The Jose Fernandez boating tragedy, some safety thoughts

Jose_Fernandez_crashed_boat_courtesy_Patrick_Farrell_Miami_Herald.jpgYou probably already know at least the rudiments of the story. At about 3 am on Sunday, three young men died when their 32-foot center console fishing boat engaged at high speed with the long north jetty that guards the Port of Miami’s Government Cut channel. Just the violence of the crash — it was heard by a policeman on shore nearly a half mile away — was noteworthy, but the owner and probable driver was the beloved budding baseball star Jose Fernandez. It’s a deeply tragic story as is, but is there anything in it to learn about boating safety?

Jose_Fernandez_crashed_boat_2_courtesy_Patrick_Farrell_Miami_Herald.jpgThe Miami Herald has provided excellent coverage and photography of the accident, and many boaters from all over the world are already familiar with the spot because Miami is such a busy transient port and also the home of two major winter boat shows. The jetties are nasty, particularly the longer, lower northern one, but I question the necessity of putting end-to-end fixed lights on them as this local boater calls for. Numerous aids to navigation already define the safe channel well and a great many boaters successfully clear the jetties every day and night.

Miami_Harbor_Entrance_Chart_11468_aPanbo.jpgI’ve gone in and out of Miami countless times, and in recent years it’s usually been center console electronics demos on which it was legal, time efficient, relatively safe, and usually fun on a fast plane. In fact, when Garmin took us kite fishing last April, we cut left out of the channel just past the north breakwater to run up to the nearshore sailfish spot, and that seems to be a common route. But the seasoned charter fishing captain did not make that turn until we were also past the big R “12” lit buoy, as you can see fairly well in this Virb XE video of that trip, which also shows a bigger powerboat inbound on the same route at speed. In other words, the Fernandez boat only missed a common path back into Miami by about 100 yards.

Nor is it unusual to be out there at 3 am. I have numerous friends in the boating industry who regularly sacrifice a good night’s sleep after a long day’s work at the Miami International or Yachts Miami Beach shows to enjoy fishing in the balmy dark, and I’m sure it can be quite exhilarating. Even in the daytime, the variety of game fish and the warm, quiet solitude available right off the bustling city are memorable. So what went so terribly wrong on board Kaught Looking?

Jose_Fernandez_boat_Kaught_Looking_on_Instagram_aPanbo.jpgWhile it’s quite possible that we’ll never know exactly what happened, the age of social media means that we can get some sense of Jose Fernandez as a boater. Posting on Instagram as jofez16, and often tagged with his J’s Crew fishing buddies (their sailfish video here), Fernandez seemed as enthustiastic about angling as he was about baseball, and he’d obviously spent some serious time on fast center consoles like the one he eventually purchased for himself.

Jose_Fernandez_with_Cuban_raft_on_Instagram_aPanbo.jpgFernandez had also famously defected from Cuba to Mexico by boat, saving his overboard mother along the way, at age 15 on his fourth attempt to reach the USA. He had to be aware of the sea’s danger. But he was also just 24 years old and I’d guess naturally occurring testosterone as a contributing factor to the accident, which doesn’t mix well with the alcohol now being cited as a possible influence (plus an argument with the girlfriend whose pregnancy Fernandez had just announced). Yesterday, in fact, we learned that his friends were quite concerned about his boat driving abilities that night, and the terrible crash is beginning to look like a pure case of bad operator judgment.

SeaVee_32Z_high_performance_center_console_aPanbo.jpgHowever, let’s also consider the high performance boat that Fernandez was driving and also the high performance electronics that were probably installed. I don’t fault either a bit — in fact, I think they are pretty fantastic — but you can also view them as enabling ingredients in the tragedy. When I first acquired the 25-foot IO Ralph after decades mostly on sailboats, one of my strongest (middle-aged) conclusions went something like this: “Geez, after learning to be so careful on complex boats that only topped out at about 8 knots, this is almost as easy to operate as a car and yet so much more dangerous at 25 knots.”

The SeaVee 32Z Fernandez owned is a particularly sporty design with a stepped hull able to reach speeds over 60 mph with twin outboards and still behave safely in the right hands (as well explained in this SeaVee video). And while I don’t know what electronics were aboard Kaught Looking, every similar boat I’ve seen has had at least big screen chartplotting and radar that a focused, skillful driver could use to go fast in the dark with reasonable safety. In fact, I saw a very good example of this last week at the NMEA Conference in Naples, Florida.

