Crew keeps Tahoe boaters safe
Patrolling Lake Tahoe in the speedboat used by the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office isn’t as simple as it seems.
One might think deputies ride around the lake, looking for intoxicated boaters and anglers in distress with an outboard motor and pair of binoculars.
The truth about Marine 9 – the name of the boat – is a lot more high-tech. Its operators are trained in using night-vision and infrared goggles, full-body survival suits, a high-powered radio and radar.
John Russell is a volunteer with the Incline Marine Auxiliary, a nonprofit organization that runs the boat. Russell said he recently was trained to find a distressed boat while peering out of a blacked-out window. He could only locate the boat using Marine 9’s onboard instruments, and he did so successfully.
Marine 9 and its technology serve two functions. One is law-enforcement, catching unsafe boaters, drunks and people without enough life jackets.
The other is safety, rescuing distressed boaters and swimmers from the lake.
The 24-foot-long vessel usually carries three crew members, two volunteers with the auxiliary and a deputy from WCSO. Incline-based deputy Ben Coffindaffer is generally assigned as the boat’s law enforcer.
Ken Focht and John Russell, two volunteer members of the marine auxiliary, were clad in their survival suits for a trip around the north end of Lake Tahoe last Saturday. They look like awkward ice-fishermen in them, but the $1,200 suits are designed to protect the men’s lives for hours in icy water by keeping them warm and afloat. Focht said they wear the suits anytime the lake’s temperature falls below 50 degrees.
“These are the same suits the Coast Guard uses,” Focht said.
It isn’t the only similarity to the Coast Guard. Focht said that he and his 20 or so fellow volunteers train as rescuers to the same standard as the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary.
“We’re trained as first responders in advanced first-aid, CPR, using an (automated electronic defibrillator) and safe boating,” Focht said. “We’re equipped to respond to most emergencies.”
Coffindaffer also assists in the safety end of the boat’s duties.
“One nice thing that we get to do is if we have to stop a boat because they don’t have enough life jackets, or don’t have a flag for water-skiing, we can supply that stuff,” Coffindaffer said. “I hate to ruin a family’s day by telling them one hour into their boat ride they have to go back in. A big part of my job is educating people in safe boating instead of writing citations.”
Coffindaffer is pleased with his service aboard Marine 9 because of its community nature. Washoe County used to control the boat and all donations for Marine 9 went back to the county. Coffindaffer and Focht agree it was a less-than-perfect situation.
“At one point we’d got a sizable donation and wanted pagers for the volunteers but couldn’t get them from the county,” Coffindaffer said. “This boat is dedicated to our community now, all the donations go to support the 20-or-so volunteers who work on it. It’s a boat supported by the community and that is a very nice thing.”
Now Focht and eight of his fellow volunteers have emergency pagers and can respond to an emergency within 15 minutes. The boat is docked at the pier of a private resident in Incline and easily accessible to its crew. Coffindaffer says the boat has jurisdiction over the entire lake and can be an asset to law enforcement around the basin.
“It works both ways, if we get a call from a Nevada state boat or South Lake Tahoe police we can respond to help them out,” Coffindaffer said. “If we need help, the boat can’t catch up to everybody, but our radio can. We have great communication with the other agencies.”
A majority of the law enforcement done from the boat is safety inspections, checking for intoxicated drivers and encouraging safe behavior.
“A big problem we see is the pwc’s (personal watercraft) that fly all over the lake, criss-cross and jump people’s wakes,” Coffindaffer said. “Perfectly sane people can turn into nuts when they are on them and we just have to remind them to take it easy.”
Focht and Coffindaffer would like to improve the service Marine 9 offers to the community, which is why they started the Incline Marine Auxiliary as a Tahoe-Parasol Community Collaborative non-profit last year.
“We wanted to let the community know that we are here for them and any donations that came our way directly benefit the community,” Focht said. “We’re out here flying the flag for WCSO and keeping the lake safe.”
On Coffindaffer’s wish list for Marine 9 are new lights, a bigger boat and more life-jackets for unprepared boaters.
Focht says the best part of the job is cruising Lake Tahoe.
“We get to boat on Tahoe every day and somebody else picks up the gas, it’s pretty much perfect,” Focht said.
For more information on Marine 9 or to find our how you can volunteer, visit http://www.marine9.org.
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