August 2, 2008 in Voices

Wild on the water

Sheriff’s deputy has seen unusual and unsafe behavior on Lake CDA
Carley Dryden Staff writer
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Kootenai County Sheriff’s Deputy R.E. “Bob” Bjelland patrolled Lake Coeur d’Alene Thursday. He said he and his partner, Deputy Caitlin Collom, get as much respect from boaters for a warning as they do through a citation.
(Full-size photo)

Fast facts

General Boating Rules on Lake Coeur d’Alene

•200 foot no-wake zone

•Daytime speed limit: 50 mph.

•Nighttime speed limit: 25 mph.

•Speed limit between boats within 100 feet of each other: 15 mi/hr

•Age limits: Must be 14 or older to drive a boat over 15 horsepower alone

Spokane River

•100 foot no wake zone

•Speed limit: 35 mph.

Kootenai County Sheriff’s Deputy Bob Bjelland has seen it all out on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The boater ticketed for going 113 mph – 63 mph over the daytime speed limit.

“He said, ‘Good thing you didn’t see me when I was going 180,’ ” Bjelland recalls.

Once, a man with a bloody lip staggered to the patrol boat claiming his girlfriend beat him up. The “why” emerged within minutes – a second female was also boozing and swimming in the dark waters.

“Swimsuits kinda became optional. Then it was spin the bottle without the bottle …” Bjelland explains.

Alcohol consumption leads to many calls.

Last year, there were 49 operating-under-the-influence arrests and about 20 so far this year, says Sgt. Matt Street, head of the recreational safety unit of the Sheriff’s Department which patrols Lake Coeur d’Alene.

“Forty nine (arrests) sounds like a lot, but we have 40,000 registered boats in Kootenai County so it’s really a pretty small percent,” Bjelland says.

This boating season has been pretty slow from a law enforcement perspective. Street believes the high cost of fuel (around $4.49 a gallon on the lake) and summer’s late start are likely contributors.

For Colin Bateman and his wife, who come down to the lake every other weekend from Kimberley, B.C., gas prices are slowing down their boating activity.

And “I don’t wanna scare the wife,” he says as his boat sways in Silver Beach Marina.

Most of this season’s citations come from minor offenses like no-wake-zone violations, no flotation device on board or lack of registration, Bjelland says as he directs the bright blue patrol boat through the choppy lake water.

While most arrests stem from OUIs, boaters also can be handcuffed for negligible operation of a vessel, including such infractions as high speed, weaving in and out recklessly of high-traffic areas, bow riding or operating a boat in a swim zone.

For the most part, Bjelland says, the deputies get as much respect from a warning as they do through a citation.

“Ninety-eight percent of (those cited) are great people,” he says. “They may not have understood a technicality. Most of them wave, smile and say thanks. That’s the way it should be.”

He flags down a couple intentionally splashing each other with the wake of their personal watercraft. Bjelland calmly explains that innocent splashing is illegal. The man apologizes and thanks him for the information.

“I’m just trying to keep the relationship healthy,” Bjelland says, chuckling.

“Me, too!” the man replies. “After eight years and three kids, you gotta do something to keep the passion going.”

With a wave and some laughs, Bjelland and his partner, Deputy Caitlin Collom, send the couple on their way.

Bjelland says personal watercraft operators often forget when you release the throttle you lose steering control, so you will continue in your previous direction.

A man and his young son pull up next to the patrol boat on a personal watercraft.

“How old do you have to be to drive one of these alone?” he asks Bjelland.

“14!”

The son’s face sombers as his father glances back with a “told you so” stare and cruises away.

Boating rules are different.

“If dad is in the boat, you can be 10 years old and driving, but what’s scary is if you’re 14 you can drive a 30-foot cruiser by yourself,” Bjelland says.

Last year, 22 boating accidents and two fatalities were reported.

So far this season there have been 11 accidents and one fatality – a 13-year-old boy struck by a propeller in Carlin Bay in July.

Street says wake surfing directly behind a motorboat or swimming around pontoon boats are proving dangerous. People overlook the amount of carbon monoxide coming out of the exhaust.

“If they take a big gulp of that, chances are they are going to sustain some pretty big injury,” Street says.

He says putting up the canvas top on your boat encloses the engine compartment and doesn’t allow ventilation for the gas.

“You think you’re out in the open fresh air … .” he says.

Though the season’s slowed down, Bjelland and Collom still witness some bizarre sights.

Two weeks ago, two young females, hair covered in shampoo suds, were sunbathing completely naked on a dock in Carlin Bay.

“Glad to see they’re all fully clothed today,” Bjelland says glancing at the crowded dock.


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