COVID increases boating, but some Treasure Coast boat ramps are closed, damaged

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Ed Killer
 
| Treasure Coast Newspapers

Three or four times a week, Capt. Rufus Wakeman of Jensen Beach tows his 26-foot Pathfinder to the Jensen Beach Boat Ramp on Indian River Drive.

The launch ramp, just minutes from his home, makes it an ideal location to put his boat in the Indian River Lagoon. The ramp provides immediate access to the lagoon, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in the United States and home to world-class fishing.

Only it hasn’t, since Aug. 28.

That’s when Martin County closed it, locking the gates and posting a sign explaining the closure was necessary to conduct needed repairs to both ramps.

Boat ramp closed

To many, a closed boat ramp in a Treasure Coast county may not seem like a big deal. However, unfettered access to waterways in Florida is a large part of its thriving recreational boating economy. 

There are 43,378 registered vessels on the Treasure Coast, according to 2019 data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Of those, 96.7% (41,969) are less than 39 feet in length. The majority of those are on aluminum trailers and driven to launch ramps when boaters choose to enjoy a day on the water.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., boating has skyrocketed, as cruising and fishing are ways to enjoy the outdoors while remaining socially distant.

The inconvenience in Jensen Beach has been met with frustration from those boaters who regularly use the dual-lane launch ramp and its 44-boat trailer parking spaces.

“I’m totally shocked it was closed for the entire Labor Day holiday weekend, and I haven’t seen any work being done it in the three weeks it’s been closed,” Wakeman said. “Here, fixing that ramp as quickly as possible should be a priority. Last time I checked, we are still in Florida. Every day there are 40-60 boats that have to use alternate ramps and clog them up.”

More: Boaters angry over boat ramp closure for U.S. Sailing Center events

The good news is Martin County planned to start repair work Sept. 24 and reopen the Jensen Beach Boat Ramp by Oct. 2, pending construction delays, Parks and Recreation Department Assistant Director Mark Lynch told TCPalm Sept. 23.

Boaters have been directed north to the Jensen Beach Causeway boat ramp, a little more than a mile away, or south to Sandsprit Park, one of the busiest boat ramps on the Treasure Coast every day.

Stuart Causeway, Sandsprit Park 

Stuart Causeway is not a viable ramp for most boaters and Sandsprit Park in Stuart has been falling into disrepair for the past year, Wakeman said. 

“Our prevailing winds are from the southeast and that (Stuart Causeway) ramp is on the south side of the causeway, so the wind blows into the ramp,” he explained. “Plus, there is often a tidal cross-current, so unless one is an experienced boater, it can be difficult to back a boat down it. I’ve seen some real issues there.”

He doesn’t see why the county can’t build a ramp on the north side of Stuart Causeway, as at nearby Jensen Beach Causeway, where there is a ramp on either side.

The Stuart Causeway’s wooden docks have been banged into so much that busted boards leave exposed screws and nails that can gouge a boat’s gel coat.

“Getting holes punched into your boat is expensive,” Wakeman said.

Fort Pierce boat ramp closed

Most of the Treasure Coast’s other 30-plus ramps are open and in good condition.

City and county officials told TCPalm only one other boat ramp is closed for repairs.

More: Boat sales are up, but delivery is slow

Fort Pierce’s boat ramp at South Causeway Park has been closed since September 2019, when Hurricane Dorian damaged both docks there, city spokesperson Shyanne Helms said.

Fort Pierce hopes to reopen the ramp within 4-6 months, after completing the $50,000 repair.

New construction method

The Jensen Beach Boat Ramp issue was a surprise, and not a quick fix, Lynch said.

“We’re working hard to get it rectified,” he said. “We had to close it to boaters because we think it is unsafe. Boaters were damaging propellers there on underwater obstructions.”

When the ramp was built in 2009, the contractor poured concrete for the first part of the ramp, but then used a system of 4-inch-hick, 15-by-15-inch concrete blocks laid in like a mat and wired together with stainless steel cable, Lynch said.

