These boaters know where the cameras are. And therein lies the problem. Hundreds of thousands of people are tuning in on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and more to watch scenes recorded at Baker’s Haulover Inlet and the Miami River in South Florida, where hootin’ and hollerin’ boaters who might otherwise be flopping over frat-house railings are instead flying over bowrails and falling off foredecks. Video after video online shows hands raised high in the air with cold beverages, women dropping their bikini tops, and men bouncing so out of control that they soar right off their personal watercraft and into the drink.
“Every time we have to tow a boat on the weekend, it is a war zone,” Capt. Eduardo Barreto, owner of Sea Tow Key Biscayne, says of the Miami River. “It’s a lot of boats coming in and out, people going way too fast, people standing on the bow of the boats dancing, Jet Skis, yachts. There are a couple YouTube channels from the top of the river, and they want to be recorded there too.”
He and other local captains have one message for the throngs of boaters: You need to get your priorities in order. These skippers either don’t know what to do or they don’t care.
Haulover Inlet and the Miami River are both in the Biscayne Bay area, separated by Miami Beach. Haulover used to be a major party spot because of its sandbar with waist-high water, which drew so many boaters and partiers that it became a tourist destination unto itself. People so loved mixing and mingling there that when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to dredge, a Save the Sandbar petition was developed by local residents, asking county commissioners to stop the work. Commissioners voted last summer to proceed, with the sand needed to replenish eroding beaches. To licensed captains like Barreto, it was the right choice.
“It was getting very dangerous because the channel for navigation was shrinking,” he says. “That will help in many ways. First, you won’t have the same amount of people there, drinking and then trying to go out the inlet to be recorded for a YouTube channel. You won’t have so many people crowded in that particular area.”
Barreto monitors Channel 16 on his VHF radio and says that from October through about April, when the winds pick up, he hears at least two or three calls a day from boaters needing help at Haulover Inlet. They get into trouble in part because of their quest for fame, and in part because of the local conditions, he says.
Haulover Inlet runs under the A1A bridge, connecting Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the only inlet between Miami’s Government Cut and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, but it can be very challenging. The inlet is chockablock with strong currents, constant shoaling and no channel heading directly to the Intracoastal Waterway. Boats frequently run aground and can get pushed into the rocks. These are the conditions that boaters—often inexperienced ones—encounter as they’re seeking video-recorded fame like dancers coming down the Soul Train line circa 1980. Skippers start off by adding speed to maintain maneuverability, Barreto says, and they think they have everything under control as they and their passengers start waving at the cameras and shaking their moneymakers.
“After you go under the bridge, that’s where there is a jetty with waves coming in from the open ocean,” he says. “It’s like a washing
machine. You have water moving in every direction, and it’s difficult to maintain maneuverability in any boat under about 30 feet.”
Suddenly, boats that were zipping along with people waving and smiling—very few of them wearing life jackets in the videos—are in 4- to 5-footers rolling at them from every direction. “The water is coming into the open bow of the boat,” he says. “The water comes in, the nose goes into the wave, and it pushes the people out of the boat.”
All of this is happening amid what is sometimes heavy recreational boat traffic, including yachts 100 feet or longer. Videos show riders being thrown not only from boats, but also from personal watercraft, and then trying to swim against the current to reboard as the churn pushes them out toward the rocks.
The results can be deadly. In 2020, a 27-year-old man died after being ejected from a boat that the authorities say either hit a channel marker or ran up on a sandbar; a second person thrown from the same boat was found wading in shallow water nearby. And this past October, according to police, a man celebrating his 21st birthday drowned after jumping off a chartered boat during a party on the Miami River. Those two incidents happened at night, but online videos show plenty of similarly reckless behavior taking place in daylight hours.
“I don’t know why people keep doing it,” Barreto says. “Maybe they’re ignorant, they haven’t seen the media, or they think they’re better than the other people—some of them want to see themselves on YouTube going fast and looking nice, but they don’t know what they’re actually encountering there.”
His advice to responsible boaters is to avoid the melee if you can. And if you can’t, then at least avoid it on the weekends, when the volume gets cranked up to unbearable levels.
“Going on a weekday helps because you have less traffic,” he says. “And listen to the weather alerts. If it’s windy and rough and you have a small boat, keep going on the Intracoastal instead of going out. If you’re on a 20-footer or something like that, don’t even try. Once you’re in there, it’s difficult to turn around. You see many accidents occur when boat operators try to turn around.”
He also stresses the importance of having passengers sit aft, not forward, in an open boat. Putting passengers forward adds weight where skippers don’t want it while trying to maneuver through all the waves. “That makes the bow lower and increases the chances that you’ll go into the waves and water will come into the boat,” he says.
Overall, Barreto says, responsible boaters need to be aware that the problem has only increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began back in 2020.
The desire for outdoor, socially distanced activities created a surge of newcomers on the water with little or no experience at the helm. The Biscayne Bay area is not alone in this regard; the U.S. Coast Guard reported a more than 25 percent increase in boating fatalities during 2020, along with a 26 percent increase in accidents.
“Some people bought boats because they have the money, but at the same time they have no clue about the dangers in the area,” Barreto says. “You see 40-foot yachts going fast through no-wake zones. Those are adults on big boats. You see that all the time.”
This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.