ONLINE UPDATE: Large Fourth crowds tamed by command post presence

by Sam Wilson
Thursday, July 4, 2013

Compared with last year’s Forth of July bash at Masonboro Island, crowds were underwhelming, likely aided by multiple public announcements of ramped-up enforcement by local and state agencies, said Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House.

“The goal was to make sure we don’t duplicate our efforts,” House said, noting that turnaround for updates between agencies had been a problem last year. This was the first Fourth of July in which a centralized hub was used to house representatives of all public agencies tasked with maintaining order and safety in and around Wrightsville Beach. Predictably, Masonboro Island’s annual gathering of boaters was the central focus of those activities.

While there were some reports of injuries and sun- and alcohol-related fatigue from the adjacent island, those were limited compared with last year, when approximately 3,500 people had gathered on the island by noon. This year’s crowd peaked at an estimated 2,000, and was kept in relative order by a constant presence of more than a dozen enforcement officers on the island.

A multitude of agencies, including police and fire departments from Wrightsville Beach and New Hanover County, local EMT personnel, and the state’s wildlife and fisheries agencies were on hand along with the Coast Guard, which had offered up its base at the south end of Wrightsville Beach to serve as the Incident Command Center. Inside the Coast Guard’s cinderblock building was a rotating group of staff from the various agencies, coordinating responses as each message came in across the radio. A board on the wall kept track of which of the eight boats were already deployed, and staff was able to quickly allocate resources where and when they were needed.

Outside on the Coast Guard station’s dock, from which the massive celebration could be clearly seen across the inlet, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Joe Baxter calmly surveyed the scene. He noted that the test would come around 5 p.m., when boats leaving the island would attempt to rush to the docks all at once, thereby avoiding enforcement officers. “It’s like a bell goes off,” Baxter said. “Everyone just leaves at once, because they don’t want to have to deal with us. We just ask that people be responsible; we’re not here to discourage them from going out there. We’re just here to manage the chaos.”

Compared with last year, however, chaos was in short supply. House described the scene at Wrightsville Beach’s south end last year, when boatloads of drunken partiers were dumped off seemingly all at once, as “looking like a concert had just let out.”

Enforcement activities were mainly focused on stopping boaters for operating water taxis without a license, which can carry either civil or criminal penalties. In years past, boat captains would show up at the public docks and give rides to the island for money, resulting in many of those partiers ending up stranded without a ride on the island.

“It was obvious that last year the problem clearly was the water taxis,” acknowledged House. “We had lost the initiative, but this year we had officers on [Masonboro’s] beach before the crowds started showing up.”

As of 6:15 p.m., only about 500 people remained on the island, with a steady trickle of boats heading home. House said that he expected the evening to continue to be low-key. “We had a few people that were intoxicated, attempting to swim across the inlet, but no big tragedies or disasters today.”

email sam@luminanews.com

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