NC wildlife officers on patrol to keep waters safe

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

You couldn’t have picked nicer weather to issue a boating ticket.

Saturday was designated “Operation Drywater” at Falls Lake – a lookout for inebriated boaters under cloudless sky. It proved to be an excellent day for maintaining law and order in the watery part of the world: No boat crashes, no drunken arrests, no drownings.

Nothing more serious than a warning and a fine, which was welcome news to Sgt. Kelly Brantley and Master Officer Jon Morgan, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission officers who patrol the state’s waterways and woodlands for hunting, fishing and boating infractions.

The two water cops zoomed along Falls Lake catching plenty of breeze until something suspicious caught their eye. On one occasion, the uniformed duo maneuvered alongside a personal watercraft towing two kids on an inflatable raft.

After friendly greetings were exchanged, Brantley pointed out the obvious: The watercraft driver, Jason Smith, wasn’t wearing a life jacket. Neither was one of the kids in the raft.

Consequence: $50 fine.

After the paperwork was completed, the shirtless 45-year-old Smith spied a journalist aboard the Wildlife Resources Commission boat, dutifully taking notes.

“How about putting in there this is a crock?” Smith suggested, clutching his ticket. “This is like a seat belt. If I fall out, it’s my fault. You know how I feel about this, Brantley.”

Wildlife Resources Commission officers patrol recreational lakes every weekend during the summer, when boat activity is at its highest. Boaters were unusually scarce on Saturday, probably because Falls Lake doesn’t offer an Independence Day fireworks display, Brantley surmised.

Still, boaters have latitude not granted to automobile drivers. Falls Lake doesn’t have a speed limit, and pilots can sip a beer as they steer their craft, as long as they’re not intoxicated, Brantley said.

Brantley noted that drunkenness can sneak up on you with surprising quickness out in the hot sun, interacting potently with thirst and fatigue. “It’s a lot more dangerous than drinking a beer at home in your lounge chair,” he said.

Risks on water

During an 8-hour shift on their al fresco beat Saturday, Brantley and Morgan kept their eyes peeled for dangerous boating, unregistered boats and suspicious activity.

As their boat plied the waves, Brantley recounted stories of flipped boats, grounded boats, stolen boats and the mishaps that are almost sure to make the evening news: drownings.

Drownings are not only the most tragic, but they show how much outdoor fun-seekers underestimate the riskiness of water. Drownings have taken the lives of a lifeguard as well as adults who were thought to know how to swim, sometimes in water shallow enough to stand in, Brantley said.

During their lake patrol, Brantley and Morgan caught sight of a hand waving an SOS from a pontoon boat marooned on the bank. The owner explained the boating party had picnicked on the lakeside and could not restart their engine.

The officers asked a few questions and provided a friendly tug service back to the dock.

“We just bought this boat this spring,” the thankful pilot said. “We took it in to have it worked on, supposedly.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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