WARRENTON - Fred Washburn's classroom is a 33-foot, twin-hulled catamaran with dual engines, his desk the helm, his chalk the throttle.
An instructor with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Portland, the officer Friday took students through slalom courses and frustrating maneuvers to teach them how to handle patrol boats on the water.
It was the culminating lesson in a two-week course that ended this weekend on the North Coast, where marine law enforcement officers from 17 counties met for the Oregon State Marine Board's annual Marine Safety and Law Enforcement Academy.
The program doesn't aim to produce world-class boat drivers. Instead, it lays the foundation for marine officers to learn, practice and fine-tune boating skills, which they'll continue to practice at their home agencies, said Ernie Fields, an instructor with the Josephine County Marine Patrol.
"Some of these people don't have a lot of boat experience, but we have a tremendous group of instructors out here," Fields said. "When they leave here, they aren't expert boat operators, but they're proficient."
A week of classroom sessions at Rilea Armed Forces Training Center taught officers about boating laws, rules and regulations and about identifying intoxicated boat drivers. They then hit the water at the Sunset Pool in Seaside and on nearby Cullaby Lake to experience practical scenarios and learn about officer safety and survival.
Exercises included man-overboard scenarios, ways to deal with combative violators, in-water survival and basic boat handling. Close-quarter maneuvering is essential to marine officers' jobs, said Dep. Brad Williams, an instructor from Malheur County. It was also just one aspect of the academy's overall training, he said.
"There's a huge amount of things they're getting thrown into on top of keeping that boat in control," Williams said. Officers practiced backing up boats, circling at different speeds and controlling a vessel's bow swing.
"For somebody who hasn't operated a boat before, this is a real frustrating scenario," he said. "But when you pull up alongside another boat, you've got to be able to control your vessel."
Maintaining control of a vessel while moving slowly presents a formidable challenge, said Jerry Evans, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla based in Coos Bay.
A retired police officer who worked for 30 years in southern California, he said the auxiliary typically helps civilians with boating safety, but Oregon members also volunteer their boats to help officers in the marine board's academy, which is required for new hires. On Friday, he acted as a "target" boat for officers to board and check for law violations.
"Some of them have never driven a boat before," he said of this year's 56 students. "Anyone can drive a boat fast. It's a real boat driver who can drive slowly."
The Columbia River is one of the most-used waterways in Oregon, according to state marine patrol divisions. In Clatsop County, sheriff's officers conduct regular patrols on the water, offer boating safety classes and provide water safety inspections and materials. The division acts as a platform for dive teams and coordinates with the local U.S. Coast Guard during search-and-rescue situations.
Officers training with the state marine academy stayed focused on simpler tasks over the weekend, slowly cruising through buoys in a course on Cullaby Lake.
"That's a real challenge, learning how to control a boat in slow maneuvers," said marine officer Rob Hartley, a student in the program. "But I think at the end of today I'll be really confident about going back and running a boat."