BRADENTON BEACH — Longboat Pass is known for quick currents. The popular fishing spot has signs with bright red lettering warning people not to enter the water.
Coquina Bayside, a small beach just north of the pass, has much calmer waters. But as you move south closer to the pass, the current picks up. Every afternoon this time of year, a 3-foot tide rushes back through the pass toward the Gulf of Mexico.
“That’s the only place for the water to go,” said Terry Noll, who regularly patrols the area for the Florida Wildlife commission. “It’s at the bottom of the funnel and it’s moving.”
That current took a Central Florida man’s life Saturday as he fell off his personal watercraft and drowned underneath a nearby barge.
Jose H. Medina, 30, was visiting from Deltona to celebrate the holiday weekend with his family and friends. He was riding the watercraft with a friend when it toppled over.
While helping to recover the boat, Medina was pulled by the current up against the barge, which is docked at a construction site between the beach and the pass. Although he was wearing a life jacket, the current — moving at close to 8 knots — pulled him under the barge.
Noll arrived at the scene first, and called Collin Schmidt, a lifeguard stationed on Coquina Beach on the Gulf side about a hundred yards away. There is no lifeguard stationed at Coquina Bayside.
“It was just so fast,” Schmidt said. “The current was raging. It was a lot faster than normal.”
Schmidt called two other lifeguards and placed them on each side of the barge. They searched for Medina for about 30 minutes with snorkels and diving gear. When they found him, it was too late.
Jane Gill, a Venice resident, was at the beach Saturday and witnessed the tragedy. She blames the barge for Medina’s death.
“The barge shouldn’t be there,” said Gill, 63. “If the barge wasn’t there, the worst-case scenario would have been he just goes under the bridge and comes out on the other side of the island.”
The barge is carrying hundreds of tons of old construction material that will be used to enhance the Seven Mile North artificial reef offshore in the Gulf. The county had it towed to the site Thursday, just two days before the accident.
Alan Lai Hipp, who helps manage the county’s artificial reef program, said the area where the barge is located is the only location in the county to park it.
He said people should use extra caution when it is present.
“Anything that’s solid out in the waterway presents some type of hazard,” he said. “Once you start to get closer to the pass and there’s an outgoing tide, you’re looking at some very strong currents.”
The presence of the barge probably did not have any affect on the strength of the current, according to Robert Weisburg, a professor of physical oceanography at the University of Florida College of Marine Sciences in St. Petersburg. Barges typically have a shallow draft, which has little affect on the current.
The tiny Coquina Bayside beach has several grills, bathrooms and a pavilion. There’s also a personal watercraft launching area. Unlike the pass further down the island, there are no signs warning of a dangerous current.
But Jay Moyles, the chief of Manatee County’s Marine Rescue Division, said more signs might not help. He stressed that people should pay close attention to changes in the water’s speed and direction.
“The conditions that were apparent and very visible down on the island that day spoke volumes,” he said. “People should be giving those things fair consideration. I don’t know what more we can do.”
Schmidt said he wishes the county could hire more lifeguards for situations just like this.
Gill said she is most upset that the victim’s children were at the beach when he drowned. Earlier, she had seen him on the watercraft with his son, who was “grinning from ear to ear, and so was his daddy.”
“They were having so much fun,” she said.
— Herald Reporter Carl Mario Nudi contributed.