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SAFE Boat helps GHPD connect with boaters

Sgt. Matt Dougil, right, and Sgt. Gary Dahm patrol the waters of Gig Harbor from aboard the police department’s 21-foot-long SAFE Boat during the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony on Sunday.
Sgt. Matt Dougil, right, and Sgt. Gary Dahm patrol the waters of Gig Harbor from aboard the police department’s 21-foot-long SAFE Boat during the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony on Sunday. jbessex@gateline.com

Boating season and summer go hand in hand, and Gig Harbor is no exception when it comes to the allure of water sports.

Which is why the Gig Harbor Police Department is ready with its SAFE Boat to help keep local waters safe and incident free.

The department’s Marine Services Unit is more active during the summer, on weekends and during periods of high boating activity, Chief Kelly Busey said.

“Our primary goal out there is recreational boating safety,” Busey said. “Ninety percent of the job is simply being out there. We’re heavy, heavy on education and light on enforcement.”

The SAFE Boat, which was built in Port Orchard by SAFE Boats International, is the department’s third boat and was purchased with the help of a Department of Homeland Security grant in 2007.

Our primary goal out there is recreational boating safety. Ninety percent of the job is simply being out there. We’re heavy, heavy on education and light on enforcement.

Kelly Busey, Gig Harbor police chief

The 21-foot vessel is designed to last 15 years and has twin 150-horsepower engines, limited firefighting capabilities, a GPS chart plotter, radar and the ability to tow other vessels. Operated by one to two officers, the SAFE boat logged 350 hours of activity in 2015, with officers performing 121 visual inspections and logging 39 written inspections of Gig Harbor boaters and their vessels.

With safety and boater education the focus of the Marine Services Unit, officers spend time interacting with local boaters and building relationships in the community.

350 hours of activity the Gig Harbor Police Department’s Marine Services Unit had in 2015

A big focus for the department is making sure boaters have lifejackets on board, with one for each passenger and fitted correctly.

“The number one reason people drown related to boating accidents is because of not having lifejackets,” Busey said.

Reports from the U.S. Coast Guard concur with Busey, stating that drowning is the leading cause of death in more than half of boating fatalities, with 84 percent not wearing a life jacket.

He added that lifejackets are required to be worn by children age 12 and younger who are traveling on a boat less than 19 feet in length. Ignoring this law can result in a $99 fine.

The SAFE Boat and Gig Harbor officers also respond to incidents involving people jumping from the Tacoma Narrows bridges and other search and rescue operations, totaling 17 responses in 2015.

17 number of Search and Rescue responses from the Gig Harbor Police Department’s Marine Services Unit in 2015

While the majority of Gig Harbor boaters are safe and cooperative with officers, there are times when officers will issue citations and sterner warnings. Safety issues, repeat offenders and Boating Under the Influence (BUI) are all instances that can result in citations from the Marine Services Unit.

These citations become more likely when combined in one instance, such as an incident that occurred May 27 where a boater was stopped by a Gig Harbor police officer for violating the no wake and speed limit ordinances.

After the stop, the officer discovered the woman operating the vessel to be obviously intoxicated, which a Breathalyzer test later confirmed. The woman was issued a citation for BUI and infractions for violation of the 5 mph limit/no wake and failure to carry a boater education card.

The more crowded we get the more patience people have to show. We had an uneventful Blessing of the Fleet (on Sunday) which is impressive because I’ve never seen the Harbor so full.

Busey

BUIs follow similar rules to Driving Under the Influence (DUI), where the legal limit for alcohol is .08 percent blood alcohol content and a THC concentration of 5.0.

However, Busey points out that, unlike while driving a motor vehicle, drinking alcohol while boating is not illegal, so long as the legal limit is not reached.

“You can consume alcohol when operating a vessel, you just can’t be drunk,” he said.

As Gig Harbor’s population grows, so does the popularity of water sports and boating in Gig Harbor, with paddleboarders, kayakers and other recreational water enthusiasts joining the motorized boats in the water.

“The more crowded we get the more patience people have to show,” Busey said. “We had an uneventful Blessing of the Fleet (on Sunday), which is impressive because I’ve never seen the Harbor so full.”

Andrea Haffly: 253-358-4155, @gateway_andrea

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