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Newport Beach may allow boat racers to exceed speed limit

Newport Beach is creating a special permitting process to allow sail and crew racers to exceed the harbor's 5-knot speed limit — a move that is likely to please participants in such local races as the Thursday night Beer Cans.

After years of discussion, the Harbor Commission, Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol, boating groups and city officials are nearing agreement on a plan that would allow yacht clubs and collegiate associations to apply for a permit before a given regatta and legally exceed the speed limit during races and practice sessions. Boaters not participating in a permitted event would still have to abide by the speed limit.

The proposed change was prompted by on-the-water conflicts dating back about three years. Deputies would intervene in some sailing events, especially during the Beer Cans, to ask skippers to slow their boats down. This would cause frustrations as racers would fall behind in the competition. (The race is called the Beer Cans because tradition holds that opened, pop-top beer cans were once used to mark the race route.)

Many complained that such races were a time-honored tradition in the bay.

Harbor commissioners in 2008 considered a similar exception for racers, but their proposal required applicants to undergo an extensive review process through the city, and the idea stalled. In the meantime, authorities have let racers be. However, Harbormaster Lt. Tom Slayton said the situation has left his deputies in an awkward position.

"We had to sort of turn a blind eye that, by the letter of the law, they were exceeding the speed limit," he said.

Recently, the Harbor Patrol pushed the city to reconsider the speed limit, said Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.

A subcommittee led by Commissioner Doug West came up with the most recent plan, which would require an organization to apply to the city Harbor Resources Department at least 60 days before an event and give the time and place of the races.

But Miller said it's hard to specify the location of a race because weather conditions sometimes require organizers to move it from one part of the bay to another. That requirement might be modified in the final version, he said.

"The goal here is to make it as easy as possible," Miller said.

One provision would allow organizations to apply for all the events in a coming year at once.

Brad Avery, director of the Orange Coast College School of Sailing & Seamanship, said the proposal sounded reasonable.

"They've done a pretty good job of trying to figure this out and make it work for everybody," said Avery, who gave some ideas to the Harbor Patrol.

"The bay is more active than it has been in the past," he said. "For all of us to be able to use the bay, we need to have some clarity on the rules."

Individual sailors and rowers who break the speed limit could still face warnings or fines, and, as with any law enforcement, deputies will be able to exercise judgment, Slayton said.

With the organized events, boaters would be more likely to know safety precautions and right-of-way rules, he believes.

"We have to draw the line somewhere," Slayton said.

The commission will consider the proposal at its April 13 meeting.

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