What began over 50 years ago as spectator activity associated with the Miami-based Columbus Day Regatta has evolved into quite a different scene at Biscayne National Park. While the sailing regatta is still held each year -– completely outside Biscayne's boundaries -- thousands of boaters gather within the park during the Columbus Day weekend for a high-spirited party-on-the-water. Although the park doesn't sponsor this "spontaneous" gathering, it has to manage it. And that's a very tough job.
Biscayne National Park's 172,924 mostly watery acres make it one of the largest marine parks in the National Park System. Located just south of Miami, the park protects four distinct but interrelated ecosystems, including a series of more than 40 small coral rock islands (keys), a bay community, a mangrove shoreline, and the northernmost coral reef in the United States. The park is, by any measure, an ecological treasure.
Biscayne is also a visitor's delight. Since more than 97% of the 270 square-mile park is water covered, water-based recreation is king. The vast majority of the nearly 438,00 people who visited the park last year went there for power boating, sailing, paddling, water skiing, fishing, lobstering and crabbing, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, glass bottom boat touring, and related fun on and in the water.
The sprawling size, great popularity, and delicate ecological balance of this "water park" make it very difficult for the National Park Service to simultaneously facilitate visitor fun, ensure public safety, and protect the park's vital natural and cultural resources. This is not even to mention the need to deal with drug trafficking, illegal immigrants, homeland security needs related to the nearby Turkey Point nuclear power plant, and other problems.
When you are stretched very thinly, additional burdens pose special problems necessitating out-of-the-ordinary measures. And so it is that this coming weekend -- one of the busiest of the year at Biscayne -- will see federal, state, and municipal law enforcement agencies from all over South Florida converging on the park to help law enforcement rangers police the Columbus Day weekend party on the bay just west of Elliott Key. In addition to Biscayne's LE rangers and those sent from other Florida national parks, there will be officers on hand from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard, and South Florida municipalities such as Miami/Dade County and Coral Gables.
The catalyst for this flurry of activity is a gathering of park visitors that is, if not unique within the National Park System, most emphatically out of the ordinary. During the three-day Columbus Day weekend commencing Friday, October 8, a huge collection of pleasure boats will anchor in shallow water off of Elliott Key. If the weather is nice and fuel prices aren't too high, there may be as many as 2,000 or so boats of every description on the scene.
The boaters will be there to party, and they are self-consciously proud of the fact that it's not the sort of party you'd invite your aunt Matilda to. Don't go to Elliott Key on Columbus Day weekend if peace and quiet is what you seek. Don't go there if it bothers you to see adult beverages consumed in prodigious quantities. Don't go there if you don't want to see bikini tops doffed for beads and beer. Don't go there if you are unwilling to be tossed overboard at the slightest provocation or soaked by some of the biggest damn water guns on the planet.
Claims that the Columbus Day weekend party at Biscayne National Park is like Mardi Gras on-the-water, "only wilder," are exaggerated, but rooted in a well-established tradition of edgy rowdiness.
Why an event like this should take place in Biscayne National Park -- or any other national park, for that matter -- is a very interesting question. There is a long explanation and a short one. The efficient explanation is that boat-partying during the Columbus Day weekend is a long-established tradition in South Florida, Biscayne Bay is a handy place do it in grand style, and there's nothing in the applicable rules and regulations that proscribes it. Since all national parks are mandated to provide for public use and enjoyment, this "spontaneous" gathering, which has no individual organizer, doesn't even require an "event" permit. At one time, when the sailing regatta was held within the park, the regatta organizers did pay a fee for the race, though too little to cover park expenses associated with the spectator party.
The Columbus Day weekend party demands careful management. In addition to mustering as much law enforcement help as possible (a task recently made difficult by a welter of agency budget cuts), the park has heavily invested in strategy-and-tactics planning, proactive resource protection measures, and educating the boating public about the do's and don'ts of responsible boating at Biscayne during Columbus Day weekend.
This is a seriously motivated campaign. Seagrass beds and other fragile resources are at risk, and so is human well-being. Boat collisions, drownings, heart attacks, personal assaults, boating under the influence (BUI), and a variety of other accidents, incidents, and infractions happen with depressing frequency in these waters, even when there isn't a huge party going on. Fatalities have occurred at the Columbus Day weekend party as recently as 2006.
