By Jeff Hemmel
A long-standing ban on PWC in South Florida may finally be overturned thanks to the efforts of Sen. Mel Martinez.
On July 8, Martinez successfully pushed forward an effort that would once again allow PWC to navigate the waters between Biscayne Bay National Park and the Florida Keys on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Previously, the ban forced PWC riders attempting to make the journey to venture out into the Atlantic Ocean, a stipulation that was placed on no other motorized vessel.
According to Martinez, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the effort is a matter of personal safety. “Boats, ships and tugs are allowed to use the Intracoastal, but since 2000, thousands of people using personal watercraft have been forced to go several miles out into the open ocean,” argued the Senator. “This effort brings some common sense to the rules and safety to numerous recreational boaters.”
Equal Rights To All Boaters
PWC advocates applauded the news, which would give operators equal access rights to the Intracoastal, a federally maintained and dredged waterway. Previously, PWC were allowed access to the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary and John Pennekamp State Park, but were excluded from the stretch of the Intracoastal that lay in between, a decision that area dealers and enthusiasts have fought for years. The state’s own Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission had even deemed the restriction a boating safety risk.
“The current ban on personal watercraft from utilizing the Intracoastal Waterway as it passes through Biscayne Bay National Park is not only absurd, it’s dangerous,” agreed longtime PWC advocate David Bamdas, one of the owners of South Florida megastore Riva Motorsports. “The ban forces PWC to travel in open ocean waters in order to make passage between Miami and the Florida Keys. All other vessels — regardless of size or use — are allowed use of the Intracoastal Waterway. Today’s PWC are quieter and cleaner than most of the vessels that use this area and have considerably less environmental impact.”
It bears repeating that previous studies have all verified Bamdas’ claim. Since 2000, 15 individual national parks have conducted similar environmental studies focused on the impact of PWC. In each and every case, the conclusion was that PWC use did not cause any unique problems or excessive impact within the parks.
To allay any lingering concerns, Martinez’s measure would create a review panel to assess any potential environmental impacts, or impact disproportionate to other types of vessels. It also requires the Coast Guard to complete an environmental assessment within 150 days to ensure that PWC do not, in fact, have any “disparate impact” on the environment compared to the other vessels that routinely use the waterway.
Impact On Safety, Local Economy
Sen. Martinez managed to include the PWC provision as part of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act (S.1194), a bill that will reauthorize the activities, missions and authorities of the U.S. Coast Guard for the fiscal years 2010 and 2011. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson also was singled out for his support of the effort.
“I am impressed that our Sen. Mel Martinez has publicly recognized the safety issues created by this ban and is trying to initiate a change,” said Bamdas, whose family has long campaigned against the ban. “Hopefully with his support, this unjust ban will be lifted and allow our customers to operate safely through this area.
“Another important aspect of Sen. Martinez’s actions would be a great boost to the economy if this ban was lifted. PWC dealerships and supporting industries will certainly benefit from the increased business.”
While he’s quick to give credit to Martinez, Bamdas himself, along with father Steve, and the entire Bamdas family, certainly hold claim to some of the success. Steve Bamdas has fought to maintain PWC access in the area for years, and is responsible for exposing many government officials to the realities of personal watercraft firsthand. That legislative mantle is now being passed to son Dave.
“Obviously we’re very pleased with the way it’s come around,” Dave said of the current situation in Florida, “but it still has a lot farther to go. There’s definitely still discrimination out there.
“We’ve got to keep fighting our battles to protect our rights and expand the use of PWC. All we ask for is to be treated like any other boat, and that’s still not the case in some areas.”
The bill next faces votes by both the Senate and House, before reaching the president.