On a recent weekday, I went out on one of eight boats operated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol Unit, a 36-foot Intrepid with twin 300-horsepower engines. It is outfitted with electronics, safety equipment and designed for launching divers into the water. The vessel is adorned with an eye-catching American flag and eagle graphics on its bow, and the HCSO badge and “Hillsborough County Sheriff” emblazoned on its sides.
The boat has a flashing light bar that is barely noticeable, and a siren — which I later heard and you aren’t going to miss when it is activated.
On this day, the boat was captained by Master Deputy Mike Wright, 38, a 15-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office. In addition to having his captain’s license, Wright is on the bomb squad. He grew up in Miami and has been on boats since he was a boy.
Also on board is Master Cpl. Steve Decatur, 46, who has been with the agency for over 25 years. Decatur just joined the marine unit two-and-a-half years ago. He also pilots the boats but says he tries to stay out of the way of Decatur and others who outnumber him in years of boating experience, despite outranking them.
We launched from a rundown, flat-roofed building housing the marine unit at Port Tampa Bay. The deputies apologized for the conditions of the place and pointed out that the construction going on just north of the building will house the marine unit in the near future.
“It’s all right. I’ll take a crappy building for a good boat,” Decatur says of the existing structure.
The unit’s 10 deputies use eight boats to patrol over 1,000 square miles of water. They patrol out to the Skyway and Egmont Key, and out 13 miles to the international waters buoy, plus countless lakes, rivers and swamps within the county.
Out on the water, Wright steers us through the port, where vessels entering Tampa’s waters contain benign cargo such as fruit and cars, to potential dangers such as fertilizers and fuel. Since 9/11, the unit has escorted vessels with hazardous cargo whenever requested by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Despite major changes to port security post 9/11, most of the port’s waters remain open to recreational boaters. The Coast Guard sets the rules, and the deputies say 50 feet is the number to remember back here. Specifically, they say, stay at least 50 feet from shore, a dock or a berthed ship.
The marine unit is often called by Homeland Security to help inspect incoming ships. Generally, the unit is asked to send divers under the belly of the ship to inspect for drugs or other contraband that may be stowed in a ship’s raw-water intake inlets. Conducting those inspections is time consuming and dangerous and requires the ship’s engines to be shut down to prevent a diver from being sucked in.
The unit also responds to calls from cruise ships — once they arrive in port — when someone at sea has been unruly or a crime is reported. They also conduct investigations when someone on a vessel entering the port has died. This happens more frequently than one would expect, primarily among crew members of container ships dying from an accident or natural causes.
Deputy Wright turns the boat south, where we pass some of the spoil islands made by man — the result of mounds of muck from the frequent dredging of the port’s channel. Ironically, these man-made islands are off-limits to man, as they are protected bird sanctuaries maintained by The Audubon Society.
“You can pull up and anchor there, but you can’t get on the beach or go on the island. That’s trespassing,” Wright says.
We soon hit Pine Key, also known as “Beer Can Island” because of the waste byproducts that weekend pleasure seekers are known to frequently leave on its shores. A few Gasparilla “krewes” occasionally collect and bag the trash and haul the mountains of debris off the island on a pontoon boat.
“On a busy weekend, there isn’t a single spot out here. There will be hundreds of boats anchored around this little island. We get off the boat here a good bit to help deter the craziness,” Wright says.
Speaking of their role on the waters of Tampa Bay, Cpl. Decatur adds, “It’s a lot of ‘PR’ and waving the flag. We’re not out here just trying to catch people doing something wrong. Just being here helps control things.”
A lack of control of things is what causes a lot of boaters to need the help of the marine unit. Between inclement weather and the hot sun, conditions can take their toll on even seasoned boaters. With many recreational boaters having limited experience operating a vessel, plus the consumption of alcohol among many of them, lots can go wrong on the water.
As such, the marine unit does a lot of rescues.
“We’ve found people clenching to a channel marker out in the middle of the bay with no boat in sight,” Wright says.
