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Bridge cuts short couple’s cruising plans

Witnesses report that the bridge tender didn’t signal with five short blasts that the drawbridge was descending

Witnesses report that the bridge tender didn’t signal with five short blasts that the drawbridge was descending

Richard Lyon, and Shelly Lister were bound for the Bahamas and the Caribbean aboard their Gulfstar 41, Preferred Stock, out of Wheatland, Mo. They’d recently navigated the Okeechobee Waterway across the state of Florida, and were traveling down the ICW from Lake Worth at Palm Beach to Port Everglades at Fort Lauderdale. There are 21 bridges on this run, all requiring opening for these boats.

Wade Johnson of Savannah, on the Coast-N, was behind Preferred Stock as these and several other sailboats passed through bridge after bridge. He said he had been listening to Preferred Stock call the bridges all day long, arranging passages. Some bridges open on schedule, some open when requested. Boats needing openings are supposed to call or signal each bridge with one long blast, followed by one short, whether the opening is scheduled or not. Bridges are expected to answer and acknowledge. He reported that he heard Preferred Stock call the Las Olas Bridge on VHF Ch. 9.

“I couldn’t say for sure whether the bridge answered,” he added,” because there was so much clutter on the VHF, but I sure heard them call the bridge.”

Weekends are busy on the water in South Florida, and this was a busy Saturday on Feb. 18. VHF radio is often congested, particularly on Ch. 9, which is a “calling” frequency for boats, and also the designated frequency in Florida for boat-to-bridge traffic. It is a 25-watt frequency with around a 30-mile range, and a jumble of boat-to-bridge traffic as well as boat-to-boat traffic cluttered the frequency. (Some other states use VHF Ch. 13 for bridges, with its 1-watt transmission power and much shorter range.)

A huge tour boat lumbered to the north of the Las Olas Bridge, and requested an opening. The two leaves of the bridge began to swing open, and that boat and others headed through. Bridge tenders, as a rule, try to avoid unnecessary openings by having all boats at the bridge at the time of an opening pass through, although they seldom hold the bridge open for boats that are too far back.

Preferred Stock was ahead of the other sailboats. They, including Coast-N, were too far back to make the opening. Preferred Stock began passing through the open bridge, “very close to the tour boat,” according to Lyon. As Johnson watched from just upriver, the bridge closed, coming “square down on the mast of the Preferred Stock. And the bridge did not blow five shorts.”

Five short blasts of the bridge’s horn are the signal to alert vessels that the bridge will commence lowering. Lyon and Lister said they heard no signal. Their first realization of what was happening was when they saw the bridge span lowering, crumpling their mast down over them.

They had to dive down onto the deck of the cockpit to avoid injury. They said later that a BrowardCounty fire rescue boat, to the south of the bridge, reported to the police, in their presence, that it heard no such warning.

State bridge personnel declined comment stating, “We can’t discuss it until the matter is settled.”

A week later Preferred Stock was still anchored nearby. Their insurance adjuster hadn’t been able to come because of his workload from the hurricanes of the past fall. The boatyards they’d called were backlogged with repair work for the same reason. The heavy mast was still sprawled over the boat. “We’ve found a lot of friendly helpful people around,” commented Shelly, “like Mike Horn at the Las Olas City Marina. But we’re having to do the best we can to make temporary repairs ourselves so that we won’t get hurt. The rest of the trip is beginning to look very doubtful. To make it in safe weather to the Caribbean, we need to leave very soon, and it looks like that isn’t going to happen.”