Raymarine_Quantum_Q24_temp_installed_badly_next_to_open_array _cPanbo.jpgI originally took this photo to show how poorly Raymarine had temporarily installed the Quantum radar on this Southport 33 (because nonetheless neither radar showed interference from the other, similar to what my recent testing has shown). But take away the Quantum and you’re looking at the gear an excellent young skipper often uses to run fast at night. He is Captain TJ of 2 Shea dive and fish charters, and I wouldn’t hesitate to ride along. And mind you, at age 69 — and with possibly lower testosterone levels — I’m very aware of high speed boating dangers. I hang on carefully, I check out the driver studiously, and I don’t hesitate to ask a possibly imperfect one to please slow the hell down.

Dual_Raymarine_gS_19_screens_night_running_cPanbo.jpgAt any rate, it was quite telling to observe TJ with a somewhat rowdy boatload of NMEA folks negotiating dark, shallow, and congested Naples Bay sometimes on plane. Normally, I learned, he’d have the big righthand gS195 MFD split screened with radar and radar overlaid charting, but full screen directly in front of his driving position was the output of a Flir thermal camera, and he was quite adamant about how he uses it. It’s the basic fixed T200 model and he’s carefully adjusted its tilt angle — done with a wrench while tied up — so it best shows the crap pots that neither chart nor radar can help him with. He’s tried the contrast and color palette options, but this is now how he uses the camera, period.

Perhaps most important was TJ’s focus. At slow speeds he was fine with questions and small talk, charming actually, but when he demonstrated high speed operation, he went into a zone of high attention (and I felt comfortable). Good judgment, skills, proper tools, and realtime focus — aren’t these the core elements of safe boating?

200_ton_expedition_yacht_just_before_close_call_cPanbo.jpgAnd you don’t have to be going fast at night to make a significant mistake. Earlier this month, and not long after writing about a possibly tired sailboat crew going hard aground in my home harbor, I photographed this departing expedition yacht passing my Camden mooring float. It would have only been an addition to Marine Traffic’s great photo archives if I hadn’t been monitoring VHF 16 (and here’s my chance to add a little levity to this entry).

200_ton_expedition_yacht_almost_grounds_on_Inner_Ledges_cPanbo.jpg“Careful, cap, it’s bony in there” is what I heard some anonymous local boater broadcast about 10 minutes after taking the photo of the 195 ton Impetus. And while that certainly made me wonder what was going on, I really had to know when a few minutes later the same voice came back on 16 with, “Guess you might want to change your undershorts now, eh cap?” The still anonymous wit who may have helped to avert a serious accident did get back to me on another channel and explained, as confirmed by the AIS track above, that Impetus had briefly tried to exit Camden between the R “6” nun and the G “3” beacon, just a few yards drastically wrong for NE Passage.

I have no idea what was going on inside that wheelhouse but I fear that a professional was involved and given that it was nearly high tide, that big boat might have been stuck on the “bony” Inner Ledges for a very long time. I’ll also note that southbound boats normally leave via the wide southern channel anyway, and I, too, may be capable of such a major brain freeze in an unfamiliar navigation situation. Co-navigators are a good thing.

At any rate, had those 195 tons of steel vessel gone aground at about 6 knots, everyone aboard might have been unhurt or just banged up a bit. High speed boating, as exhilarating and even useful as it can be, adds an extra level of danger that we cannot be too aware of. While it may not pass parenting standards these days, I will never forget what my hard-boiled dad did to me when I was 16 and learning to drive. It wasn’t hard for him to find the scene, as we lived near the going-home-drunk side of the Connecticut and New York border when the legal drinking age was 18 in NY and 21 at home. It was at a local garage on a quiet Sunday morning and the side of the car that had first hit a big oak tree at something like 90 mph was crushed in almost to the other side. There was broken glass, a bad odor, blood, even bits of flesh, and flies.

