Jose Fernandez's Death Epitomizes Florida's Deadly Boating Culture

Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez's fatal boating accident was a punch to the gut, but it was unfortunately far from the first deadly accident on Biscayne Bay. And unless Florida's incredibly lax boating regulations change, his death will not be the city's last high-profile maritime tragedy.

Florida has long been America's most dangerous state for boaters, according to U.S. Coast Guard data. In 2015, the state ranked as the nation's most accident-prone state by a gigantic margin. Sunshine State boaters were involved in 671 accidents. California came in second, with 369 accidents. No other state crossed the 200-accident threshold. Florida also reported nine fatal accidents and 52 deaths last year — tops in the United States.

There are a few obvious reasons for the glut. First, Floridians own more boats — 889,350 — than residents of any other state in America. 

More than 800,000 boats are also registered in Minnesota, and more than 700,000 are registered in Michigan and California, but all three states combined report vastly lower fatality numbers than Florida. This means there's something clearly wrong with the way Florida polices its maritime vessels.

And Florida's lax boating laws have been clear for quite a while. New Times investigated the problem in 2014. That summer brought two infamous boating accidents: In May of that year, a 23-year-old security guard died after he was accidentally sucked into the boat propellers of famed radio host DJ Laz. Two months later, a 32-foot powerboat with five people in their 20s onboard careened into a 36-foot boat carrying a family of eight. The second boat spun out and hit a third vessel.

What became clear in the aftermath was this: Florida boaters are habitually untrained, underregulated, and often drunk at the wheel.

It's incredibly easy to drive a boat in Florida with zero practice. New Times reported that nearly two-thirds of Florida's boating accidents in 2013 involved people who had no formal 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," New Times wrote. "And for anyone born before 1988, no courses are required to legally pilot any recreational watercraft."

Despite the fact that the same drinking limits in place for cars also apply to boats, boaters are rarely ticketed for piloting watercraft while drunk. (This is especially astounding, because drinking culture and boating culture intersect heavily.)
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.

Even at popular party sandbars like Nixon — named for the disgraced former president who used to vacation at a home nearby — boating under the influence ­arrests are almost never made. Pino, the FWC spokesman, says the agency has a policy of not disclosing the number of officers it has on patrol at a given location, but in June he defended the policing. "Typically on any weekend, we have enough officers patrolling to address any issue that may arise," he said. "This is not a law enforcement issue... It's an educational problem... People need to know that they shouldn't consume alcohol while driving a boat."

The drinking likely won't stop. Last year, alcohol was reported as a factor in ten of the state's 62 boating fatalities. That's probably an extremely conservative estimate, in part because of frequently delayed blood samples and laws that require Breathalyzer tests only when investigators observe explicit signs of intoxication. Among the Miami-Dade County alcohol-related casualties in 2013:
"When people die on the water, nobody cares or nobody says anything," Jack Garcia, father of a boating accident victim, told CBS 4 in 2014. "If somebody out there needs help, they're not going to get it, and they're gonna die."

The Coast Guard says drugs or alcohol do not seem to have contributed to the accident that killed Fernandez and two friends. But TMZ has reported that Fernandez posted photos and videos of himself drinking on his boat with his friends, known as "J's Crew." The news outlet also confirmed that Fernandez and his friends had visited Brickell's American Social Bar & Kitchen at 2 a.m. before heading out onto the bay. The bar would not say whether Fernandez had consumed alcohol. It's also unclear what, if any, training Fernandez received before buying his boat.

Fernandez's death was, unquestionably, a tragedy. But it is a tragedy that should, in the coming days, spark a serious discussion about Florida's lax boating laws. Because until those laws change, we can rest assured Jose Fernandez won't be the only person we'll lose.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.