Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009
By Steve Huffman
A boat belonging to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission eased under the bridge in front of Tamarac Marina on High Rock Lake Sunday afternoon, slowing to a near crawl in the no-wake zone.
A 20-some-year-old male was headed in the opposite direction aboard a Jet Ski, a female about the same age nestled in behind him.
“What’s going on?” the young man shouted to the officers. “You boys are out in force today, aren’t you?”
He didn’t know the half of it.
Officers from the Wildlife Commission and the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office were patrolling High Rock en masse Sunday, putting the clamps on inebriated boaters while also making it clear that those who involve themselves in alcohol-fueled mischief best be prepared to face the consequences.
Especially if the mischief is taking place on High Rock.
Six boats belonging to the Wildlife Commission were patrolling the lake while deputies manned a license checkpoint on nearby Bringle Ferry Road.
Also brought in for the occasion was the Mobile Blood Alcohol Testing Facility ó a big rig that’s affectionally referred to by law enforcement officers as “the batmobile.”
Those who’d had too much to drink or who were otherwise on the wrong side of the law probably couldn’t have done worse than go in the vicinity of High Rock Sunday.
The crackdown started at 2 p.m. and was to last until 2 this morning.
Targeting the dangers
“We especially like to go after those who put others in danger,” said Wildlife Enforcement Officer Jeremy Harrill, who was piloting one of the Wildlife Commission’s boats.
Harrill was accompanied by Master Deputy Scott Flowers of the Sheriff’s Office. Each of the veteran officers wore a uniform and a life preserver, and each had a pistol ó Harrill a .357-caliber, Flowers, a .40-caliber ó strapped to his hip.
The boat they were commanding ó with the words “Wildlife officer” painted on both sides ó was a 191/2-foot McKee Craft, powered by a 225-horsepower Evinrude motor. Harrill said the vessel had a top speed of 62 mph, capable, more than likely, of overtaking anything on the lake.
Not that speed was of the essence Sunday. For the most part, Harrill and Flowers spent the afternoon stopping slow-moving pontoon boats and the like, most filled with beer-drinking boaters who seemed more intent on having a good time than trying to elude wildlife officers.
High Rock measures 15,000 acres and covers more than 500 miles of shoreline. Last year, two boaters died on the lake. Officers said it’s unusual for a year to pass where there’s not at least one fatality there.
Which is one of the reasons the officers were working Sunday.
“We want to send a message for the whole summer,” Harrill said. “If you’re drunk, you’ve got no business driving a boat.”
Difference in laws
The laws pertaining to alcohol consumption aboard a boat vary slightly from those pertaining to an automobile. For one, an open container is permissible on a boat.
But as is the case with the driver of an automobile, the operator of a boat faces automatic conviction of BWI ó Boating While Impaired ó if he registers a blood-alcohol reading of .08 or higher.
And Harrill said it’s far easier for the operator of a boat to become impaired than it is for the driver of a car.
Harrill said studies have shown that because of the choppiness of the water and the effect of the sun, boaters often take only a third as much alcohol as the driver of a motor vehicle to become disoriented.
Harrill estimated that he and fellow officers made about 30 BWI arrests on High Rock last summer.
They’re hoping to see that number drop this year.
“More and more people are bringing a designated driver with them on the water, which is a good thing,” Harrill said.
Conviction of BWI is a Class II misdemeanor, which brings with it a fine of $100 to $200 plus court costs. But the conviction doesn’t affect an individual’s driving privileges, and no points are reflected on one’s driver’s license.
Insurance rates don’t skyrocket.
Still, it’s a costly mistake.
“We discourage drinking and driving anything,” said Anthony Sharun, a sergeant with the Wildlife Commission and the officer who oversaw Sunday’s crackdown at High Rock.
He said problems relating to alcohol on the water are often related to problems a person experiences elsewhere.
“Lots of times, those we catch driving a boat drunk have also been charged with DWI on the highway,” Sharun said.
Back on the water
One of Harrill’s first stops Sunday was that of a slow-moving pontoon boat making its way across the lake.
Harrill flipped to life a blue light that’s mounted atop a pole at the back of his boat. He asked the boat’s operator to stop.