I was still a sometimes dangerous teenage male driver for a few years, just one with a deeply implanted grisly image that may have helped me finally realize some good sense (along with an accident or two). And I fear it took many more years before I could truly feel the tragedy of an exuberant young life suddenly and unneccessarily snuffed out. I’ve only gotten to know Jose Fernandez from afar, and too late, but his seems to be that story writ very large and especially contemporary in our world of celebrity sports and strained immigration. Miami and the Marlins honored him beautifully Monday night, when he should have been pitching against the Mets, and I too truly hope he rests in peace.


Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

17 Responses

  1. William says:

    Outstanding blog post. I commend you for this well written piece. This young man certainly deserves the positive reinforcement from his many communities such as ours in the boating world and also those from professional sports and the local Miami area.

  2. John Kettlewell says:

    There is also the danger that the more “safety” gear and gizmos we have the faster we are encouraged to go, the more risks we take, and the accidents still happen. The same problem happens on the highway. Here in the Northeast we joke that the first signs of a slippery highway are the 4-wheel drive vehicles in the ditch. Drivers feel they can go faster because they have 4WD, antilock brakes, and traction control. The other issue I see on a lot of boats (and in cars too) is ruined night vision due to all the electronics, cockpit lights, LED indicator lights, nav lights, etc. Lots of small go-fast boats have an all-around white nav light that illuminates the whole boat, which is bright white, just ruining your night vision. As an experiment some time try running at night for awhile, like 30 minutes or so, with no lights on whatsover (do it someplace safe) and be amazed how much better you can see after your eyes adjust.

  3. Amity83 says:

    Your mention of night vision is significant. When I had an open center console I often had to remove my all around light because I truly believed I was safer being able to see than other being able to see that light. I debated putting just a stern light in for those situations. I know it wasn’t legal and I struggled with the decision, but I couldn’t see worth a damn with that light on. Even using my spotlight is a very careful task as the flood of the beam lights up the whole deck. I know they look funny, but sometimes I’m envious of those boat with the headlight type lights on the bow under the gunwale. I also have Macris Industries underwater lights (written up on panbo a few years ago) on the bottom and transom of my boat, and if there is no moon out, they light up my wake so much that they reduce my night vision and I have to turn them off, despite how cool I think they look.

  4. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    John, some of the early morning photos of the crashed boat show its blue LED interior courtesy lights on at least in the bow area and some posters at The Hull Truth have wondered if that was part of the problem:
    However, it seems possible to me that most anything on the boat could have gotten turned on or off by the crash itself. Plus having them on while running fast in the dark would be bad judgement in the first place. Similar to thinking that your car can do things it can’t.
    You can see in the SeaVee photos that the 32Z does have an all around white running light but its on a pole at the aft end of the top, which should mean very little light pollution in the driver’s forward field of view.

  5. Shane Kennedy says:

    People tend to drive at their risk limit. Add safety features to the vehicle, smooth the curves, better lighting etc, just encourage people to drive faster. With younger people, it is the perceived danger that motivates them. We either need to change our nature (unlikely) or find ways to increase the perceived risk without increasing the actual risk. A friend once said that he preferred to ride an older motorcycle, as when he was doing 80MPH, it felt like he was doing 120. On a modern machine, 120 felt like 80.

  6. Jeffrey Sandor says:

    I recently got a new Audi A3. It’ has a ton of electronics.. and things like WiFi and internet and sensors and rear back view camera. It even has a trackpad where you can use your finger to write letters and numbers.
    WOW this car is a video game… it is the epitome of distracted driving. I struggle to drill through the menus to find the odometer!!
    The car drives like a dream…. but the electronics and the entertainment system which can play content from youtubes, CDs, sD cards, smart phones…oh…. and the radio including Sirius XM.
    I suppose once you learn how to find all the good stuff you can do it with your eyes closed… I mean with your eyes on the road. I find myself distracted by trying to get at some basic stuff I want… THE CLOCK… the care has no clock… it’s a little digital thingy on one of the many screens!
    This is not a good thing and I am positive people will die because of these high tech features and the user interface which requires hand eye coordination… much much more complex than selecting one of 6 radio presets.
    Houston… we’ve got a problem.
    Sorry Ben…

  7. I see accident reports like this in the news all too often, but the media speculation here doesn’t match up with the photos. I see two short gouges in the hull, but evidently they were not bad enough to seriously hole the boat. Either that boat is built like a tank or it was not going that fast. Also it seems to have stayed close to where it hit, and the bodies too. None of this “It flew through the air 100 feet then hit a tree” stuff. Sad anyway.

