Death of MLB pitcher brings safety of jetty into question

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Sen. Marco Rubio has asked the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the safety of the jetty at Miami’s Government Cut after a crash that killed Miami Marlins ace pitcher José Fernández, 24, and two friends. The three died when the baseball player’s 32-foot SeaVee, Kaught Looking, crashed into the north jetty at a high rate of speed about 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 25.

Some say the north jetty at Government Cut is difficult to see at night.

“Florida leads the nation in the number of registered boats and, thus, unfortunately also leads the nation in boating-related fatalities [52 in 2015],” Rubio, who is a boater, wrote in a letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy.

Rubio acknowledged boaters’ responsibility to operate their vessels safely but added that in the wake of the “tragic and fatal” accident, the Miami Herald and others had “called into question” the jetty’s visibility. “The jetty in question has been described by many as difficult to see at night, especially during high tides when the structure is submerged,” Rubio said. “As a boater myself, I have experienced firsthand the challenges this particular jetty can present.”

Rubio, a Florida Republican, called for a “comprehensive assessment” of Government Cut’s north jetty and recommendations to improve its safety. The Coast Guard told the Herald it had conducted a routine review of Government Cut’s navigational aids in 2015 and “found them to be adequate.”

“There are two lit buoys, red buoy No. 12 and green buoy No. 11, that mark the mouth of the channel for Government Cut, indicating safe passage for boats coming into and leaving [it],” Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Kelley told the Herald. “Boaters are advised to go between the buoys when both coming in and leaving the channel.”

The 2016 edition of the United States Coast Pilot 4 (Atlantic Coast: Cape Henry, Virginia, to Key West, Florida) says about Government Cut: “Radar targets in the approaches to Miami Harbor are poor, except for the land and jetty configurations. Heavy small-craft traffic in the vicinity of the sea and entrance buoys may make visual or radar identification of these buoys difficult. In making a night approach, the many lights on Miami Beach may make identification of navigational aids difficult.”

Capt. Cory Offutt, owner of TowBoatUS Miami since 1992, has navigated Government Cut often and has found the jetty “no more dangerous” than others. “The channel is well-marked,” he says. “If you practice good seamanship, look at your chart and keep a good lookout on the boat, you shouldn’t have any problem.”

Government Cut is laid out to bring cruise ships and cargo carriers into the Port of Miami. Offutt says that at high tide or low — “it wouldn’t make any difference” — it’s a pretty straight shot so long as the operator follows the channel markers and doesn’t try to take a shortcut around the red or green markers at the channel entrance.

Offutt hears about most accidents in the Cut and responds to many of them. “I don’t think the accidents out there are as frequent as people might think they are,” he says. “This was just a high-profile situation — a young man, a local hero.”

A beloved figure in Miami and a Cuban defector, Fernández was one of Major League Baseball’s brightest young stars. He had a career 2.58 earned-run average, 38 wins and 589 strikeouts in fewer than four years — two of which he spent recovering from injuries.

Rubio paid tribute to the pitcher in the U.S. Senate, praising his relentless determination to play ball in the United States. Fernández made three unsuccessful attempts to escape Cuba, each followed by time in a Cuban jail, before he made it out of the country in 2007 with his mother and sister. His father had defected two years earlier.

“José Fernández was the pride of Miami, but he belonged to every fan who loved to watch him pitch,” Rubio said.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.