Florida anchoring restrictions

1 Anchoring

To the editor: Imagine for a moment that you’ve just sailed from Savannah down the coast into Mayport, Fla., and the ICW. It was a rough passage, about 126 miles, and you’re pretty tired.

You approach a familiar anchorage near Jacksonville Beach and down goes your sail and anchor. After a quick dinner and preview of tomorrow’s weather, you head for the bunk in the v-berth for some well-deserved shut-eye. But a knock on your hull brings you quickly out to the cockpit.

A pair of armed Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation officers is just outside your lifelines and one of them shines a light in your face. They are polite but firm.

 “Sorry captain, you can’t anchor here.”

Flummoxed, you reply — being careful to keep your hands in plain sight.

 “I don’t understand, officer. I’ve been anchoring here for a decade and was never asked to move — and this is the only anchorage for miles!”

“Perhaps,” he says, a little irritated. “But a recent local ordinance has designated this site a no-anchor zone.” You’re tired, and it’s hard to hide your frustration.

“I’m headed down to Miami, and then the Bahamas,” you say. “Will there be other surprise no-anchor zones along the way?” The officer smiles as he hands you a brochure with the locations of expensive marinas and mooring fields. “I don’t know,” he remarks as they push off, “it depends on each municipality.”

Before you know it, you’ve weighed anchor and carried on into the gloaming, pining for the good old days when sailing was simple.

Welcome to the future of boating in the Sunshine State.

As you read this, the Florida FWC is preparing to release the 2nd stakeholder survey on potential legislation to authorize local governments’ authority to regulate anchorage of vessels on state waters within their jurisdictions. The subject is sensitive and politically charged, and pits homeowners against the boating community.

After Florida passed legislation in 2009 forbidding local governments from restricting anchoring rights of all boaters, it also created the Anchoring & Mooring Pilot Program, which directed the FWC to select five local governments to test a variety of boat anchoring ordinances. The goals were to:

1) Promote the establishment and use of public mooring fields. 

2) Promote public access to the waters of the state.

3) Enhance navigational safety.

4) Protect maritime infrastructure.

5) Protect the marine environment.

6) Deter improperly stored, abandoned, or derelict vessels.

The intent was to test the waters before moving on to statewide restrictions to see if locally directed restrictions would work in the best interests of the public. The program ended this year, but was extended until 2017.

Like any significant, game-changing legislation, there are some positive aspects here: Hundreds of derelict, neglected and “stored” boats litter Florida waters, some are anchored near channels and pose a navigational hazard. Local governments need the authority and funding to remove them. No one is arguing about that. And there are live-aboards who haven’t moved their boats since the Bush administration. But this legislation could also prohibit owners from anchoring more than 60 consecutive days in one place, or within 150 feet of a boat ramp, or within 300 feet of residential property (the boat, not the anchor). That would make dozens of choice anchorages off-limits as their natural design makes it impossible to be 300 feet off from anything.

Steve Morrell, editor of Southwinds has been a strident agitator on this matter for years. “Many of the landowners, police officers and officials are looking at these problems as being caused by the same group and there is only one solution — limit anchoring.” Wally Moran, who is currently leading a flotilla of boats south to Miami for the winter, was more blunt on his blog: “If you don’t like looking at boats at anchor, buy a house in Arizona and move there. Boats have been anchoring in your backyard for a lot longer than your home has been there. We have rights too.”

But probably the most disturbing possibility under the proposed anchoring regulations would be that if local governments can show a “compelling need” to regulate anchoring, they could apply to the state for approval to create special no-anchor zones. This “compelling need” could be little more than the desire to placate the waterfront homeowners of their town who don’t like boats blocking their view of the sunset. Imagine yourself as mayor of a small coastal town deciding between hundreds of voting homeowners and the rights of a few non-voting boaters. What would you do?

And apparently there are communities other than the five Pilot Program participants who want to enact anchor restrictions now. In April, Sen. Christopher Smith (D-Fla.) introduced an amendment to a bill that said in part, “A local government that is not participating in a pilot program pursuant to statute 327.4105 may regulate the distance from a private residence that a vessel may anchor overnight.” During the debate he articulated what may be the attitude of many non-boaters in the state: “There are boats sitting outside of people’s houses … boats within 100 yards, looking into people’s houses, discharging waste, doing all kinds of things in that city’s water.”

Florida has always been a special place for boaters, many of whom come thousands of miles to enjoy its beautiful waterways and beaches, or use as a way station in their travels to the Bahamas and Caribbean. I have met many of them — they are resourceful, intelligent, friendly people, but they want to be treated fairly. I came to this state a decade ago on a sailboat from Maryland. Along the way I spent money on fuel, food, repairs, pump-outs and parts, supporting the local businesses, but I spent every night at anchor — that was my choice. And in 25,000 miles of sailing I have never been refused a place to anchor for the night. The idea that local communities could create no-anchor zones is anathema to recreational and professional mariners alike, and could convince some of the thousands who travel through here to take a left at the St. Mary’s River and bypass the state altogether.

—Robert Beringer holds a USCG 50-ton license and works as a college administrator. Beringer is based on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida with his two little coxswains Chessie and Rona. He recently sailed his Catalina 34 Ukiyo to the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

By Ocean Navigator