Clatsop County Sheriff's Office marine patrols are carrying special passengers these days. The U.S. Coast Guard is riding with the marine deputies in a joint campaign to make boaters safer.
This first-time cooperative venture is in response to the drastic increase in search-and-rescue calls on the lower Columbia River, especially during the Buoy 10 recreational fishing season.
Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment answered 536 calls in 2001, compared to 344 cases in 2000. Nearly 60 percent (315 cases) of 2001's cases occurred during the two months of the Buoy 10 season.
Many could have been avoided if boaters had been using recommended or required safety equipment, says Ensign Eric May, second in command of surface operations and a member of the new law enforcement team at Coast Guard Group Astoria.
By riding together, CCSO and the Coast Guard hope to not only boost compliance with boating registration and equipment regulations but also reach and educate more boaters about safety practices. The patrols concentrate on registration, proper safety equipment and intoxicated boaters - "making people safe," May explains.
U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Eric May, left, and Clatsop County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Burk confer on board the county's marine patrol boat.
Coast Guard small boat station crews on the Oregon Coast have their hands full with search-and-rescue cases. Two years ago, the Coast Guard pared the work hours at its small boat stations to 68 hours a week from the tiring 70 to 90 hours crews were working.
Group Astoria organized a law enforcement team to inspect ships and boats for compliance with safety and other federal laws, among other duties. The nine team members at Air Station Astoria completed special training, including the annual Oregon State Marine Board academy that marine patrol deputies attend.
The air station doesn't have boats, so the Coast Guard turned to the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office, which does. There is no extra cost to the Sheriff's Office "because we'd be out there anyway," said Senior Deputy Robert Burk, one of the two marine patrol deputies. Senior Deputy Willie Nyberg is the other and supervises the marine patrol.
May was previously stationed in Alaska where the Coast Guard had a similar arrangement with the Alaska state police.
Since April, Coast Guardsmen have jumped on board with the marine patrol on weekends. They have focused on recreational boaters on the Columbia River for spring chinook and sturgeon.
"I think with two of us, we are being more thorough," Burk says. "We see what the other does not see."
On a recent patrol, Burk steered the sheriff's patrol boat alongside a 17-foot boat bobbing in the Columbia off Tongue Point. "Any luck?" he greets the two men aboard. Michael Severse of Toledo, Wash., and his friend had just cast their poles for sturgeon.
Burk explains that he, Mays and Petty Officer Dan Jensen are conducting registration and safety inspections.
Burk notices that Severse has his life jacket on. "I've got to give you kudos," the deputy remarks. "We don't come upon many adults that wear their life jackets."
The life jacket for the second man is stowed in a hold, still wrapped in plastic. It should be in a spot where it can be grabbed within 30 seconds.
Severse says he always wears his life jacket when on the water. "I'm a good swimmer, but the water is so cold I think it would kill me, the shock," he says.
May tells Severse he needs a fire extinguisher on board. Severse usually fishes on the Cowlitz River and didn't realize he needed one. He doesn't mind the inspection. "I like that they gave me a whistle. They were courteous," he says.
Burk and May explain that their agencies aren't doing the inspections to write tickets and raise revenue, but to increase safety through compliance with the regulations. For instance, if a capsized boat is found floating empty, rescuers use the registration to learn the identity of the owner and then can find out if anyone is missing.
The Coast Guard can only enforce federal requirements, and the sheriff's deputies only state regulations. Sometimes Oregon and federal rules differ.
For example, Oregon law states children 12 and younger must wear life jackets. Federal law only requires that life jackets must be within easy reach.
"We see a 10-year-old in a boat who's not wearing a life jacket, but there's one on board, we know if that boat sinks that 10-year-old will die, most likely," May says. Beyond encouraging the child to put one on, there's nothing he can do.
But Burk and Nyberg can write the boat operator a citation, which has a persuasive fine of up to $175.
The Coast Guard can't enforce the life jacket rule.
The Coast Guard's inspections are more involved, touching, for example, on environmental issues. May looks for a bucket and rag to use to clean a small oil spill on a boat. He checks the toilet to make sure it's not flushing into the water.
Another advantage of working together, the deputies can quickly radio the police dispatcher to check for arrest warrants. For the Coast Guard, the process takes a series of phone calls and time.
The Coast Guard's presence enables the marine deputies to extend their patrols later into the evenings and has freed up marine cadets to work boat ramps and other duties. The Coast Guardsmen and deputies alert each other to training opportunities and share their knowledge.
"It's all about making people safer," May says.