Cops on the river say: Take note, before you float your boat

Summer is here. Really! With our glorious 80 days of beautiful weather just around the corner, now’s a good time to learn how to be safe – and not run afoul of the law – before you slip your watercraft into one of our rivers.  READ THIS and learn about their special enforcement mission going on right now to curb drunken boating …

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office River Patrol’s FREEDOM patrols Portland’s rivers, its crew providing safety education and law enforcement.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Even though the recent wet May might not suggest it, beautiful sunny summer days will soon be here.

But, before you slip a boat or personal watercraft into the Willamette River, you might want to make sure you – and your watercraft – are ready to have fun safely and legally. If you’re not, there are folks afloat who are likely to find out about it.

The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) River Patrol is nearby, and is charged with the duty of keeping Portland’s waterways safe. On Saturday, May 8th, we stepped aboard the River Patrol’s 33-foot craft, “FREEDOM”, to learn more about summer boating safety.

MSCO River Patrol Deputy Stephen Dangler captains the FREEDOM.

Our captain, a five year River Patrol veteran, was Deputy Stephen Dangler. He shared that some occasional boaters “think only of going out on the water for a day of relaxation and fun, and letting loose. But, there are life-or-death decisions to be made. They have to consider some of the basic safety precautions for themselves, their family and their friends when they head out on our waterways.”

Being on the water can be extremely dangerous, Dangler observed. “It only takes a split second of inattention, or one small lapse of judgment, for the day’s fun to turn to tragedy.”

Casual boaters who’ve floated on a lake may not realize that there’s a big difference between lakes and rivers, said Dangler. “Lakes don’t have moving water. The Willamette River has a consistent 3 MPH current. And it’s very cold. It doesn’t warm up significantly, even during the summer.”

MCSO Deputy Hollie Quick checks in with fisherman who say they’re having a great day, but catching no fish, just off Oaks Park.

A bad cocktail: booze and boating
On a hot summer’s day, many people reach for a cold alcoholic beverage. “We’re not out here to spoil anyone’s fun, but drinking while operating a watercraft isn’t only a bad idea – it’s a crime. The intoxication level to be cited for on a boat is the same as for driving – blowing a .08.”

It’s surprisingly easy to “drink beyond the limit”, Dangler explained, because people get dehydrated easily on a hot day. If they’re replenishing fluids with alcohol-based beverages, their blood alcohol content in their system can shoot up two to three times higher, in the same time period, than if they were drinking at a cocktail lounge.

MCSO River Patrol Sgt. Travis Gullberg comes up alongside this boat, and determines it carries no lifejackets.

Lifejackets aren’t optional
The most important safety message Dangler mentioned is to make sure your boat is properly equipped – with more than just fuel, food, and beverages.

“First, there need to be enough lifejackets for everyone on board. Think about it: If there are six people on board, and only four lifejackets, which two family members or friends are you willing to let die? Believe it or not, even the strongest swimmers probably can’t make it from the river’s center to the shore.”

“On the water, you are your own ‘safety net’,” Dangler pointed out. “Hopefully there’s another boater nearby on the water who’s willing to lend you a helping hand. A fully-charged cell phone, to call a friend or the 9-1-1 Center, can be invaluable. If you’re stranded, or in trouble, give us a call. We respond 24/7.”

Stresses education over enforcement
Being on River Patrol detail is more than getting some sun and writing citations, Dangler told us. “We look at this as a true community policing mission – to educate as well as to enforce. We especially focus on making sure that kids are safe, when on the water.”

Our day on the river occurred on a beautiful afternoon; at the time, there were mostly fishing boats visible on the Willamette River. Deputy Hollie Quick, also aboard the “Freedom”, said, “I love fishing. I ask what kind of tackle they’re using and what they’ve caught. It gives us a friendly way to make contact.”

All of the fishing boats contacted that day were safety-equipped and safely operated. Recreational boats were well-operated, and children aboard were wearing their life-vests.

Having no Oregon Boater’s Safety Education Card, this captain searches for personal identification.

Safety Education Card a must
However, a bright red speedboat did catch the eye of Dangler and the River Patrol’s Sgt. Travis Gullberg. Upon investigation, they found the craft had no life jackets on board.

“We left the life jackets on the shore at the park,” the boat’s operator explained.

“May I see your Oregon Boater’s Safety Education Card?” requested Dangler.

“Do I need one of those?” the speedboat’s captain replied. “We’re just taking the boat out for its maiden voyage.”

Dangler explained that the Oregon Boater’s Safety Education Card is required, not optional.

After issuing the boater a citation – and lending the captain some life-vests, to be returned when he appeared in court – Dangler explained that the Safety Education Card is required for the operator of any craft with an 10-hp engine or greater.

“The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office teaches a free Boater Safety Class,” our captain said. “Or, you can take a safety course online, and take the Oregon State Marine Board exam online.”

> To visit the Oregon State Marine Board’s website, CLICK HERE.

Too soon, our tour of duty on the FREEDOM ended. “Thanks for riding along,” Dangler said. “We look forward to seeing people enjoying our rivers safely this summer.”

Operation “Dry Water” now in effect
In effect through this weekend, is a mission they’re calling Operation Dry Water, held in conjunction with the US Coast Guard and their Auxiliary to increase BUII (Boating while under the Influence of Intoxicants) enforcement for the weekend.

“With summer weather now here, we’ve seen a substantial increase in boat traffic on the rivers,” Gullberg told us on June 25. “And, with the July 4th weekend coming up, we want to make sure everyone enjoys a safe boating experience. Part of that is boating sober! More than 20% boating fatalities are related to alcohol use.”

The mission of the MCSO River Patrol is waterway safety, they say.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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