occurred just two months earlier, when a well-known local DJ, whose boat was stuck in the sand after a day of partying, gunned his motor and a 23-year-old security guard was killed by the whirling propellers.
The investigations into both incidents are still open. So far no one has been charged.
"I've been out in every major event... I know what it's like," says Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press, whose own daughter nearly bled to death after being struck by a propeller at the sandbar last year. "This is legitimate. It's real. It's concerning. It's not going away."
With nearly 900,000 registered boats, Florida ranks as America's most popular place for boating — and also its deadliest. Last year alone, 62 people died in boating accidents in the state, the highest number in the nation. Over the past five years, 327 have died, giving Florida the highest fatality rate among large states.
Nearly two-thirds of the operators involved in Florida fatalities last year had no formal marine safety training. In the Sunshine State, where the powerful boating industry has long had a hold on legislation, there's no legal minimum age requirement to operate a boat. And for anyone born before 1988, no courses are required to legally pilot almost any recreational watercraft.
"It's a huge problem," Carlos Silva, a Coconut Grove attorney, says of Florida's lax regulation. "So many people are dying... The safety rules suck."
The pervasive culture of alcohol doesn't help, either. Though the same drinking-limit regulations apply in boats and cars, the reality is that laws are rarely enforced on the water, where multiple agencies often share jurisdiction and access is frequently difficult. In 2011, the most recent year for which state statistics are available, more than 55,000 DUI tickets were issued for Florida's 14 million registered land vehicles. On the water, where drinking is exceedingly common, only 237 citations were given in 2013 by the FWC, the agency that doles out the majority of BUIs — less than half of 1 percent of the number given on land.