Staff photo by Benton Sampson
Boat traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway moves toward the Heide Trask Drawbridge.
Typically one of the busiest days of the year for Wrightsville Beach and the town’s public safety agencies, officials say the Fourth of July was tamer in comparison to years past.
One of the focal points of the holiday this year for law enforcement agencies was the usual large crowd of boaters and beachgoers gathered on Masonboro Island, which led to the formation of a command center at the United States Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach.
That day Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said crowds were underwhelming, likely aided by multiple public announcements of ramped-up enforcement by local and state agencies.
“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.
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.
On the island itself about 60 Masonboro.org volunteers were present throughout the day handing out trash bags, picking up trash and informing visitors about the importance of keeping Masonboro Island clean so public access is not restricted in the future. It was the organization’s fourth year in action.
“I think it’s going very well,” said Richard Johnson, one of the Masonboro.org founders, at about 1:45 p.m. on Thursday.
At the end of the day volunteers from Masonboro.org collected enough trash to fill three small dumpsters, which was taken to Waste Management and sorted because Johnson said about 80 percent of the items collected are recyclable.
Back at the command center, USCG Chief Petty Officer Joe Baxter 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’re just here to manage the chaos.”
Compared with last year, however, chaos was in short supply.
Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue director Dave Baker said his squad did not respond to any major incidents.
“It went really well for ocean rescue with minimal rescues and only about 10 lost kids, which might seem high, but it is really not bad when compared to past years,” Baker said. “Everybody was found and reunited.”
With only around 15 rescues performed by WBOR, Baker said the day was relatively easy for the increased squad of guards.
However, with visitors staying past the Fourth of July, the remainder of the weekend was not as easy for WBOR said Capt. Jeremy Owens.
“We were extremely busy throughout the weekend,” Owens said. “Saturday was probably the most crowded I have ever seen the beach; it was much more crowded than the Fourth. They were still coming to the beach at 6 p.m. trying to find spaces to park.”
Owens said WBOR guards performed around 30 rescues throughout Saturday and Sunday, adding that the trough that has developed up and down the beach just past the water line has become dangerous for inexperienced swimmers around higher tides.
Off the beach the Wrightsville Beach Police Department only made five arrests — all of which occurred on the Fourth of July — while issuing 16 citations and 112 civil penalties. In comparison, last year’s Fourth of July weekend, which was one day longer, saw nine arrests, 27 citations and 114 civil penalties.
One of the WBPD’s main initiatives this Fourth of July was stopping illegal water taxis ferrying people to Masonboro Island for money without a business permit or captain’s license. Seven civil penalties were issued for the offense on the Fourth and WBPD Captain P. Burdette said he only knew of one of those offenders having a captain’s license. However, the presence of a captain’s license does not negate the absence of the business permit, Burdette said.
Kelly Corbett and Sam Wilson contributed to this story.