Brandon Davis doesn’t like something about the boat cruising through Kent Narrows.
The Maryland Natural Resources Police Officer First Class has noticed the small craft has no fishing gear on board. It’s a cloudy, on-and-off rain day. The only other boats out are fishing charter parties, commercial crabbers and tankers. The three men on board, all young, are not wearing life jackets, and he can’t see any on board from his vantage point at the dock’s parking lot.
“Any time I have the opportunity to make contact with a boater, there’s always the chance it might lead to something more,” Davis said, “And that something, that enforcement, might save a person’s life.”
By the time Davis encounters the small boat, he has already: checked three commercial vessels for proper licenses and equipment while on the water; pulled over a Kentucky college student on U.S. Route 50 for using a cell phone while driving, and cited him and his two passengers for possessing marijuana; checked a recreational fisherman’s catch in Tuckahoe State Park; and checked on a driver sitting in his car just to make sure he was all right. And that was just by lunch. He still had to return to the office, log his evidence and complete his paperwork. The suspicious boat would have to wait for a quieter day.
It’s not likely Davis will have one of those. On any given day, he might help thwart a suicide attempt on the Bay Bridge, investigate a rabid animal complaint, confiscate a cooler full of undersize rockfish, break up a domestic fight or arrest a state park camper for heroin possession. Last year, in one day, he saved four people from drowning when their boat capsized in tough weather conditions.
What is already one of the state’s toughest law enforcement jobs is becoming increasingly difficult because of increased demands and budgets that haven’t kept pace with new responsibilities. Many days, Davis said, he is the only officer patrolling the Upper and Middle Eastern Shore. He is almost always alone; backup is often 25 or 30 minutes away.
A Department of Natural Resources reorganization a decade ago merged state park rangers and the Natural Resources Police, and since then the combined force has shrunk from 353 to 262 today, with 166 patrol officers. That number has sometimes been lower because of retirements and lack of funds to train recruits. Four years ago, the NRP had just 238 positions, with only 216 filled, according to a report to the General Assembly. The ranks have recovered some since, but for how long is anyone’s guess — an average of 14 officers retire annually, and the NRP has no money in the next fiscal year to train a class of recruits.
Meanwhile, the force created in 1868 to crack down on rogue oystermen, often referred to as the Oyster Navy, has seen its purview expand far beyond bivalves. They patrol 470,000 acres of public lands, Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay and 9,000 miles of freshwater streams. NRP officers are also responsible for homeland security, guarding the Baltimore port and other sensitive sites. Last year, they filled in for Baltimore City marine officers to help with the Freddie Gray unrest. They work with state and federal health agencies to inspect seafood, check on thousands of acres of oyster leases, and even get calls from county animal control units to help put down troublesome wildlife.
“They are unbelievably understaffed,” said Tony Friedrich, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association, a fishing conservation group. “Not only are they understaffed, but the things they endure on a daily basis are pretty unbelievable.”
Last summer was the deadliest in two decades on Maryland’s part of the Bay, with 21 boating fatalities. One was a 7-year-old girl, who died when a boat in the Thunder on the Narrows race crashed into the raft she was sitting on to watch the race. Nearly all of the other fatalities were single-boat accidents. Of the 21 victims, 18 were not wearing their life jackets.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what prompted the jump in fatalities last year. Though the number of registered vessels in the state has remained stable — at about 180,000 — the end of the recession and drop in fuel prices has meant that boaters who rarely went out are more likely to do so now. Virginia, which has more coastline than Maryland and a smaller marine police force, had nine boating fatalities last year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
U.S. boating accidents on the rise
Nationwide, boating accidents and the deaths they cause increased about 2 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Coast Guard. Alcohol was a leading factor in 17 percent of the deaths. Other factors include speed, inexperience, inattention and machinery failure. Eight out of every 10 boats involved in an accident was less than 21 feet long. Where the cause of death could be determined, investigators concluded 76 percent of the victims had drowned. In those cases, 85 percent of them were not wearing life vests.
