New issues challenge recreational river boaters

Before you launch your speed boat or canoe, see why Sheriff’s deputies say you need to be aware of changes on the Willamette River …

The Multnomah County Sheriff River Patrol’s “Freedom II” is ready to cast off from the Sellwood Waterfront Park dock.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Things on Portland’s rivers are different today, than when Multnomah County Sheriff’s Sergeant Travis Gullberg first started patrolling our waterways years ago – and the sergeant says that’s getting some boaters into trouble.

Inviting East Portland News to ride along on the “Freedom II”, Gullberg recalled that it was mostly cabin cruisers and speedboats that plied the Willamette River in those days. But not now.

Getting underway, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Rod Nuzum and Sgt. Travis Gullberg keep watch for safety issues on the Willamette River, as they pull away from the Sellwood Waterfront Park dock.

“Today, we’re seeing a big increase in non-motorized watercraft. I don’t know if it’s that people like the exercise of paddling a kayak or a canoe for exercise – or if it’s the poor economy that makes power boating less popular.”

The major issue, he said, is the wake created by motorized watercraft. “Even if a motorized craft is operating lawfully in unrestricted parts of the river, we still get complaints from people in non-motorized craft about its wake. It’s similar to conflicts between bike riders and those driving cars.”

Whether in a kayak or a 16-person racing shell, like this one, non-motorized watercraft are gaining in popularity among river boating enthusiasts.

For years, there’s been a “no-wake zone” in the Holgate Slough between Ross Island and the east bank of the Willamette north of the Ross Island Bridge, Gullberg said.

“But new boaters – or those who haven’t been out on the Willamette River the last couple of seasons – may be surprised when they get a warning or citation for speeding through construction ‘no-wake zones’ around the Sellwood Bridge or the new TriMet bridge areas that extend 500 feet above and below each construction site. A no-wake zone violation is a $287 fine.”

Sgt. Travis Gullberg cautions this fisherman about speeding through a construction “no-wake zone”.

In addition to watching for boats speeding through no-wake zones, Gullberg said that the Sheriff’s Department crews are also on the lookout for drunken boaters.

“We always say, alcohol and water don’t mix. We understand that, for many, adult beverages are a part of recreation and recreating. But manage it, and make sure you have designated operators – people who are ready to be safe, and to be watching out for other people.”

Caught speeding in the Holgate Slough, Sgt. Travis Gullberg lets this boater off with a verbal warning, after pointing out the “no-wake zone” boundaries. This boat did pass the safety inspection with flying colors, though.

Just like driving a car, Gullberg added, “If you show a .08 blood alcohol level, you will be arrested. Because of the river traffic that the Blues Festival brings, you can expect additional patrols.”

In addition to being sober, captains of all kinds of craft need to be vigilant, he said. “Whether you’re paddling a kayak or driving a ski boat, keep scanning 360° around you, looking for potential hazards.”

Craft like the MCSO River Patrol’s “Freedom II” are increasing their vigilance as summer river traffic swells.

Because river currents – especially strong in the Columbia River – make boating more hazardous than an outing on a still lake, deputies frequently check a power boat’s safety equipment, which includes a whistle, a fire extinguisher, a Type 4 throwable flotation device, a Boaters’ Education Card, and – optional, but highly suggested – a cell phone.

“The number one thing is to make sure there are working life-vests for everyone on board; and every child 12 and under must be wearing one. In fact, it’s a good idea to have kids wear a life vest even if they’re just playing around a dock, or at the water’s edge. And, keep your eye on them at all times.”

His final recommendation for fun and safe boating was: “common courtesy. Help make our rivers a fun place for all to enjoy.”

Pay attention, be equipped and have fun – but remember, MCSO River Patrols are on the lookout for reckless boaters.

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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