Edgartown seeks to slow down speeding personal watercraft operators

Harbormaster Charlie Blair said his department has limited resources to actively patrol beaches for speeding operators.

Edgartown officials are concerned about personal watercraft use near town beaches, including Bend in the Road Beach. — Martha's Vineyard Times file pho

Edgartown officials are exploring ways to reel in what harbormaster Charlie Blair described as “renegade” riders on personal watercraft, commonly referred to as Jet Skis, along beaches popular with swimmers. Possible solutions include buoying South Beach and naming an additional assistant harbormaster. Mr. Blair will prepare a package of recommendations to present to Edgartown selectmen in the off-season.

Town administrator Pam Dolby contacted Mr. Blair to inquire about ways to tackle the issue, which Mr. Blair said is a problem at all Edgartown beaches, from Sylvia State Beach to Cape Pogue, and around to South Beach.

He suggested putting new buoys at South Beach to delineate speed zones, similar to the buoys placed in the summer off Bend in the Road Beach. Buoys provide “more clout” because they provide a specific boundary, but aren’t the same as a physical presence, Mr. Blair said. But in turn, patrolling is costly in both time and resources.

The Edgartown harbormaster’s office is not equipped to constantly patrol all beaches under its jurisdiction, which allows for smaller boating violations, such as speeding within 300 feet of a beach, to sometimes slip through the cracks, he said.

“You see, for us to go down to Katama, we lose a boat and a crew for at least an hour,” Mr. Blair said in a phone conversation with The Times. “We’re without boat and crew all day because we’re stretched.”

Katama, he said, is as far away from his office as Oak Bluffs is. His team stops speeding Jet Skiers in Edgartown Harbor, but once they’re out of sight, he has no way of knowing what the rider is doing.

“If they’re going headway speed [headway speed is the speed needed to maneuver] through here and down to the narrows, and we don’t see them again, we don’t go down there and chase them around,” Mr. Blair said. “It’s only if we get a complaint, and even then it’s if we can.”

Mr. Blair also said that a possible solution would be to name an assistant harbormaster within the shellfish department: “The shellfish department has a man stationed at the Katama boat ramp just about every day in high summer. By authorizing him to act as an assistant harbormaster, he can explain the rules to Jet Skis he sees being launched.”

That official, he said, could hand out pamphlets delineating the rules and regulations surrounding Jet Skiing.

“That’s the cheap way out,” he said.

Jet Skis must be registered in the commonwealth, as with any other vessel, and as such are subject to the rules and regulations that the state imposes and enforces. Additional town bylaws, Mr. Blair said, would not be productive.

“The state sets all the penalties,” Mr. Blair said. He listed some of the rules that Jet Ski operators have to follow: “They have to have an approved life jacket on, both the driver and the passengers. They have to have a safety lanyard on their wrists. They have to have a fire extinguisher on board. They have to go 6 mph or less within 150 feet of the following: swimmer, shoreline, float, waterskier, boat launch, moored or docked boat. And they’re not allowed to operate after sunset. They’re also not allowed to tow people on tubes and skis.”

Mr. Blair said the most common violation was speeding. Many personal watercraft can hit speeds upwards of 60 mph. Some models claim to peak at 80 mph.

“They’re a vessel. So they have to obey the vessel laws. If it’s a public beach, they can’t run their engines within 150 feet of the shore. And they can’t go fast within 300 feet — that’s anything above headway speed.”

Despite funding restrictions which inhibit the town from hiring more harbormaster staff members or purchasing a new boat, Mr. Blair said the lack of patrolling falls on his shoulders.

“If we’ve got a problem with Jet Skis, it’s because I didn’t do my job, basically,” he said.