More heat than light in Florida anchorage flap

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Vincent Sibilla is the Robin Hood of the Stuart, Fla., anchorage where he keeps his boat. Five years ago Sibilla, who had been arrested four times, convicted once and given a jail sentence for anchoring in the St. Lucie River more than 10 days, achieved a settlement of his federal civil rights lawsuit that opened Stuart’s waters to boaters who wish to anchor outside its mooring field.

Vincent Sibilla has been cited for using a solar-powered garden light as an anchor light on the Katie J and is appealing his conviction.

Now the scrappy 73-year-old is appealing three $95 tickets for violating a vessel safety equipment rule — an anchor light requirement — that the Martin County marine police say he must comply with, although it apparently doesn’t exist. “I’m willing to go to jail [again] because I’m going to win,” he says. “It may take me four years, but I’m going to win.”

The retired construction worker, who anchors his 1971 Concorde 31 cruiser across the St. Lucie River from Shepard Park, says he is confident that he is fully compliant with the law. “I have everything I’m supposed to have on my boat. I’m legal,” he says.

County marine patrol deputy Buford Burke has been patrolling Stuart’s waters, ticketing boaters who anchor there either for failing to display an anchor light or for displaying one that’s not Coast Guard-approved, according to Sibilla. He says Burke has issued boaters 87 tickets for anchor light violations since June of last year, and he suspects that many paid the $95 fine without knowing it might be for a bogus charge.

Sibilla says he was ticketed once last July and twice again in August for an anchor light infraction, fought the tickets — he represented himself in court — and lost. Now he is appealing that conviction. Meanwhile, he was cited again, in December, for failing to display an approved anchor light. He lost that case, too. The judges, Darren Steele and Curtis Disque, of Florida’s 19th Judicial Circuit Court in Martin County, “believe this cop,” Sibilla says. “They don’t even want to hear about the law. They believe in that uniform.”

Vincent Sibilla

Sibilla and others in the anchorage have been using solar-powered garden lights that switch on automatically at dusk and turn off at dawn. Sibilla backs up the light’s batteries with a battery from the boat, which powers the light in cloudy weather. He says the garden light meets all state and federal requirements, yet police cited him for violation of Florida statute 327.50, “Vessel safety regulations, equipment and lighting requirements,” which states: “The owner and operator of every vessel on the waters of this state shall carry, store, maintain and use safety equipment in accordance with current United States Coast Guard safety equipment requirements as specified in the Code of Federal Regulations.”

The applicable code of the federal regulations, 33 CFR 83.30, “Anchored vessels and vessels aground (Rule 30),” states: “A vessel of less than 50 meters in length may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen …” when at anchor. (A vessel of less than 7 meters in length, when at anchor and not in or near a narrow channel, fairway, anchorage or where other vessels normally navigate, is exempted from the light requirement). Then there is 33 CFR 83.21, which defines an all-round white light as a “light showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 360 degrees.” And 33 CFR 83.22, “Visibility of lights (Rule22),” which says that on boats from 12 meters to 50 meters in length, a white, red, green or yellow all-round light shall be visible from 2 miles. And, finally, Sibilla cites 33 CFR 84.21, “Intensity of non-electric lights,” which states: “Non-electric lights [such as his solar light] shall so far as practicable comply with the minimum intensities, as specified …” for standard lights.

Sibilla says his solar light stays lit through the night and is at least as bright as any anchorage light he’s seen. A friend calculated from the light’s known intensity that it is visible just a tad short of 2 miles away, but the CFR says non-electric lights, such as solar units, should “so far as practicable” meet the CFR standard — and in any event there is no place on the river within line of sight of his boat that is 2 miles away. Nonetheless, he says Burke told him he was violating the law and had to display a Coast Guard-approved light, although Sibilla says there is nothing in the statute that says that.

