Information on Florida Bridge Clearance Height Boards from 2009

SSCA discussion thread of initial reports of the problem.

The US Coast Guard office in charge of permitting bridges in Florida has been informed and an investigation is being initiated.

A new SSCA discussion thread is tracking this issue.

Some US Geological Survey real-time data has been located for water levels in the Indian River Lagoon. The data indicate that water levels are 1 to 1.5 ‘ above datum.

The text of the initial alert to the US Coast Guard follows:

I have encountered apparent changes in the height boards at many of the fixed bridges along the ICW in the Indian River Lagoon (ICW S of the Ponce de Leon Inlet;

A friend posted part of an email I sent to the Catalina 470 owners email group describing my initial encounter under the thread "...judicial dishohesty"

Since that posting, Onward has safely transited the ICW fixed bridges in the lagoon S to Vero Beach.

Along the way I spent several hours on the phone with many different offices in the USCG, US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Florida DOT. In this process I could not find anyone who really knew what had been done but I did get anecdotal evidence from several people that the contractors hired by the Florida DOT had "adjusted" the height boards to read the clearance of lower parts of the span over the navigable channel vs the center line of the channel. And, yes, it apparently had something to do with a sail boat suing the state because of running in to a lower part of the bridge than what the height board stated was the clearance.

I finally tracked down the USCG office responsible for bridge clearance issues and spoke to the person who holds the permits that certify that the bridges meet the 65' above MHW clearance requirement. I spoke to this person and emailed him. His response was: that is confusing and dangerous; that they can't do that; and his office was not informed and had not approved it. He has pledged to investigate the problem and inform me and others of the fix.

The text of my email to him follows:
"I am seeking your help: Please tell me what is going on with height boards for the fixed bridges along the FL ICW!

I am transiting the ICW S on my sailboat, a Catalina 470. This is my 5th transit of the ICW. The top of fixed structures on my mast is 63' 10" above the water line. The tip of my VHF antenna is at ~65' 3" - but it is flexible and can be bent in half without damage.

Due to my high air draft, I carefully monitor conditions at each fixed bridge along the ICW: tide level; height boards, fender boards visible above the water - along with clearance experience: if he VHF antenna touches and by how much. I transit these bridges at idle speed or drift speed - whichever is slower. I carefully steer to avoid the hanging lights and their wires. I aim for the highest part of the span over the channel.

Starting with the fixed bridges in Daytona, I have noted a marked discrepancy between conditions noted in my previous transits: for the similar water levels according to the fender boards, the height boards are reading 2' to 3' lower.

As an example:

As I approached the N fixed bridge at Datona, I checked my passage notes that showed little tide, height boards of 65', and uneventful clearance on my 2 previous passages. I was about to go under when I took a closer look at the height board and it said 62'! I did a quick 180. I then checked the tide at Ponce de Leon and found it was almost low tide there with the max being <3'. Facts didn't match up as the water marks on structures seemed normal.

I called the bridge tender for Main St. Bridge. She told me that FL had apparently "adjusted" the height boards due to a liability issue but she still sees boats like Onward go through following the centerline arch.

So, I went through at idle forward speed and was careful to follow the center line of the curving concrete arches - which is almost 45º to the channel. The top of my VHF antenna that is about 65.25' cleared without touching!

Essentially the same for the next 2 fixed bridges.

At Cocoa, the bridge height boards read 63.25' There was no local bridge tender to talk with so I anchored to check conditions out. Another boat I was traveling with with similar air draft decided to take the risk of traveling offshore instead of dealing with the potential hazard of the low bridge.

I then talked to a friend who recently took a sistership through here with the same air draft as Onward. They too were initially afraid to go under the Cocoa bridge until another boat with similar air draft went through - they then made the passage safely. Yesterday I talked with another captain on a catamaran with a similar air draft. I told him what I had learned from friends and he too made a safe transit.

I checked and could find no information that changed water levels in the Indian River Lagoon accounted for the difference. Nor has there been a persistent N or S wind that would move the water level.

Yesterday I talked to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers FL District PAO, the Florida DOT Bridge Maintenance offices for this area, the USCG at Port Canaveral and the USCG at Lake Worth - no one could explain what was going on and most were unaware of the issue.

Numerous other boaters have reported this issue but without finding out what is going on.

If changes were made for good reason so that the height boards do not reflect the federally required 65' vertical clearance the bridges were authorized to be built to, fine - just tell us boaters what changes were made and why and what the offset is to the highest point and where that is relative to the center line of the channel. Competent captains will then be able to make prudent decisions and plot a course to transit safely.

What I would like to know:

What FL ICW bridge height boards were "adjusted"?
By how much were they "adjusted"?
Why were they "adjusted"?
When were they adjusted?
Are others scheduled to be adjusted?
What part of the bridge do the adjusted height boards now refer to?
Where is the highest part of the span over the channel?
What is the offset between the point referred to by the height boards to that maximum height?
Who is responsible for monitoring this issue?
Why is there no public report available on the www detailing these changes?

Your assistance is greatly appreciated. If you cannot assist me, please direct me toward the appropriate office."

I am publishing information on the bridges in the Indian River Lagoon on a new website I am developing for this purpose:

I am also attempting to find a state, federal, or university group who tracks water levels in the Lagoon so that cruisers could check the current water level against datum - the reference height for bridge construction and clearance measurements.