It’s Just a Matter of Safety … Speedboats, Paddlers in a No-Wake Zone

by on October 31, 2011 · 7 comments

in Environment, Popular, San Diego

Despite mutual frustration, it was a friendly meeting with the new Harbor Police Chief, John Bolduc and several members of the waterman community  a week ago last Monday, October 17, at one of the Starbucks at Liberty Station (of course there is more than one…).   He had agreed to meet with John Decker, an avid stand up paddler (SUP) and representative of Kings SUPs, Randy Peterson of the Kanaka outrigger club, and Scott MacLaggen, longtime area water activist, and me.  At issue was a small waterway, 54 acres, which runs between Liberty Station and the San Diego International Airport and is bordered on the north by the United States Marine Corp Recruit Depot.

Barely 500 feet across and one mile long, with calm waters, it is a haven for stand up paddlers, kayakers, outriggers, small sailboats and an occasional fisherman (although I would strongly recommend a catch and release policy due to the years of pollution), and those funny little boats you sit in and pedal with your feet.  Unfortunately, the calm waters is also a draw to those who use the water without a single care to the safety of others; water skiers, jet skiers, and just plain jerks who like to go fast and make wakes.

MacLaggen has been raising the issue with regard to safety in the channel for over a year.  He contacted former Harbor Police Chief San Fillippo regarding his concerns.  Both were interviewed by the Union Tribune for an article published in March of this year. Nothing came of that article.

The only entrance to the channel from the bay is underneath the Harbor Drive and Sonar Bridges, both of which have small posted 5 mph signs.  There were some 5 mph signs on the buoys which ran the length of the channel, but according to Decker, “a fella who likes to jet ski through there just takes them off when he sees them.”  Regardless of the presence of signs, there is nothing the Harbor Police can do about speeders in the channel, and here is why:

When the City of San Diego and Port of San Diego received the old NTC property from the U.S. Navy and then promptly gave it to the Corky McMillin family for its years of service to the community, the channel was not included in the deal.  The channel, after decades of use by the U.S. Navy is so polluted it is surprising it does not glow in the dark, but I can attest there are some of the biggest bat rays I have ever seen swimming around in there.  Wisely, the Port of San Diego, not the City of San Diego, refused to accept the gift under the heading of “Pollution; You own it, you clean it up.”  Needless to say, the remediation cost of a 54 acre underwater dump is going to be a bit on the high side.  Just ask Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical about Convair Lagoon… oh that’s right, you can’t.  Rather than clean their mess up, they just packed up and left, leaving behind 1800 unemployed aircraft workers.  So much for social responsibility… but I digress.

Well according to Chief Bolduc here is the interesting part.  Because the Port of San Diego, U.S. Navy and U.S. Attorney failed to come to an agreement regarding the transfer and responsibility of the channel, the U.S. Navy maintains ownership of the channel, and only the U.S. Navy can enforce speed laws in the channel, which it does not.  The Harbor Police can enforce all State boating laws, i.e. speed of craft within a certain distance of a beach or swimmer, but they cannot enforce a speed limit in the channel.  What really surprised us, was when the Chief told us his officers have joint enforcement policy (quit snickering), with the U.S. Navy in all other areas of the bay, but not here.

But what is truly confusing is the letter which was given to me by Peterson.  It is from Anthony Megliola, Base Closure Manager, Department of the Navy to Chief Sanfilippo dated February 17, 2010.  The subject line reads “PATROL OF FORMER NAVAL TRAINING CENTER SAN DIEGO BOAT CHANNEL (Original caps).”  In the first paragraph it reads, “The purpose of this letter is to respectfully request routine patrol of the boat channel by the Harbor Police in order to help enforce the no wake/5 mph restriction in accordance with the pertinent State, County and City Laws.”  It further states in paragraph three, “[The Navy] is in the process of installing six new buoys down the center of the channel to clearly denote the area as a no-wake zone.”

Now comes the interesting part.  The letter is copied to Kevin Faulconer (city councilmember and San Diego Yacht Club schmoozer) his assistant, Matt Awbry, Ms. Libby Day, City of San Diego Redevelopment Agency, Capt Paul Marconi, Commanding Officer, Naval Base Point Loma, Capt Joseph Stuyvesant, Navy Region Southwest, Chief of Staff, Cdr Glenn Shephard, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest, and LCdr Mike Dolan, Chief, Waterways Management Division, San Diego, USCG.  That was 18 months ago, and it looks as if enough of the right people were notified.  So where is the enforcement?  At least, where are the buoys?

The fact is the only enforcement of speed in the channel is by the other users (read sup’s, kayakers, and out-riggers) which are generally met with rather unpleasant language, multiple one finger salutes, or in a case last summer, a boater who aimed his speed boat at me and turned away at the last minute knocking me off my SUP with a huge wake and spray of water and then a barrage of, “@$#%^!” while I climbed back on my board.  I thought of yelling back, but then the line from the Untouchables about bringing a knife to a gunfight crossed my mind, and clearly he was not speaking English.