“Those have come apart,” he said.

People power-loading boats — using the motors to propel the boat onto a trailer — may have created erosion under the ends of the ramps, he said. As the blocks came loose, boats began to hit them. The county hired a contractor earlier in the year to try to remove the loose ones. More broke loose over the summer, Lynch said.

“We’re not going to use that system again,” Lynch said. “We know how important it is to our boaters to have good boat ramps in Martin County.”

The delay was caused because the county worked with several contractors on potential solutions and cost estimates before choosing one method. Ferreira Construction will excavate the area at the ends of the ramps and then level it all off.

“Unless they find something that needs more repair, we expect it to be completed by the end of next week,” Lynch said. 

The project will cost about $48,000. 

Expansion plans?

Some money has been budgeted for the Martin County boat ramp repairs, Lynch said.

As for Stuart Causeway, Sandsprit Park and a one-time planned expansion of boat trailer parking at Leighton Park on the St. Lucie River in Palm City, Lynch said plans have been budgeted for some.

“We don’t have a list of what’s needed yet for Stuart Causeway, but we know it’s in rough shape,” he said, adding the county has $250,000 budgeted in fiscal year 2022 and is trying to get grants.

The county has scuttled 15-year-old plans to expand boat trailer parking at Leighton Park, Lynch said. There is a plan to use more of the area to expand boat trailer parking, improve the building and make it a passive park.

Park staff is doing some work at Sandsprit Park and more work will be completed in the next fiscal year. Plus, adjustments to the ramps may occur due to high water during king tides over the past few falls, including the week of Sept. 22.

Sea level?

“Martin County is working on a resiliency program that accounts for sea-level rise and what the county can do everywhere, including roads, bridges and seawalls,” Lynch said.

Fuel sales taxes and vessel registration fees generate about $1.8 million annually for project funding through the Florida Boating Improvement Program, maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

From fiscal years 2017-18 to 2020-21, eight projects in the three-county area withdrew nearly $1.6 million, including four in Martin County totaling $824,940.

Whatever fixes take place cannot come soon enough, Wakeman said.

“I feel they could have left the ramp usable at Jensen Beach Boat Ramp and just put up a sign saying Martin County will not be held responsible for damage to trailers or boats,” he said. “The sign could also say, ‘If you want to launch a 35-foot center console here, just don’t. Go somewhere else.’ “

Boating improvement projects

Eligible uses of the Boating Improvement Program funds include:

  • Boat ramps, lifts and hoists, marine railways, and other public launching facilities
  • Piers, docks and other mooring facilities
  • Recreational channel marking and other uniform waterway markers
  • Derelict vessel removal
  • Boating education
  • Economic development initiatives that promote boating
  • Other local boating-related activities that enhance boating access for recreational boaters

The program draws funding from two sources:

  • $1.25 million annually comes from a portion of fuel sales tax revenue
  • $1 from each vessel registration

Over $1.84 million was collected, including $592,600 from 961,266 state vessel registrations for the 2019-20 state budget fiscal year.

These Treasure Coast projects are slated to receive money in these fiscal years:

2020-21

  • St. Lucie County: North Causeway Boat Ramp, $199,704 
  • Martin County: Sandsprit Park, $49,940
  • Martin County: Manatee Pocket Mooring Field, $300,000

2019-20

  • Indian River County: Headwaters Lake Boat Ramp, $421,274
  • Martin County: Manatee Pocket Mooring Field, $200,000

2018-19

  • Martin County: Jensen Beach Mooring Field, $275,000
  • Fort Pierce: Moore’s Creek Boat Ramp, $78,500

2017-18

To review projects funded by the FBIP, go to MyFWC.com/boating/grants-programs/fbip/funded-projects.

Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Become a valued customer by subscribing to TCPalm. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at [email protected]

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