Boat-borne police prowl on big July Fourth aquatic weekend

Natural Resources police officers ply the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, ensuring safety and compliance with law

July 02, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

Until a week ago, 16-year-old Abbey Jankalski had never been on a Jet Ski. Heading out Saturday into North Point Creek on her uncle's Kawasaki, she was still, literally and figuratively, getting her feet wet.

But with practice came confidence, so she stepped on the gas to see what the machine could do. And that's when Officer Gregory Jilek of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, patrolling the creek off Sparrows Point and the Chesapeake Bay, activated the siren on his 19-foot Boston Whaler, motioned for Jankalski to stop and pulled alongside.

"I don't even have my driver's license and I'm getting pulled over," Jankalski, slightly frazzled by the incident, said later. "I didn't hear the siren. I saw him wave and I thought, 'Oh, God.'"

Not only was Jankalski going too fast in a six-knot zone, but, the officer discovered, the Jet Ski had the wrong kind of registration decal on its side, had no registration card on board and was not equipped with a horn or a whistle — four violations of Maryland's maritime laws, which apply equally to all vessels, no matter how small. Jankalski, who was visiting from Shrewsbury, Pa., and her uncle, Ronald Ridings, who had been waiting on a dock nearby, got off with a warning.

For Jilek and his partner for the day, Lt. Edward Johnson, it was one of roughly 30 stops in the course of a shift that had begun at 6 a.m. on one of the busiest boating weekends of the year. The Department of Natural Resources has half a dozen patrol boats — the largest a pair of 30-footers — assigned to the waters of Baltimore and Baltimore County, where the city and county police also have marine units.

There would seem to be plenty of work for all. "There are a lot of boat accidents, and some fatalities," Jilek said, noting that about a dozen people have died so far this year in boating incidents in Maryland waters. "They have collision, they capsize, fall overboard. In the past, we've had people run at full speed into the sides of cargo ships at night. They probably don't feel a thing."

The most recent fatality was last week, Jilek said, when a man riding on a Jet Ski in Middle River with another man fell into the water and was later pronounced dead from what appeared to have been a heart attack.

To try to prevent such incidents, the DNR and other aquatic police come down quickly on boaters who use excessive speed or otherwise appear to be careless. Drinking alcohol, while permitted on the water, must not be seen to affect piloting ability, although the penalties for drunken boating are far less severe, Jilek said, than for driving a vehicle on dry land while intoxicated. "Unless, of course, you kill someone," he added.

As he spoke, he tapped Johnson on the arm and pointed to a motorboat churning across the waves several hundred feet away at a considerable 25 knots or so. "They're bow riding," Jilek said, referring to the woman lying on the deck near the bow, which was bouncing high in the water. Concerned that she could be flipped overboard by a particularly nasty bounce, Johnson turned the Whaler and took off in pursuit, ultimately getting alongside the motorboat and forcing it to stop.

"If you go in the water at that speed, you're under the boat and your head goes into the propeller," Jilek warned the woman. "That's not how I want to spend my afternoon."

She scrambled off the bow and rejoined her friends by the console. As they parted ways, Jilek said he could have cited the owner for negligent operation of the boat, a $350 fine, but preferred to have it be an "educational" experience.

"Most situations with me end with a thank-you and a handshake," said Jilek, who learned to love the sea while sailing as child in his native Miami. "I work with people."

Johnson, commander of the DNR's internal affairs division and a member of the force for 24 years, was pressed into service on the water for the busy holiday weekend, a rare chance to return to patrolling. The old habits seemed close at hand.

"You train yourself to look for certain things," Johnson said as he raised binoculars to his eyes to see whether two kayakers in the distance were wearing lifejackets. They were.

Had they not been, each kayaker could have been given a $90 fine, he said, and "their voyage would be terminated."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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