December 21, 2014

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Marine patrol officers want all boaters to have fun safely — with life jackets

Enforcing boating safety without making waves is the goal of the Lorain Port Authority Marine Patrol.

“It’s really enjoyable to work here because you get to talk to people, and 99 percent (of the time) it’s just friendly conversation,” said Edward Favre, patrol supervisor, during a Friday patrol on Lake Erie. “We’re not supposed to chase people off the water. We’re just supposed to guide them to be safe and have fun.”

The 27-foot Boston Whaler makes between 60 and 80 patrols during the boating season, which is roughly May through October. The patrol primarily operates Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when many fishermen and recreational boaters are out, as well as on holidays and when fireworks displays occur.

An approximately $35,000 annual grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Watercraft covers 75 percent of costs with the port authority picking up most of the remainder. The Police Department pays for Officer Mark Tomlin to be on patrol, and the department and Sheriff’s Office provide equipment and training.

Besides enforcing boating safety and doing searches and rescues, the patrol last year did about 500 safety inspections. The inspections are done at boat ramps and on the water. Patrols are primarily confined to Lorain city limits, including the Black River and Beaver Creek, but occasionally will assist patrols in Rocky River and Vermilion.

Things were quiet on patrol between 7 and 9 p.m. Friday, but July is one of the busiest recreational boating months.

While only working part time, the patrol — which consists of five part-time special Lorain County sheriff’s deputies, including Favre, and Tomlin — tries to keep a high profile.

A primary mission of the patrol, one of 24 in Ohio, is to ensure boaters have life jackets. If they don’t, the patrol lends them out. Favre, a retired Lakewood police officer who has been working for the patrol since 2008, said he was pleasantly surprised to find that boaters have always dropped off the life jackets at the nearby Coast Guard station.

On Friday, Favre, who was patrolling with Tomlin and boat operator and deputy Todd Pierce, gave life jackets to Phillip Swiger and his wife. Swiger, of Lorain, said he forgot to bring life preservers while in a rush to follow his son, Jeremy Swiger, who had just bought a new kayak. The Swigers were following Jeremy Swiger, who was wearing a life preserver.

“Better safe than sorry,” Swiger told Favre after the patrol towed the canoe to the 14th Street dock. “That’s what you guys are all about. That’s nice.”

Unlike communities with more bars by the water, patrol members said drunken boaters are rarely a problem. They occasionally deal with speeders who can leave a wake in the water, which can endanger other boaters or do damge to docks.

Boaters are supposed to operate at 5 mph or less in the Black River channel. Repeat offenders receive no-wake violations.

Search and rescue is the most serious work the patrol does. There were 13 rescues or boater-in-distress calls last year, Favre said. They included a man whose sailboat capsized in heavy wind by rocks, and a woman who broke her ankle while on a personal watercraft.

Favre said the patrol’s boat, which has two 250 horsepower engines and can reach up to 50 mph, is “extremely seaworthy” and well equipped for rescues. It includes a pump and hose for draining boats taking on water.

There also is a rescue door that can be removed to pull people in. Favre said a boat had a foot of water on the deck and the water was entering the cabin during one rescue. Two onboard bilge pumps remove water.

Quiet nights like last Friday are a good time to interact with boaters and fishermen. Patrol members discussed weather conditions and where the good fishing was with fisherman at the 14th Street dock. By building a rapport, Tomlin said boaters are more likely to tip them off about bad boaters.

Favre said patrol members all have boating backgrounds. Pierce and Tomlin grew up in Lorain and Pierce recalled riding his bicycle out to the docks as a boy. “This is the best office in the world,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.