On the water -- and on the job

Police: Officers hit the bay for an intensive holiday weekend patrol.

July 04, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

It was just past 10 p.m., more than halfway through an extended, 10-hour shift for Maryland Natural Resources Police Sgt. Wayne Avery and Cpl. Beth McVeigh.

On water patrol along Herring Bay near Deale in southern Anne Arundel County, Avery and McVeigh watched the fireworks and enjoyed the calm, cool breeze.

So far, so good.

"We didn't get a drunk," Avery said as he navigated a 19-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat Saturday evening. "That's a good thing."

In an effort to curb alcohol-related boating accidents and encourage water safety, the Maryland Natural Resources Police has stepped up enforcement during the long Fourth of July weekend in an action dubbed Operation Firecracker.

"The No. 1 concern is public safety," said Cpl. Ken Turner, spokesman for Natural Resources Police. "We want people to enjoy the Fourth but have a safe time."

For the law enforcement arm of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, July is the busiest month for boating accidents. Last year, there were 191 boat accidents reported in the state, 51 of which occurred in July, officials said. There were 13 boat-accident fatalities last year.

In the first five months of this year, 23 boating accidents were reported, including four fatalities.

From Superintendent Col. Mark S. Chaney to the lowest-ranking member, nearly the entire force of 285 Natural Resources Police officers are patrolling Maryland's waterways and parks and forests during the holiday weekend, Turner said.

At state parks and forests, officers are looking for underage drinking and illegal fireworks. On the waterways, patrols are targeting aggressive and negligent boat operators, those driving vessels under the influence of alcohol and water-safety infractions.

By early Saturday evening, McVeigh and Avery had issued three tickets and given out more than a dozen warnings, mostly for speeding violations.

They, along with two other patrol boats and a Coast Guard vessel, were part of a saturation effort along waterways extending from Annapolis, including the South and Severn rivers, to the southern end of Anne Arundel County, near the Calvert County border.

Besides water and boating safety, the natural resources officers' duties range from enforcing laws, including crabbing and fishing regulations, to search-and-rescue operations and the recovery of bodies in state waterways.

About 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Avery and McVeigh roamed Rockhold Creek, near Herrington Harbour North Marina in Deale, where they came upon a handful of people crabbing on a public pier.

"How's crabbing tonight?" McVeigh asked the crabbers as she climbed onto the pier from the patrol boat.

Picking up crabs from a plastic bucket, McVeigh measured them, making sure they were of legal size: 5 inches. Then she threw several crabs into another bucket.

"So you're saying all the ones you're putting in the white bucket are too small?" asked Christopher Partee of Baltimore.

"Yes, sir," McVeigh answered. "You got six good ones. You got seven small ones."

Avery, who put the seven crabs back into the creek, told Partee and his friends that it's difficult to measure crabs by sight.

"The best thing to do is to get a measure," he told them.

McVeigh wrote a ticket for catching undersized crabs. Polite but firm, she explained the legal ramifications.

Partee can either go to court or pay the fine: $155.

"The more people realize the substantial penalty for smaller crabs, the better," Avery said as the patrol board left the pier, noting that fines for catching small crabs can go up to $500.

The most common violations McVeigh and Avery encounter on patrols are safety-related, including boats operating without lights after sunset or without proper equipment such as fire extinguishers, and people water-skiing without a life jacket or an observer.

Like other law enforcement officers in the state, Natural Resources Police officers must have probable cause to approach and stop a vessel.

Patrolling on the Herring Bay just after sunset, McVeigh pointed his binoculars at the half-dozen vessels out on the water.

"Oh yeah, they're skiing," McVeigh said, spotting two people in the water. "Don't know if they have an observer or not." Once the sun sets, water-skiing is prohibited.

They approached a small speedboat, and McVeigh asked the man operating it to tell the two people in the water to come in.

Meanwhile, McVeigh checked for safety equipment on the boat, which was missing a flare.

The boat operator, Gonzalo Ovalle of Lorton, Va., explained to the officers that he had his identification on his larger boat, anchored half-mile away on Herring Bay. McVeigh and Avery followed Ovalle to his other boat.

Ovalle told the officers that he had just purchased the boat Friday and had not registered it yet.

"In Maryland, you can't use the boat until you register the boat," said Avery, who gave Ovalle a warning about the registration and not having his lights turned on.

But Ovalle got a ticket, carrying an $85 fine, for not calling in water-skiiers from the water after sunset.

The Natural Resources Police encounter many boaters who are unaware of the rules of the water, Avery said.

Still, "ignorance is no excuse, especially when it comes to safety," he said.

By 9:30 p.m., dozens of boats were anchored in Herring Bay to watch a fireworks display at a marina in Rosehaven.

In general, the officers' shift, which ended 2 a.m. yesterday, was calm. The pair issued 25 warnings and six citations, Avery said.

Another patrol unit, however, arrested two people for operating vessels under the influence of alcohol: one on the South River and another on the Severn River.

"It was quiet for us," Avery said. "The closer you get to the Annapolis area, the crazier it gets."

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