“It takes a village” to keep the thousands of revelers safe.
DESTIN — Independence Day celebrations at and near the floating city of watercraft at Crab Island included a heavy public safety and law enforcement presence to keep the good times running smoothly.
“It takes a village” to keep the thousands of revelers safe, Destin Fire Control District Capt. Jeff Anderson said while patrolling the area Tuesday.
Working with firefighter Dalton Crozier and lifeguard Michael Bergstrom, Anderson deftly steered a 28-foot-long fire district vessel past and around hundreds of boats, floating structures and plastic floats, and, of course, scores of swimmers.
The fire district crew got on the water about 10 a.m. Tuesday for their 12- or 13-hour shift, and was joined by the Daily News at 11 a.m. On the Fourth of July, the Crab Island area also was patrolled at various times by a U.S. Coast Guard boat and several Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission vessels.
“For fire departments around the country, the Fourth of July is the busiest day of the year,” Anderson said. At Crab Island, “There are more boats here now than there were on Memorial Day weekend. We’re at the peak of the (tourist) season and the 100 days of summer.”
The fire district crew spent much of the first one-third of its holiday shift advising swimmers not to try to cross strong currents between the shore by Marler Bridge and Crab Island. The men also motioned to numerous operators of wave runners and other watercraft to slow down and obey the “no wake” zones that border Crab Island.
At about 11:10 a.m., the fire district crew spotted a man who was caught in a strong current on the island’s east side. The man had been swimming next to a pontoon boat but had drifted away from it and his friends. He held onto a float that his friends had tossed to him before Anderson and crew pulled alongside and hoisted him aboard.
“That was a good workout,” said the 23-year-old man from Pittsburg named Justin who declined to give his last name.
“See how that tide’s ripping right now?” Anderson asked him. “Be careful.”
Unlike the emerald green Gulf water, the outgoing tide water from Choctawhatchee Bay was murky and much less serene.
The fire captain said while Crab Island usually benefits from having many “good Samaritans” on hand who help people in trouble, the area would likely get much more hectic as the boating crowd bloomed in anticipation of the nighttime fireworks. Hence, the large presence of public safety and law enforcement officers, Anderson said.
Near the edge of Crab Island, a man on a wave runner slowed down to ask the fire district crew whether he could ride the “lanes” or narrow corridors of vessels at Crab Island.
“You’re not supposed to,” Anderson said.
“We’re looking for somebody,” the man said. “We won’t stop.”
Anderson said watching the horde of swimmers and boaters would fill out his crew's shift.
“That’s how the day goes; just keeping an eye out,” he said. “Are they in trouble? Are they not in trouble?”
Empty spaces at Crab Island were quickly being filled up at noontime, with Anderson noting that everyone was jockeying for a good position to eventually enjoy the patriotic pyrotechnics over the East Pass.
A young man selling boiled peanuts sailed by. Two women selling piña coladas and other drinks motored past and waved. Music blasted from boat stereos.
The boats kept coming like waves.
“Some of them will stay out here all night,” Anderson said.
At about 12:30 p.m., FWC officers Britton Corbin and William Wilkenson rescued a child and two adults from the strong current flowing under Marler Bridge. Shortly afterward, the officers said the majority of their day would be spent on making sure people were safely enjoying the holiday.
For the FWC, “Saturday and Sunday were busier than today,” Corbin said. “We’ll be out all day and night today.”
Sheriff’s Office Deputy Kyle Corbitt later pulled up to the fire district boat and said the S.O. had recently made about 100 to 150 vessel stops and safety checks in the area, but had not yet made any arrests for boating under the influence. He said the FWC had arrested five or six people for BUI in the area over the past several days.
“My main focus is Crab Island and the touristy areas,” Corbitt said. “We warn everybody to have a designated driver. Our presence is helping to cut down on boating under the influence.”
But, it was still early afternoon, and the holiday chaos “is just getting started,” Corbitt said.
After an on-board lunch of Korean ribs and other food provided by the owner of Luther’s Pontoon, Waverunner and Kayak Rentals, Anderson, Crozier and Bergstrom motored away from the east end of Marler Bridge back toward Crab Island. They soon spotted three men trying to swim the 200 yards or so from the western shore to the island.
The three swimmers turned and headed back to shore after the fire district crew warned them about the strong current.
“That’s like a swim that I would make,” Bergstrom said. “But I would get ready for it by stretching, and I would use fins and goggles. I would get ready for that swim.”