GOING FORWARD: Troubled waters? Destin Forward explores draw, dilemmas of Destin's waterways

William Hatfield, Going Forward
No tour of Destin’s waterways is complete without a pirate cruise aboard the Buccaneer. Capt. Cliff Atwell took the Destin Forward class out for a harbor cruise and said the boat has taken tens of thousands out on the water since its maiden voyage back in 2012 .

EDITOR’S NOTE: Log Editor William Hatfield is a member of this year’s Destin Forward class. He will be filing stories monthly chronicling his experiences in the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program.

Destin’s lifeblood is emerald green.

It’s no surprise that, to the outsider, Destin is synonymous with its sugar white sand and trademark-worthy water, which beckons to beachgoers and anglers from around the nation.

The 2013-2014 Destin Forward class took a deep dive into the topic during Waterways Day, the second class in the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program.

The day fittingly began on Dewey Destin’s Harborside with the great-great-grandson of Destin founder Leonard Destin. The restaurateur recounted the familiar origin stories of Destin: How an ill-fated storm in Key West took the lives of Leonard’s father and brother but ultimately brought him to what would one day become The "World’s Luckiest Fishing Village." How four desperate men unwittingly created the East Pass in 1926 while trying to release floodwaters that were threatening life and livelihood.

“Destin truly was a frontier; you could only get here if you sailed.” Even in recent history, “It was like living in a national park,” Dewey Destin said of his high school years.

Not too many years later  — in 1984 to be exact — that sleepy fishing village became a bona fide city, and Dewey Destin sat on that first City Council.

“For the first 5 to 10 years, everything we did, everyone was pretty happy with,” he said. “After that things got a little complicated.”

We grew and grew and grew. And the water, which was the ultimate selling point for our piece of paradise, became walled off. Our harbor, hidden.

“We’re at a point where we can’t build a whole lot more without destroying what makes Destin worth living in,” Destin said.

One project worth building, according to city contractor Michael Bomar with Tetra Tech, is the new harborfront park. Dubbed Captain Royal Melvin Heritage Park, the linear park sandwiched between Dewey’s and Fisherman’s Wharf would be something of a visual gateway to the harbor and a capstone to the city’s unified boardwalk project, which was completed in 2012. It would also be a touchstone to the city’s past with features paying homage to the city’s founding fishing families. The best part of all is the tab may be picked up by BP: Bomar says the project is a perfect fit for Restore Act funds because it would blend environmental and economic development elements.

Enshrining the fishing heritage of Destin in a park is critical because, as Okaloosa County Commissioner Kelly Windes points out, there may be a “limited” future in the charter fishing industry due to “arrogance of power” by bureaucrats who wouldn’t know a rod from a reel.

“There is more snapper out there — I promise you — than when I was 19 years old,” he said. But the regulators are “saving the world by justifying their existence.”

The future of fishing isn’t the only aquatic aspect of our city that is in peril. There were plenty of complaints this summer about whether the Emerald Coast had lost its color. Through much of our waterlogged summer, our Bahamas-like water looked muddy and dark. Alison McDowell, executive director of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, explained that it was a natural occurrence with the swollen river carrying sediment to the bay and gulf.

But water clarity aside, Destin and neighboring cities have real stormwater management issues made evident by a summer of heavy rains, a couple of sewage spills and a string of failing grades in water quality tests.

So what’s Destin to do?

As third-generation boat captain Windes says, “Bow up; keep on keeping on.” And in Destin that means fiercely protecting our water quality and fishing heritage.  

William Hatfield is editor of The Destin Log and member of the 2013-14 Destin Forward Class. You can reach him at whatfield@thedestinlog.com

Coast Guard Q&A

Destin’s guardians of the water are the men and women serving at Coast Guard Station Destin. As part of a recent Destin Forward tour of the facility, Operations Petty Officer Eric Donovan addressed some frequently asked questions.

•The Coast Guard doesn’t need probable cause to search vessels and can conduct what it calls “cold hits” on random vessels to make sure they’re in compliance with boating laws. While they can’t write tickets, they work in conjunction with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife officers.

•Paddleboard operators must have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person and a sound-producing device on board while on the water, unless the paddleboard is being used within a “swimming, surfing or bathing area.” Coast Guard officials admit this is “a huge issue of discussion” and enforcement often depends on the situation and how busy the waterways are. “A lot of times, it’s not you that’s the problem,” said Donovan. “It’s other people that don’t know what they’re doing.”

•You can’t swim out to Crab Island because you’d have to swim through a navigational channel to get there. “That becomes a huge safety issue, because vessels are not looking for heads in the water,” Donovan said.

•As for who regulates what has become the floating food court at Crab Island: The Coast Guard ensures floating eateries are permitted as seaworthy commercial vessels, but they don’t regulate the cleanliness or the restaurant functions.

• The most common mistake boaters make is violating the no wake zone in the pass, near the bridge and at Crab Island. “There is a pretty vast area that no one realizes is out there,” he said.

•The rainy summer made for a substantially slower summer. Most years, the Coast Guard responds to about 200 incidents in Destin. This summer they responded to about 140 incidents.