Commission considers speed limit exception for harbor

NEWPORT BEACH — The city is creating a special permitting process to allow sail and crew racers to exceed the harbor's 5-knot speed limit. Five knots equals 5 nautical miles per hour, or an approximate speed of 5.75 mph.

After years of discussion and various proposals, the Harbor Commission, Orange County Sheriff's Department's Harbor Patrol, boating organizations and city officials appear to have agreed on a concept.

It would allow groups such as yacht clubs and collegiate associations to apply for a permit before a given regatta — both for sailboats and crew boats — and any practices leading up to the races.

"They do a great job of managing these events, so it's safe," said Harbormaster Lt. Tom Slayton.

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 about three years ago. Deputies would intervene in some sailing events, especially during Thursday night "Beer Cans" races, to ask skippers to slow their boats down. This would cause strife as racers would fall behind in the competition.

Many complained that such races are 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, the authorities have let racers be, but Slayton says his deputies are 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 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 that the proposal sounds 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 added. "For all of us to be able to use the bay, we need 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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