Will a new alcohol ban tame the boats-and-booze party at Peanut Island?

PEANUT ISLAND - On any given weekend, all you have to do is take a right after stepping off the pier on this schizophrenic little island and you're suddenly in the biggest party this side of Cancun.

It's the music that hits you first - a collage of blaring dance music emitting from dozens of boats anchored just off a sandbar or in waist-deep water near the beach, many of them laced together in a flotilla to rival the Mariel boatlift.

The Black Eyed Peas provides the soundtrack as women in white bikinis, orange bikinis and bikinis without tops dance and grind and shake hips - as well as other things not fit for mention in a family newspaper.

Beers are held aloft as a pontoon boat with four DJ speakers zigzags between other boats, cranking out the song Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.

And your mind instantly flashes to a sign on the island - situated next to swaying saw grasses and verdant cabbage palms - that asks visitors to "not disturb others with loud noises, loud radios, or loud stereos (65 db max)."

Sixty-five decibels is about the sound of adult laughter.

Which is why Peanut Island's weekend madness may be about to end.

Thanks to an ordinance that goes into effect Friday, May 18, anyone caught with alcohol in hand on the island will be treated as if he or she is carrying an open container, subject to a misdemeanor arrest and a court date.

And there's a reason for that.

"It got a little rowdy yesterday," said a woman who would identify herself only as Debbie, who was camping on the island during the weekend of Cinco de Mayo.

She said the drinking and carousing on the boats anchoring off the sandbar on the island's north side - the party side - was in rare form the day before.

Now, it will only be permitted campers like Debbie, who has come here with her family each of the last four springs, who will be allowed to drink on the island - and then just in the camping area.

Many things to many people

Just swimming distance from the mainland, this 86-acre outcropping in the Intracoastal Waterway between Riviera Beach and Palm Beach Shores attracts everything from rustic campers to families with kids to twenty-somethings with beer- and liquor-stocked coolers.

Accessible only by boat, Peanut Island is a dichotomy, daring to be many things to many people.

Focus your eyes inland toward the center of the island, and it's a slice of wild, old Florida, thick with grasses and palms that surround a meticulously maintained ocean campsite.

For campers like Debbie, it's Valhalla, a private getaway of her own where she can escape from work and urban life in less than 30 minutes for $27 a night. She comes here for a long weekend with her four sons, ranging in ages from 15 to 26, and other family members as a way to bond with nature and one another.

In the still of the night, the sound of crashing waves and a distant ship provide the only sounds and any light comes only from the skylines on either shore.

"I like being on the water, the privacy, the experience," she said. "That's why I won't give my name. If any of my friends read this ugh. I'm stressed at work; I come here to get away. I like to shut off my phone or just answer a call when I want to."

Turn to the left off the pier, and it's a halcyon dream: sailboats tied just offshore and young families sitting under canopies, alternating between sunning and a dip in the warm shallow waters. Little girls drink sodas out of small cans and eat caramel popcorn puffs with sandy fingers.

But for all its escapist tendencies, this little island knows how to throw a party. A big one. For thousands.

"We've been out here the last couple of weekends before it goes away," said Jennifer Delaney, 27, of West Palm Beach, a new mom carrying a Woodchuck Cider as she wades from a friend's boat on the north side onto dry land. "I guess they're trying to make it more family friendly, which is cool."

"But they need to be crystal clear with the regulations," added her friend Bethany Perez, 28, also of West Palm (Blue Moon, no orange). "If not, people are going to try to get away with whatever they can."

What the rules say

Here are the rules: Boats anchored off the island - not to the island, which would make them technically "on" the island - will still be able to have alcohol aboard. And those wading closely around their boats can still keep their koozies loaded.

But if they stray toward land, they're headed for a citation.

"We're not going to be (jerks) about it," said one deputy, who did not want his name used since they are not allowed to speak to the press. "But if people are going to be (jerks) themselves, we're just gonna put the cuffs on them."

So, you can have two (or more) if by sea, but none if by land?

"Then what's the point of the island?"

joked Boynton Beach's Pedro Escobar, 52, having a beer while his friend, John Deal, grilled churrasco steaks, pork chops, chicken - "I dare you to find a better barbecue on the island," Deal said - as their boat, "The Real Deal," was anchored just off shore.

"Maybe if they pass this law, we don't come back because we follow the rules. Only the people that break the rules are going to keep coming."

"It's not like we're teenage kids," added Deal, cooling off with a drink while the meat sizzled on the grill. "We're all adults. We're all in control. We're grown men, being responsible, having a good time."

On the west side of the island, several boats are anchored to the beach. One is less than 5 feet from the shore and a woman is setting up lunch on the edge of the water on a folding table. Men and women with ubiquitous red Solo cups in hand wade in for sandwiches and wade back to the boats with their drinks.

Beginning Friday, May 18, scenes like this may be only a memory.

"Just a little more of our freedoms being taken away," said North Palm Beach's Larry Cantor, wading off his boat with a domestic brew in a koozie to talk on the shore - which will be a no-no. "Takes just a few bad apples "

"If they only went after the underage drinking, it would make it safer for everybody," added his wife, Sharon. "I just want to understand the rules so we don't do anything wrong."

In 2007, a particularly bad year, 19 children were arrested for underage drinking and 23 others for drinking-and-boating violations. Last September, a fight broke out between drunks on the water taxi. Three had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance and one man had to be Tasered.

The city of Riviera Beach supported the county commission in passing the ban, which has also gone into effect at other boat-up parks such as Phil Foster Park and Jim Barry Light Harbor Park, said County Commissioner Karen Marcus.

"I relied on law enforcement on the issue," she said. "Law enforcement seemed to think it would help them a great deal."

As the sun began slipping behind the western skyline, boats pulled up their anchors and the party on the north side sandbar began to break up. Tired sunbathers with coolers full of empty beer bottles swayed perilously on the docks next to families packed up and sun-kissed.

Behind them, Peanut Island began to fall into a natural silence. On the shore, alone at last, Debbie from Boca watched and waved goodbye with a satisfied smile.