“You got me,” the boater said, laughing. “How can I help you?”
Harrill asked for the boat’s registration and checked to make sure the vessel was equipped with the appropriate number of life preservers ó one for each person on board.
After a couple of minutes, Harrill saw that everything aboard the boat ó registration, life preservers and fire extinguisher, included ó was shipshape.
“You guys take care,” Harrill instructed as he pushed his own craft clear, then accelerated further north on High Rock.
Most boaters are friendly when stopped, Harrill said, though he also noted the exception to the rule. “Occasionally you run into a bad egg,” he said.
Harrill said almost every large public lake has a gathering place for partyers, one where things are most likely to get out of hand.
And he said High Rock is no different. Goat Island, which is close to the Crane Creek outlet, is that gathering spot at High Rock.
“That’s the Goat,” Harrill said as he circled a small island where numerous boats were moored.
He pulled out a pair of binoculars to study the boats, making sure he got the true operator of any craft he stopped.
Harrill said it’s not uncommon for the driver to switch seats with a passenger once he sees a law enforcement officer approaching.
“I’ve had times where I’ve had one drunk switch with another and I’ll get ’em both,” Harrill said, trying not very successfully to stifle a chuckle.
As he spoke, Harrill was eyeing through his binoculars a pontoon boat with green trim navigating its way away from Goat Island.
The boat was filled with beer drinkers.
“That’s a prime boat to be stopped,” Harrill said. “Lots of times, they won’t have enough life preservers.”
He picked out the boat’s driver. “It’s the guy with the dark tan,” Harrill said, speaking to Flowers. “Help me keep an eye on him.”
And so, within moments, Harrill stopped the boat, turning on his blue light and ordering the vessel to a stop.
The driver does as told and everyone aboard laughed. “This is the third time we’ve been stopped in 21 minutes,” one woman told Harrill. “That’s got to be some kind of record.”
Harrill made but a cursory inspection, then sent the boat on its way. “Don’t y’all feel safe today?” he asked.
To their credit, everyone aboard the pontoon maintained a sense of humor. “Thank you, guys, for keeping us safe,” a female in a bikini said to Harrill and Flowers.
And so it goes.
Before long, Harrill stopped a boat carrying seven young people. Most had a beer.
“Where’d y’all put in today?” Harrill asked.
After some chitchat and safety checks, Harrill asked the boat’s operator to climb into his vessel.
“Do you think you’re impaired in any way?” Harrill asked.
“No, sir,” the young man replied, so nervous that his hands were shaking.
Harrill opted to run him through a series of sobriety tests.
“I want you to repeat the alphabet, starting at G and continuing to Q,” Harrill instructed.
The young man seemed perplexed. He didn’t respond for several seconds.
“I can’t remember the alphabet,” he finally admitted. “I can do anything else you say.”
Harrill had him complete a series of hand tests where he touched his fingers against his thumb while counting. The young man did well.
Harrill held his ink pen aloft and had the man follow the tip back and forth with his eyes. Again, the tests were satisfactory.
Satisfied that the boater wasn’t intoxicated, Harrill let him off after issuing a warning ticket for not having a throw cushion or similar water-rescue tool to toss to a swimmer in trouble. Such items are required by law.
“This doesn’t cost you anything,” Harrill instructed the young boater. “You just need to make sure you correct it before you come out again.”
The boater promised.
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
Off went Harrill again.
His next stop was a boat that had a young girl seated in the bow. The girl wasn’t wearing a life preserver, which is required of anyone under 13.
“How old are you?” Harrill asked.
“Thirteen,” the girl replied.
“When were you born?” Harrill asked.
Satisfied, Harrill let the girl and her parents continue.
“Why’d you stop us?” the father asked.
Harrill told him. “Make her put on a life preserver and I’ll bet you won’t get stopped again,” Harrill advised.
“Kayla, put a life jacket on,” the father told his daughter, pretending to chastise her.
Back on the open water, Harrill punched the throttle on the McKee Craft, the boat bouncing across the wake at a speed that surely left others on the lake envious.
And more than a tad nervous as they watched the officers zip by.
“This is my job,” Harrill said. “This is why I get paid.”
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.