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Marine patrol on the lookout for boating violators

Tue., July 5, 2011, 2:41 p.m.

CHELAN — There was a look of panic on the man’s face.

He had just raced across a section of Lake Chelan next to a swim area on his personal watercraft, leaving a wake in a no-wake zone. Now, a deputy in a Chelan County Sheriff’s Office patrol boat was motioning to him.

“Come over here,” yelled Sgt. Randy Foltz of the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office. “We’ll talk when you drive that thing over to our boat.”

The man revved his craft and turned it — right toward the middle of the sheriff’s boat.

Foltz put out his hands to stop the craft, then turned it parallel to the boat.

“How long have you been driving that thing?” Foltz asked.

“About 10 minutes,” said the man, a tourist from Colorado who had just rented the personal watercraft.

Fifteen minutes later, the man, fumbling slowly with the hand controls, motored off with a $267 ticket tucked in a watertight bag.

“We don’t cut them any slack when they’re this close to a swim area,” Foltz said. “You see all the kids’ heads bobbing up and down over there? One of them could have been hit.”

It was Saturday afternoon and Foltz and marine patrol volunteer Dana Starkweather were spending the early part of an 11-hour shift motoring up and down the shores of Lake Chelan, looking for boating-law violators during the three-day Fourth of July weekend. His was one of two sheriff’s office patrol boats on the lake for the day. The other was staffed by Deputy Mike Simmons and another volunteer.

A large part of his job, Foltz said, is educating people who rent boats and personal watercraft and do only a quick read of boating rules.

Foltz’s goal is to reduce accidents involving new boaters and boaters who have gotten lax on the rules.

Foltz recalled a boating accident a couple of years ago in which two personal watercraft riders were riding too close together. When both got distracted and looked away, they and slammed into one another. One rider had to have surgery and lost her spleen.

In another accident, a man in a personal watercraft was riding the wake of a boat, and he was too close to the boat. He hit a wave wrong and landed in the boat, heavily damaging it and the watercraft.

“People don’t understand what can happen,” he said, snapping his fingers, “just like that.”

Right out of the marina near Don Morse Park, Foltz saw several violators. He hollered at a woman that she had to put life jackets on her two young children. “Now,” he insisted.

He used hand motions to tell boaters to slow down their crafts and he yelled at a young man on a personal watercraft to buckle up his life jacket.

The first person to get a ticket was a young man who violated no-wake restrictions when he brought his boat near a swim area to pick up two young women. His fine was $267 but could have been up to $800 if Foltz had also fined him for a registration technicality and having no picture identification with him.

Foltz is an advocate of giving out tickets. He recalled that, a few years ago, deputies gave out mostly warnings and there were more injuries and deaths on local waters.

“We’re not trying to ruin anybody’s fun,” he said, “we’re just trying to keep people safe, and tickets seem to make a statement.”

Most common citations are given to people who are riding on the outside of boats, people on personal watercraft who jump wakes too close to boats, people playing chicken with each other on personal watercraft, and people on personal watercraft who are riding too close to a dock or swim area.

Most fines range from $87 to $343, with the stiffest being $1,000, and possible jail time, for someone who is boating while intoxicated. On Saturday, Foltz and Starkweather did not cite anyone for that but they warned several people to get their personal watercraft off the shore near swim areas, and they warned a boater to raise the orange flag when a person off the boat is in the water.

They also caught a man and woman on a personal watercraft pulling two people in a flotation device. The man got a $138 ticket for carrying passengers in an unsafe manner. That’s because his personal watercraft could handle only three passengers. Foltz explained that, if the group got into trouble, there would be no place for the fourth person to go to get out of the water. Hypothermia could set in quickly and the person could drown.

Foltz and Starkweather, who is retired from the Coast Guard, also spent time Saturday walking around public docks all along the lake up to Wapato Point, talking to people about boater safety and passing out brochures with boating rules. When it’s not boating season, Foltz also teaches boater education classes and does boat and buoy maintenance.

Foltz has been a law enforcement officer for 30 years, the last 22 with Chelan County. Three years ago, he became the marine patrol sergeant. He said he likes the change of pace he gets being out on the water, but it’s a job that takes a toll.

“I’ll tell you what, by the time I go home after hours out here, bobbing up and down, I’m pretty wiped,” he said.

He also noted that the only time it’s comfortable on the boat on a hot day is when the boat is moving. It can get hot and bug-ridden during 15 to 20-minute stops to write tickets and check boater registration.

“It gets kind of tough when you’re dealing with bad stuff but it’s a gorgeous place to work,” he said.

He also sees it as a worthwhile job.

“We’ll never know when we potentially could be saving someone’s life,” he said. “Just a couple of hours after we cite them or talk to them, they could have been in trouble.”

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