Sibilla’s lawyer, Barbara Kibbey of the Stuart firm Kibbey and Deckard, agrees. “I think there’s this misconception that [the anchor light] must have a Coast Guard seal of approval,” she says. “It doesn’t appear that there’s anything per se that requires the Coast Guard insignia on it. What [Sibilla] has, does, in fact, comply.”

Even the Coast Guard agrees with Sibilla. He should not be getting cited for failing to display a Coast Guard-certified light, says Phil Cappel, chief of the Coast Guard Recreational Boating Product Assurance Branch. Cappel says that in 2001 the Coast Guard began requiring dealers, distributors and manufacturers that install lights on boats to use only lights that have been laboratory-certified and are stamped with “USCG” and either “1 nm” or “2 nm” to indicate how many miles away it can be seen. “This only applies to manufacturers, distributors or dealers,” he says.

If a boat owner adds or replaces a light, it does not have to be certified, although Cappel recommends using certified products so the user can be sure they perform up to par. “You are only responsible for their proper installation and display,” he says, which means it must be an all-around white light installed on the boat where it can best be seen and visible from 2 miles away.

A note of caution: “There’s a lot of junk on the market,” Cappel says. A certified product is more likely to perform as required, and, as some of the boating forums note, if your boat is involved in a collision at night while anchored, insurance investigators will swarm all over it to see whether the anchor light was certified and up to the technical standard.

Nonetheless, displaying an anchor light that is not Coast Guard-certified is not in itself a violation of the federal statute, Cappel says. Suspecting shenanigans, Sibilla says it may be that the marine police are just hassling anchor-outs, either to persuade them to move on or to take one of the 169 moorings at Sunset Bay Marina, where boats don’t need to display an anchor light, but a mooring costs $15 a day ($275 a month).

The county marine patrol belives Sibilla's garden light does not meet Coast Guard requirements. The Coast Guard says Sibilla should not be getting cited.

Sunset Bay harbormaster Buzz Billue says the enforcement effort is about safety, not mooring fees. “Six to eight months ago nobody had their anchor lights on, and everybody got ticketed,” he says. That caused grumbling and growling.

Sgt. Donald Plant, supervisor of the Martin County marine unit, agrees that it’s a safety issue. Boaters who anchor on Stuart’s waters sometimes leave their vessels there for a long time without checking to be sure anchor lights and bilge pumps are working. A lot of the anchor lights weren’t working, so those owners were cited.

Plant says he understands that anchor-outs are not required to display a Coast Guard-certified light per se, but they are required to display a light that meets the Coast Guard’s technical standard: visible for 360 degrees, white as very specifically defined in the CFR, of an intensity also very specifically defined in the CFR, properly positioned on the boat for maximum visibility and visible 2 nautical miles away. “Guys want to go to Home Depot and pay $4.95 for a little solar walkway light for the home,” Plant says. “That doesn’t cut it.” (Sibilla says he paid $50 for his.)

Plant doesn’t think those lights meet the CFR requirements. Nor does he believe the solar lights put out enough lumens all night long, especially in the winter, when the days are short, and in cloudy weather. The only way to know you’ve got a light that meets the CFR is to get one that is Coast Guard-approved, he says. “It has to meet the criteria.”

As for Burke, Plant doesn’t know whether he was telling the anchor-outs that they need a Coast Guard-certified light. He says Sibilla may have misunderstood what Burke was saying. In any case, the deputy has been reassigned from the marine unit, Plant says.

Sibilla says that if anchor-outs don’t display their anchor light at night or if their light has burned out or lost battery power, they should get ticketed, but they ought not to be ticketed for failing to display a “Coast Guard-approved” or “Coast Guard-certified” anchor light. Sibilla insists that his anchor light is on all night and meets the CFR requirements. If it doesn’t, the officer needs to prove that. “I think the deputy was ill-informed,” he says. The crusty boat owner has hired a lawyer to appeal the tickets, and he says he’s going to court to win this time.

“How many other people have had this happen to them?” he asks. “This is a miscarriage of justice. If we [boaters] don’t stand up for our rights, then we are going to be crippled.”

August 2013 issue