As Biscayne's Columbus Day Weekend website explains, "In order to provide for the safety of the park's visitors and resources, as well as preserve the qualities for which the park was established, a number of special measures are put in place each year over this busy holiday weekend."
These "special measures" are rooted in a strategy that has four main components: concentrating the anchored boats in a single appropriate area, maintaining a safe distance between anchored vessels, educating boaters, and strictly enforcing regulations meant to protect park resources, insure public safety, and minimize visitor conflicts.
The location of the Columbus Day weekend party -- the west (lee) side of Elliott Key's northern end -- has long been popular with Miami area boaters. This sheltered location on Biscayne Bay has shallow, crystal-clear water ideal for anchored-boat recreational activities like fishing, swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, and of course, partying. Many boaters like to raft their vessels for this purpose, roping them together in groups for convenient socializing.
To minimize damage to resources (especially fragile seagrass beds) and to facilitate patrolling, the park has specified a mandatory anchoring area for the Columbus Day weekend party and banned anchoring elsewhere in the vicinity during the event. The authorized anchoring area, which extends from Elliott Key harbor north to Sand Key, is shown in the handout/pdf form Columbus Day Weekend 2010: What You Should Know guide.
The handout also lists a series of offenses, including:
• Boating under the influence;
• Minor in possession of alcohol;
• Sale or gift of alcohol to a minor;
• Public intoxication, or possession of controlled substance;.
• Running aground (necessitating restoration of damaged resources);
• Various boating and equipment violations;
• Rafting in excess of 5 boats;
• Prohibited boat operations;
• Reckless and negligent boat operation;
• Operating personal watercraft (PWC) in the park;
• Excessive noise;
• Fighting, threatening behavior, or violent behavior;
• Unauthorized business operations.
These are rules with teeth. The minimum fine is $125 (minor boating or equipment violation), and every one of the listed offenses can result in fines as high as $5,000.
A key need is to keep anchored vessels far enough apart to permit easy access in case of emergencies. Accordingly, rafts are limited to five vessels, and rafts as well as individual vessels must be at least 100 feet apart. These special regulations are in effect from 12:01 am on Friday, October 8 through 11:59 pm on Monday, October 11, 2010. (A mooring buoy plan currently being developed at the park is unlikely to have any impact on the Columbus Day anchorage area.)
The park has also provided information and warnings helpful to Columbus Day weekend boaters. If you go to the park's Columbus Day Weekend web page, you'll find these admonitions and instructions:
• Allow plenty of extra travel time, since key travel routes are likely to be congested and marinas and boat launching facilities throughout the region will be crowded.
• "Stay Parked After Dark!" There is no curfew, but be aware that the risk of accidents and resource damage soars after the sun sets and visibility is sharply reduced. Most of the party-related accidents, and all of the fatalities, have occurred after sunset.
• Keep your trash on board and properly dispose of it on shore.
• During boat operation, be constantly aware of the water depth. Operating a boat in water that's too shallow can result in costly repairs and a big fine for damaging seagrass or other resources.
• If alcoholic beverages are being consumed, be sure to have a designated driver for both your boat and your car.
• Charters and other business operations, such as the sale of food, drinks, beads, etc. is strictly prohibited.
• Displaying advertising banners on vessels or aircraft is prohibited.
• Vessels with external speakers broadcasting unusually loud music may be cited and the speaker wire confiscated.
• Use alcohol in moderation, bring warm clothes for chilly nights, expect that cell phone reception will be spotty, and don't accept rides from strangers.
• Stay with your boat. Visitors who get separated from their boats ("lost swimmers") will be transported to Elliott Key to await eventual transport to the mainland where they must make arrangements to be picked up by friends or family members. Park personnel will not taxi lost swimmers back to their boats.
Traveler extends best wishes to Biscayne's Columbus Day weekend boaters for a safe and (reasonably) sane weekend, together with our hopes that all of your interactions with park rangers and other law enforcement and emergency services personnel will be of the cordial variety.