'It is an issue': Congestion a hot topic for those on the water

Janie Harris
Even though in 2014 the city widened the channel, sand has filled back in and has made entering and leaving Destin’s harbor difficult.

July is known around the area for its increased traffic due to the amount of visitors in the area, but sometimes that traffic extends to more than just U.S. Highway 98. Recently, there have been complaints of the congestion at the mouth of the Destin harbor and the channel under the Destin bridge.

“We do notice that it is an issue,” said United States Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Nathan Davis.

After speaking with Jim Westbrook, the owner of the American Spirit, which is one of the largest vessels docked at the harbor, the Log found that there are two main issues — inexperienced operators and water depth.

“There is only one place deep enough for the big boats to travel,” said Westbrook. “There is plenty of water, plenty of room for everybody. We just don’t have enough water that is deep enough to navigate.”

In 2014, the city widened the channel to help alleviate some of this congestion, but since then, the channel has slowly returned to its original width and depth.

“Have you ever tried to dig sand? When you take your shovel out, there is no hole. It is the same way out here,” said Westbrook.

Westbrook explained that because of the depth, there is only one area the larger boats can use, and when two larger boats meet, they have to communicate with each other about what they are doing. But not all vessels have a radio to communicate, so this causes an issue when jet skis or paddle boards are surrounding the two large boats and the operators are not experience enough to understand what is happening around them.

Davis explained that when you rent a vessel from one of the many businesses along the harbor, the business usually goes over some sort of safety information before a renter takes the vessel out.

That is no exception at Luther’s Pontoon, Waverunner and Kayak Rentals. John Stephens III of Luther’s said before someone takes off in one of the vessels, an employee goes over basic safety principles with the operator. Luther’s gives out maps or no wave zones and other important information, and the business even gives inexperienced operators a chance to go out with a guide to teach them before the go out on their own.

And there are some regulations on who can rent a vessel — one must be over the age of 18, and if the individual was born after Jan. 1, 1988, they need to have taken a boating safety course mandated by the state.

But sometimes, that is not enough.

“We go over right-of-ways, but as for how close you get to other people, not really because people are going to go where they want to go,” said Stephens. “You can tell them not to go somewhere, but it doesn’t mean they will listen. It is all about whether they listen to you or not.”

Davis said that he believes less boat traffic in general would help the channel. However, this is unlikely in the middle of July with the amount of visitors in the area during the summer. Also, the city legally cannot regulate the waters more than they already are because the water is a public space and everyone is entitled to access it.

Westbrook even argued that it would be a poor idea.

“These people aren’t tourists. They are vacationers, and they are supporting the local economy,” said Westbrook.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has recognized this as a problem and are currently working on a solution.

At the end of 2015, the entity will begin a bidding process to contract someone to stabilize the channels width and depth. Construction is expected to begin in early 2016.  

“I don’t think there ever is going to be a solution,” Stephens said. “At least now, you can get more than one boat to go through.”