As about 25,000 Fourth of July revelers converge on Wrightsville’s 4-mile beach strand and surrounding waters, a considerable force of lifeguards, law enforcement and environmental conservationists prepare to keep celebrations safe and the island clean.
Several law enforcement agencies, which include the Wrightsville Beach Police Department, Emergency Medical Services, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, the New Hanover County Fire Department and the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, will again conduct joint operations from a unified command center at the U.S. Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach.
As in past years, the agencies’ efforts will focus on nearby Masonboro Island, but, for the first time, a force of 10 deputies will be assigned to monitor Mason Inlet as well.
“We’ve had some people that were kind of roving over there [in past years],” Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said June 30, “but we didn’t have them permanently assigned.”
House said the need for more manpower in the northern inlet, which separates Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island, was prompted by an increase in boaters anchoring there in recent years. House said in 2014, the number of boaters at Masonboro Island decreased while crowds in Mason Inlet increased, leading him to believe there was a correlation.
“Word got out that we were pretty proactive over [at Masonboro Island],” he said. “We dispersed a lot of it from Masonboro and it went over there, so now we’re having issues over there.”
Those incidents sent at least one person to the hospital last year, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Lt. J. Brewer said.
“We had an issue with two boats colliding at Mason Inlet last year, and there was an incident where a boy was so intoxicated that he coded twice going to the hospital from alcohol poisoning,” Brewer said June 29.
The 20,000 visitors expected to pack the beach strand between Mason Inlet and Masonboro Island will be watched by WBPD beach officers and Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue. Two guards will man each of the 13 Wrightsville stands and the rest of the staff will patrol the town’s beach in four ATVs and two trucks.
One of the most frequent issues encountered by Wrightsville’s ocean rescue personnel on holiday weekends is missing children, WBOR Capt. Jeremy Owens said, but if beachgoers are concerned about ocean conditions he encouraged them to approach the guards and ask questions.
A majority of the law enforcement and cleanup efforts will be focused south of the beach strand, in the water around Masonboro Island. Thirty deputies from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department will patrol the area, Brewer said. Officers will especially be on the lookout for underage alcohol consumption, he added.
“The biggest shift that the sheriff’s office is doing this year is enforcing alcohol laws,” House said. “Last year, they gave a lot of warnings … but the sheriff has kind of put his foot down and said enough is enough, before someone really gets hurt.”
Law enforcement is also trying to put a stop to unauthorized water taxying, House added, and officers will pull over any boats that appear to be ferrying people to or from Masonboro Island.
“They’ll sit out on Wynn Plaza . . . and there will be one person lined up after another with their own coolers with them … waiting in line for a water taxi,” House said. “Somebody with a boat will come up and say ‘I can take five guys’ or whatever, and charge them 50 or 75 bucks … and they’re making a killing.”
Accepting payment in return for ferry services to Masonboro Island is against Wrightsville Beach ordinances and punishable by a $100 fine, House said, if the boat driver does not have a captain’s license or master’s license. If that boater continues to ferry people even after being cited by the town, Coast Guard Petty Officer Eric Tucker said the Coast Guard would step in and levy up to a $27,500 fine.
Unauthorized water taxying poses safety hazards, he said. People hitching rides with strangers don’t have a guaranteed ride back to the mainland, leaving them in danger of getting stranded. After a day of partying on the island, those people might try to swim back, he said.
Even with the increased law enforcement efforts, House said he still expects several thousand boaters around Masonboro Island July 4. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) Division of Coastal Management, with help from Masonboro.org, is working to ensure the masses don’t leave a mark on the uninhabited barrier island.
NCDENR’s Michelle Walker said Masonboro.org volunteers will be on Masonboro Island July 4 handing out trash bags to island partyers, and Sunday, July 5, NCDENR DCM staff will visit the island to clean up any leftover garbage.
After the sun sets July 4, a different set of issues emerges, House said. While the bar district will have police presence, house parties are a bigger concern over holiday weekends, he said.
“And of course, at house parties, people have to shoot off fireworks, and that causes a whole bunch of problems,” he added.
Personal fireworks are illegal on Wrightsville Beach and officers enforce the ban.
House encouraged visitors celebrating the holiday on Wrightsville Beach to have a good time, but be smart and safe too.
“The biggest thing is, just use some common sense,” he said.
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