“A husband and wife and two kids — out here all night. We picked them up and also found the boat,” Decatur adds.
The marine unit was the first emergency responder at the scene of a helicopter crashing into the bay a few years ago; the pilot was killed. They also respond to a lot of “Skyway jumpers” — people intent on suicide by jumping off the landmark bridge.
Other accidents abound.
“We had a guy in Apollo Beach pulling a tuber. Another guy was on the bow, and when the boat turned sharply, he fell off the front of the boat. The boat went over him, and the propeller hit him in the neck. He was almost decapitated,” Decatur says.
Sheriff’s Office divers later recovered the man’s body.
The deputies tell of good cross-jurisdictional cooperation with MacDill Air Force Base and other agencies, and how they have removed potentially deadly debris — including a mostly submerged telephone pole — as well as dragging the carcasses of manatees so the state can conduct necropsies.
“When the weather is bad, that’s when we get busy. People call us for help. If they’re in need, we come get ’em,” Decatur says.
As for DUIs, the deputies say drinking and boating don’t mix but that people are starting to understand.
“We’re not getting a lot of DUIs. Come out here and use good judgment. Have fun. But if you’re impaired and behind the wheel of a boat, you’re going to get arrested,” he says.
The deputies say law enforcement’s presence on the water is more preventative than actual enforcement.
“There are a lot of people out here in rented boats, and inexperienced boaters who are not familiar with boating,” Wright says.
“People being unsafe and using poor judgment is a problem. Riding on the bow of a boat while under way is unsafe and illegal. So we pull them over and educate them,” Decatur adds.
Following lunch at the Sunset Grill at Little Harbor, we head back to Port Tampa Bay. On this glorious weekday afternoon there aren’t too many boats on the water. We pass a fisherman. We see a security boat from MacDill in the distance. The Florida Aquarium’s dolphin-tour boat is out. A lone personal watercraft with two riders goes by us in the opposite direction. The passenger isn’t wearing a life jacket as required by law.
I’m the only one who is excited — having had delusions of busting drug-runners while out with the deputies that day.
The officers turn the Intrepid around and speed up to catch the riders. The top end on the Intrepid is about 65 mph; some personal watercraft can go even faster.
With lights and sirens blaring, we descend upon the watercraft. It slows to a near stop, and the driver and passenger switch places. We pull up beside it. Wright chooses his approach based on the wind and the current, preferring to position the 36-foot boat to the starboard side of the small personal watercraft so it would drift toward the boat as opposed to away from it.
We find Spencer Watson, 25, of Tampa at the helm. On board is Shannon Valentine, 21, of Riverview. Decatur informs them we pulled them over because Watson is not wearing a life jacket. The young man quickly raises his oversized T-shirt to show us his life vest underneath. He says he got chilly.
The deputies chat casually for a moment with the two before sending them on their way. The deputies carry maps, plastic whistles and boater safety information booklets to hand out to the public with whom they interact. They say most people are pleased to see them but note that isn’t always the case.
They tell of responding to a dispatched call of a man and woman with a broken down personal water craft.
“We go and check on them, and found them to be OK. But they weren’t happy to see us. The male yelled out, ‘I hope you get wet’ (it was raining), and she gave us the bird,” Decatur says.
Both deputies tell me they enjoy what they do. They say they get a lot of people who tell them, “I want your job!” This doesn’t surprise me, as I had thought the same thing before they told me they hear that comment a lot.
Certainly, they have fascinating work. But it’s just that — work. When you see the marine unit on the water cruising past Beer Can Island on their beautiful boat, you don’t think about the deputies dealing with decapitations and dead manatees. Or the potentially dangerous situations that may arise on the water with backup far away if an encounter with a citizen goes bad.
“It’s not all fun and games,” Decatur says, adding with a chuckle: “And we don’t fish on duty.”
Chris Ingram is a columnist, political consultant and political analyst for Bay News 9. Follow him on Twitter @IrreverentView.