Watching the water
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By instinct, Brett Chandler firewalled the twin throttles, wrenched the patrol boat into a hard port turn and triggered the boat's lights and siren.
Two hundred yards ahead, Chandler's quarry - a boater who had buzzed close by the Nitro boat ramp at high speed - got the message and stopped. Chandler conned the patrol boat alongside the speedboat and wrote its operator a ticket for operating his craft unsafely.
Moments earlier, the two officers had ticketed a man for fishing in a no-fishing zone. A few minutes later, they would issue a warning to an 11-year-old illegally operating a jet ski.
"This is pretty typical of a day on the Kanawha River," said Jack Fayak, Chandler's partner at the Division of Natural Resources.
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Natural Resources Police officers patrol the state's lakes and rivers in attempt to keep boaters and anglers on the straight and narrow.
"People think we're out to ruin their good time, but we're not," Fayak said. "We're here to prevent people from getting into trouble, not to play 'gotcha.' We're trying to make the state's rivers and lakes safer for everyone."
The old expression, "to make an omelet you have to break some eggs," essentially is what Fayak, Chandler and other river-patrol officers try to do. They write tickets and issue warnings, and hope boaters and anglers get the message.
"We're seeing that happen," Chandler said. "The last few years, our Operation Dry Water patrols have focused on finding and citing people for boating under the influence of alcohol.
"Those patrols have had an effect. People know they can't be drinking and operate their boats. If people are out drinking, they make sure they have a 'designated operator' who doesn't drink. We believe our presence has helped reduce the amount of drunk boating."
Many West Virginians think of Natural Resources Police as game wardens who focus solely on hunting- and fishing-law enforcement. Not so, said Fayak.
"We're trained and authorized to enforce all the laws of the state," he said. "We enforce DUI and [boating under the influence] laws, we make drug-related arrests, and when we're the closest available officers we get called in on violent crimes."
Fayak said that when he was stationed in the Wheeling area, he once jumped ashore from a river patrol to chase a man who had attempted to rape a woman strolling a riverside trail.
"If we see criminal activity taking place along the shore - drugs, fights, whatever - we handle that, too," he said.
In a typical patrol, Chandler takes the boat's helm and Fayak sits alongside, binoculars in hand, scanning the river and shorelines ahead for illegal goings-on. This summer, the two officers have an intern, Craig Estep, lending an extra pair of hands and eyes.
"Our typical patrols last eight hours," Fayak said. "Of that, six hours are usually spent on the water and the rest of the time is dedicated to boat maintenance and paperwork. If we need to, though, we'll be out there until 1, 2 or 3 a.m. Truth be told, there's seldom such a thing as an eight-hour shift."
During their regular patrols, the officers also keep an eye on bridges, navigation dams, power plants, chemical plants, riverside rail yards and other important pieces of infrastructure.
"Since 9/11, our homeland security duties have expanded," Fayak said. "We're always on the lookout for suspicious activity that might be terrorism-related."
Monthly meetings between Natural Resources Police and federal Department of Homeland Security officials keep officers apprised of potential threats.
"I can't get into why, but there have been times when threat levels have been raised," Fayak said.
During visits from VIPs such as the president, patrol boats are often stationed near bridges where a motorcade will pass, or offshore from the state Capitol Complex.
"People don't notice us, but we're there," Fayak said.
The potential need to do battle with would-be terrorists, or even with well-armed drug dealers, forces river-patrol officers to carry additional firepower. Even on routine patrols, officers typically supplement their .40-caliber semi-automatic handguns with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and 12-gauge pump-action shotguns. If they perceive a threat, even in boating- or fishing-related scenarios, they don bullet-resistant "tactical vests."
Their primary boating-safety duties seldom require such extremes, but that doesn't mean the officers take their safety-enforcement roles any less seriously.
"Boating accidents - we call them 'incidents' - are almost always really bad," Chandler said. "They usually involve high speeds, and people often end up getting hurt or killed."
He said an incident he investigated several years ago perfectly illustrates boating's danger potential.
"A couple of girls were flying up the river in a speedboat, talking to each other and not paying attention to what was ahead," he recalled. "They ended up running into a barge, and both of them were killed. It was an ugly scene."
Chandler said most of the tickets he writes are for safety violations such as reckless boat operation, too few lifejackets, expired or missing fire extinguishers, and insufficient warning lights.
"Our goal is to keep people safe, and to keep them from running into boats or structures," he said. "The safer they are, the more they'll enjoy being out on the water."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.