On the water with the Linn County Marine Patrol

Linn County SO, marine patrol, marine board, OSMB, boating safety, Foster Reservoir, buii, life jackets, logs, obstructions, boater education card

Deputy Matt Wilcox of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol talks about boating safety on Foster Reservoir on Friday, April 29, 2016.

Albany Democrat-Herald (On the water with the Marine Patrol), Neil Zawicki.  See original article for video.

There were more floating logs than boaters on Foster Reservoir Friday afternoon. In fact, the log-to-boater ratio was around 30 to one; the result of the recent filling of the reservoir, which caused all the debris brought in during the low winter levels to float.

The logs lurk in every direction, creating submerged hazards for boaters, and adding to the early season mission of the Linn County Sheriff Marine Patrol. The low boat traffic is only because the season is not yet in full swing. When it is, there will be upwards of 300 boats out here.

Deputy Matt Wilcox patrols this liquid beat in a 19-foot jet boat, one of two vessels the Marine Patrol operates to patrol Foster and 14 other lakes and reservoirs and three rivers countywide. The patrol also runs a drift boat and a bad cat pontoon boat. Along with the enforcement, the patrol also assists in search and rescue missions and victim transport.

The aluminum North River boat runs a Chevrolet 350, which powers the impeller for the jet drive. At $43,000, it was paid for in partnership with the Oregon State Marine Board.

The state marine board contracts the patrol for 800 hours of patrol time each year. Where they patrol, however, is up to them.

“I have to decide where I’m going to do the best good,” said Wilcox, piloting his boat slowly through a quiet cove near Sunnyside boat ramp. Once he clears the channel at makes in to the main body of the lake, he opens it up, and the boat lifts out of the water, nearly flying at almost 50 MPH.

Wilcox said his main mission is to educate boaters on safety and correct operation of their watercraft; anyone with a boat powered above 10 HP needs a Boater’s Education card, and carry life vests and fire extinguishers on board. To promote boater safety, and as a public service, the Marine patrol has teamed up with the Bi-Mart stores in Lebanon, Albany and Sweet Home, to offer watercraft inspections in late May.

But Wilcox also remains on the lookout for any less-than-responsible behavior. There is no open container law for boaters, and so Wilcox encounters a fair amount of people boating under the influence. He averages six arrests for the misdemeanor offense each season, and while a cooler full of beer is a time-honored companion for fishermen as well as wake boarders, the combination of water, booze, and lack of compliance with safety rules, can add to his work day.

He told the story of one intoxicated boater who had run his boat onto a rock, swamping and sinking it, while not wearing his required life preserver. Luckily, he didn’t drown, but the story is a cautionary one for boaters who otherwise have a sense of security on such a placid lake.

“I had another guy who jumped off the dam when I approached him, just because he didn’t want to talk to me,” said Wilcox. “He was playing air guitar on the hood of his car, and he was on the dam, which he’s not supposed to do, and when I called out to him, he just stepped off the edge.”

Wilcox said he used a laser range finder to determine the guy had fallen more than 60 feet, landing flat on his back in the water.

“I was more shocked than anything else,” he said.

Wilcox also takes the quiet, un-crowded patrol hours to set buoys to mark under water hazards, such as the concrete structure that rests just 3 feet below the surface near a swimming beach. Cleary anyone with an exposed propeller drafting more than 3 feet would have an expensive and dangerous day on the lake without the warning buoys.

When it comes to patrolling for boaters, Wilcox takes a casual approach, and it’s clear a boater would have to do a lot to get his attention. Still, he says, some boaters will pull up anchor and speed off upon sighting him, which he says is amusing because, where are they going to go? And also, if they don’t want to talk to him, there’s probably a reason he should talk to them.

If they’re open and friendly, he tends to treat them the same way. Approaching a boat at anchor, with fishing lines in the water, Wilcox rolls his bow across their beam and hails them. A young man stands up and says hello. Wilcox talks to him like a fellow fisherman, and the two have a friendly conversation. Noticing the boat has no registration, Wilcox asks if the boat is new.

“Yep, first time out today,” says the young man. “Just bought it last weekend at the boat show in Portland!”

Wilcox wishes the fishermen a good afternoon and moves on. He didn’t bother with the registration because the men were open to talking and also because it was obvious the boat was new. And it really did have that “off the showroom floor” shine.

“That’s an instance where I’ll let them be,” he said. “Because it’s the beginning of the season, the boat’s new and there’s no reason the cite them.”

For his part, Wilcox had never driven a jet boat before his marine patrol assignment. After a 12-week course, he’s a qualified pilot, and he shows us how to execute an emergency turn, which is a high-speed maneuver design to stop the boat in very close quarters. He guns it to nearly 40 MPH and then wrenches the wheel, sending the boat in a 360-degree spin, creating a surge of wake that, to the uninitiated, threatens to swamp the craft. But it doesn’t.

Wilcox knows how far he can push his boat. He also executed an emergency stop, which is equally alarming, and describes how the boat is built below the waterline to essentially grab the water, making it more stable than most.

Motoring back to the ramp, we notice a gigantic Golden Eagle gliding to a perch in a large tree. Wilcox said wildlife viewing is a major part of the experience, and it reminds him of another regulation, which he finds amusing.

“It’s actually illegal to chase wildlife on a jet ski,” he said. “But only on a jet ski.”


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