  8. John Kettlewell says:

    I have found on my own boats that even a masthead running light on a sailboat can seriously impact night vision, and a dashboard with all the modern gizmos is really, really bad in that regard. I can’t imagine a boat like this wasn’t running a chart plotter, which is bad enough. I see the same thing on the highway every night I drive–people barreling along at 70+ mph with a GPS brightly illuminating the person’s face. For some reason they didn’t see the jetty, indicating to me they were running too fast for the visibility conditions and/or the driver was distracted.

  9. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Geez, John, I’m guessing that you have not been out at night with a good modern MFD. The night vision problem has been solved with “dim to black” LED back-lit displays and muted color palettes. These days a single old tiny white trouble light can be more night eye bother at a helm than a 19-inch MFD screen.
    Note that phones, tablets and PC monitors do not usually dim to black, but many dedicated car nav systems do. I suspect that what you’re seeing “brightly” illuminated on the highway is operator error, not the fault of the “gizmo”

  10. John Kettlewell says:

    I have no idea what equipment they did or did not have or what lights were on or off, or whether or not the operator had everything adjusted properly, but poor night vision due to excess light on the boat and in the car is a problem. The interior of a modern car is a sea of little lights at night, most of which are unnecessary and detract from your night vision. Night vision problems have not been “solved.”

  11. mel kaluzny says:

    This is a terrible tragedy compounded by the death of three successful young men. Looking at the hull it appears that the boat was going pretty fast, maybe the engine computers record this, and i assume it had multiple engines, lots of power.
    Age brings wisdom and apprehension, that things are not always as they appear. At 70, I would have been looking for R12, wondering as I approached it if it seemed to be on station and I could see other flashers so all seemed good. And I guess I would have glanced again confirming with a chart (electronic or paper) that I had the right marker. Maybe the moon was full and you could see it all unfolding, or was it a “Maine fog” run, where you need to be on full alert until you are SURE you are where you intend to be. And I would have slowed down to a speed where my brain could process what my senses were telling me. There are less enforcers of speed and safety on the water and with all that freedom comes a responsibility. Thats why you can tell a safe boater from the crowd. It often see that some believe thrusters and joysticks make them boaters, they still don’t know how to hand a dock line to an dock person. What happened in this case may never be known. Terrible situation for them and their families.

  12. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Mel, one of favorite homilies these days:
    “Old age is a very high price to pay for maturity.”
    John, it still sounds like you have not actually been underway at night with a modern MFD (and/or instrument display). My remark that the “night vision problem has been solved…” specifically applied to those dim to black displays, though I should have added “in my opinion.”
    Jeffrey, for the last three years I’ve been driving a Ford Escape that’s fully loaded with their SYNC electronics, even automatic parallel parking which actually works pretty well. However, the “Powered by Microsoft” logo on the dash makes me shutter sometimes, and recently about half the time I get in the car it syncs with my Android phone and then attempts to call it, muting the stereo until I hit “end the call.” So far, though, all I’ve run into are trees along my driveway (twice ;-).

  13. Dan Corcoran (b393capt) says:

    What is unsolved, are guests using flashlights or their smartphones smartly so that light does not impair pilot vision.
    It would be good if smartphones could receive some kind of Bluetooth signal to dim heavily, that movie theaters, cars, and boats can transmit. although it hardly seems like a problem in cars

  14. Jeffrey Sandor says:

    I will say that navigating and even driving is very different without daylight… VERY.

  15. Absolutely, when navigating at night even places you know well in daylight are strange and confusing, and it’s not just a night vision problem. I can’t imagine doing it without radar and a chartplotter. I would want FLIR too. 5 knots feels like high speed.
    As for night vision in this case, I assume the Miami skyline is bright and moonrise was 2:17 am (28%). I think a better question to ask is how much night navigating experience did he have, and what nav equipment?

  16. Dan Corcoran (b393capt) says:

    Blood Alcohol level of .147 plus Cocaine found in his blood. So unfortunate.

  17. John says:

    After this crash if I’m headed for Government cut from the north, from now on, I’ll round R-10 off the starboard beam before turning into the cut. So what if it’s a bit out of the way, you’re driving a boat, not a garbage truck, enjoy the ride.

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