But all inter-activity disputes aside, I think back to the little boy who was killed by a speeding U.S. Coast Guard vessel a couple of Christmases ago.  He was in boat with running lights when the incident occurred.  I think of how vulnerable the folk on SUPs, in kayaks and outriggers are when a speed boat, bow (nautical term meaning “front”) up in the air limiting the driver’s view, goes roaring down the channel, and what would happen if the boat were to run them over.  Decker asked the Chief if he had ever seen a body run over by a power boat.  Apparently both of them had, and I am glad I have not.  The bottom line, it is dangerous, and not a matter of “if,” but “when” someone is going to be seriously hurt or killed.

I called the U.S. Navy public affairs office to get their take on the situation and was directed to a voicemail.  Needless to say, I have not heard back from them.

When I telephoned the U.S. Attorney’s office for comment, I was directed to a voicemail for Debra Hartman for whom I left a voicemail.  I’ve not heard back from them either, but I suppose they are too busy shutting down medicinal marijuana collectives with the help of the city attorney to address real public safety issues (sorry, I had to get that dig in).

I also telephoned the Port of San Diego’s attorney, Duane Bennett to get his take on the situation.  The woman with whom I spoke sort of giggled when I told her I wrote for the OB Rag and said she would give him my message.  I received a return telephone call from the Marguerite Elicone of the SD Port Office of Corporate Communication.  She listened to me, told me she would look into it (I even sent a pdf of the letter), but that was over a week ago and still nothing from them either.

Chief Bolduc has his hands tied.  I know all too full well you cannot enforce a law which does not exist. But t seems someone of authority should be able to step up and say, “This channel is a no wake/ 5 mph zone, and the San Diego Harbor Police are hereby authorized to enforce the speed limit.”  Or maybe it is just cheaper for the government to pay out for a wrongful death suit when another child, or father, or sister is killed because irresponsible people cannot be controlled.  Seems like enough of the right people know about the problem. Perhaps it is time to find some more right people because from the top to the bottom, those we have now just do not care about us very much, regardless of the situation.

Those are my thoughts.  I welcome yours.

Peace, Jack

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Goatskull October 31, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I know this is not really an answer to the problem, but perhaps the best thing is not SUP, kayak, or any other non motorized water sport in this spot until things DO change, if they ever do. My wife and I just recently got into stand up paddle boarding and love it, but we pretty much do it in areas of mission bay where motorized craft are not allowed. It’s just not worth the risk despite the 5mph/no wake rule. There’s also a pretty good spot in the harbor where the Sub base is as long as you stay close to shore.

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avatar Elaine January 9, 2012 at 2:41 am

Greetings Goatskull,
Do you know how I can find out which areas of Mission Bay are off limits to motorized crafts? Thanks.

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avatar Stephen Griffin October 31, 2011 at 9:12 pm

This danger only reinforces the difference between jet-ski/water-skiers and every other recreational boater out there. It takes five seconds on the ramp to know which is which. Fisherman get off the ramp. Sail boats get off the ramp. The little guys don’t use the ramp. Its the jet-skiers who consistently spend 20 minutes working on their craft on the ramp. Its the tow boats who routinely fail to give right of way or obey any basic safety precautions. Ignoring a no wake zone is simply a cultural requirement. Basic decency should solve this problem, but it won’t happen.

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avatar Gristmiller October 31, 2011 at 9:48 pm

I work (volunteer) at the San Salvador project next to the channel daily. The harbor police do patrol, but only once or twice a day.

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avatar mr.rick October 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

If there are no laws governing this body of water, perhaps we should get some folks to tie up some craft that can be anchored or rafted together and form a blockade or an obstacle course.Or maybe some homesteaders or squatters to live aboard.Make it hard to go fast in such a small body of water. That just might be the ticket to solve this dilemma.

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avatar Citizen Cane October 31, 2011 at 11:42 pm

If this were happening in Ocean Beach, then the Harbor Police would stop every boat leaving the channel to give them a free safety inspection and sobriety check.

I’ve long thought that the lower river would be a great spot for paddlers and rowers. There are rarely any powercraft between Dog Beach and the first bridge. We could accomodate the paddlers by building stairs down the jetty near the tennis courts. We suffer the car traffic from Mission Bay, but don’t benefit from any improvements.

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avatar Jack Hamlin November 1, 2011 at 10:10 am

Good morning Gang

Let me clarify a couple of points here. The Harbor Police DO patrol the channel, they are just not allowed to enforce a 5 mph/no wake regulation. They DO cite boaters for all the other violations, i.e. speed to close to swimmers and other boats.

Second, aside from having their hands tied on this one, the Port currently funds the HP for only two patrol boats at a time in the Harbor…that’s the whole harbor. Wonder where all that other money goes…

This was not an article to rip on the HP, because quite frankly ALL my experiences with the HP over the years have been exceptional.

My concern was the bureaucratic volley ball which seems to be ongoing between the Port and the US Navy has created a public safety issue which could be resolved with the stroke of pen…and a few permanent buoys and signs.

The deeper issue, however, is how governmental agencies look at the general public. We are a nuisance, whether it is use of a public waterway, or the 99% exercising a constitutionally protected right of free speech. It is high time we, as in we the people start telling the government what to do, and not the other way around. We should be telling law enforcement what we want enforced, not bought and paid for public officials. And that is from the top, down….

Sorry too much coffee this morning.

Peace, Jack

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