Speed Demon

I Got Busted for Driving a Boat Too Fast on the Intracoastal. Don't Be Like Me.

I pray you learn from my mistake.

By John Hardy April 1, 2024

My intentions were innocent, I promise. All I wanted to do was organize a special day to treat—and impress—snowbirding visitors with a leisurely and fun boating adventure along Sarasota’s Intracoastal Waterway. But what started as an idyllic day on the water ended with me almost in the clink, thanks to my ignorance of some important rules guiding boat usage in the area. I pray you learn from my mistake.

Booking the boat online click was a cinch, and I snagged a half-day booking for a 20-foot Berkshire pontoon boat. The rental website acknowledged the Florida Boating Safety Act of 2022, which regulates boating on Sarasota Bay and the Intracoastal, imposes strict penalties for infractions and mandates permits and safety regulations for boat rental operators.

The site also included a disclaimer that “rental customers must have boating experience and be at least 26 years of age.” According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations, anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 (when the rules were enacted), is required to complete an approved boating safety course and have a Florida Boating Safety Education ID Card, which, for the record, is not a boating license.

What the site did not explain were the meanings of the painted wooden signs that dot the Intracoastal, or the red buoys with yellow squares and the green buoys with yellow triangles bolted on to the weathered and green moldy posts in the water, an oversight that would come back to haunt me.

I swiped my credit card, signed the necessary paperwork and received my key. “The Intracoastal is notorious with sudden shallows,” an employee warned me. “Keep a lookout! If the water is brown, you’ll run aground.”

For the most part, our voyage was a success. The motor purred and we floated in the fabulous Sarasota sunshine. I slouched and lounged behind the wheel, glancing at the dashboard gauge and holding a steady course of about 20 miles per hour, and the happy guests rummaged through chilled water bottles, nachos and Publix fried chicken in the cooler.

Then, suddenly, 10 minutes from the dock, a gurgling Florida marine patrol boat slinked close, blue lights flashing and a dapper uniformed officer staring from under the white bimini canopy.

“Please put the engine into idle,” he called out. “May I see your registration?”

“Uh, sorry,” I said, surprised and nervous. “This is rented.”

“Did the marina not explain the rules and the speed limits? In marked areas you must be in idle speed.”

“Sorry, officer, but just how slow is idle speed?”

“It’s what you’re doing now.”

“I’m standing still now,” I said.

Summing me up as an ignorant tourist at low risk of re-offending, the officer let me off with a warning and a promise to read up on the rules.

Despite the fine print of in the Boating Safety Act and the posted state rules, most boat renters sheepishly nod about the official stuff. Getting out on the water for a relaxing good time is what really matters, most people seem to think. The rest is detail. But, yes, the Intracoastal is notoriously shallow (in most places, the water is only between 7 and 12 feet deep) and the signs warn boaters to go 25 miles per hour or slower, and also to mind their wake.

It’s not so much about speeding. “The only restricted speed zone in the Sarasota waterways is the area from South Lido Park to the Sarasota Yacht Club,” says Sarasota Police Department public information officer Cynthia McLaughlin. “We have other restricted zones, like manatee zones, slow-speed minimum wake zones and idle speed-no wake zones, but only one regulated speed zone.”

On top of that, the marine patrol does not technically hand out speeding tickets, "only restricted zone violation citations,” says McLaughlin. According to McLaughlin, speeding in a manatee zone is one of the most common violations, especially in the summer. Posted manatee zones require boaters to travel at a minimal speed to avoid the big, bulky and beautiful creatures lumbering in the water and feasting on seagrass.

The lesson? Pay attention to the rules of the waterway for hassle-free good times on the Intracoastal.

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