Many weekends, Natural Resources Police rescue boaters out in small crafts in rough conditions. They can’t save everyone. By late June this year, five people had died. Two were duck hunting in the Severn River in the winter. Two were fishing on the Potomac in the spring. The fifth, in the South River, jumped off the boat to retrieve his hat. His wife could not operate the boat to bring it back to him.
Asked if more officers on the water would save more lives, NRP Capt. Charles Vernon doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Not only would boaters be safer, he said, but officers would be better able to protect natural resources. In recent years, the NRP has worked with federal law enforcement agencies to break up a large rockfish poaching ring and to investigate oyster thefts and the interstate sale of undersize crabs. But in order to make those cases, they have to be in the field.
“In the old days, cops walked a beat in cities, and we did the same thing. We knew the boats on our river,” Vernon said. “We don’t have that luxury now. We’re a skeleton crew. We used to be 90 percent proactive, and 10 percent reactive. Now, we are 50/50.”
Ron Ricketts, a safety officer for the Annapolis Power Squadron, a boating safety organization, keeps his boat in a Bay Ridge marina. Officers used to come over from time to time, talk to boaters and conduct safety checks. “You just don’t see them anymore,” he said.
NRP Superintendent Robert K. “Ken” Ziegler Jr. said he hears that often.
“It’s my job to make sure they start seeing them again,” Ziegler said.
Ideally, Ziegler said, he’d like to see a force of 325 to 350 officers, and the equipment to go with them. But absent that, the superintendent said he’s put more officers out on the Chesapeake, including “saturation patrols” on nice weekends and holidays to check on boaters. During one three-day statewide dragnet last year to catch alcohol– and drug-impaired boaters, the NRP arrested nine people for impaired operating, issued 87 tickets for other boating violations and conducted 727 vessel safety checks.
But weekends are the busiest times at state parks, too, and attendance has skyrocketed at many of them, notably ones like Sandy Point that include waterfront. When officers like Davis are on the water, they can’t be in the state parks. To fill the breaches, Ziegler said, he uses overtime. While many police officers enjoy the extra income, Ziegler said, the boat patrols are grueling: “You’d almost pay to go home.”
Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association, said those boater safety checks save lives — including those of his own men.
“We have lobbied for more overtime, to keep them on the water longer, and they always say they’re losing more than they’re able to hire. We might only see them two or three times all summer,” said Zinn, who trot-lines for crabs in the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland. “Their staffing is an important issue to the general public, the commercial, the recreational — all aspects of the water. They’re very important to us.”
Zinn added that the watermen “like to see a show of force,” especially in cases of theft from crab traps. Officers, including Davis, have made a few such cases recently.
Police presence is vital in popular recreation waters like the South River near Annapolis, said Drew Koslow, who served as the riverkeeper there from 2004 to 2008. Many casual boaters make what Koslow called common mistakes. Boaters born after July 1, 1972, are required to take a boating safety course, which they can take online or in the classroom. Despite that requirement, boaters ignore small craft advisories, overload their vessels or don’t know how to navigate. Once, he said, a pricey-looking motor yacht pulled up and asked how to get to Annapolis. When Koslow replied that he needed to go out to the Chesapeake and head north, the captain asked where the Chesapeake was.
“They think they know more than they do, or they just think it’s not going to happen to them,” said Koslow, who learned how to operate a boat when he worked for the Department of Natural Resources. “Water’s dispassionate. It doesn’t care. Conditions come up, stuff happens and it just keeps beating on you.”
Koslow said that he, too, noticed a dwindling police presence in his years as riverkeeper, first on the South, and then on the Choptank, from 2009 to 2015. The police force proves their mettle all the time, he said, whether it’s going out in the heat, the cold, hurricanes or blizzards.
Even though several officers interviewed for this story said they could not imagine doing the job with fewer people, the fear of new cuts always looms. In late June, Department of Natural Resources employees learned of a restructuring plan that would, among other moves, combine the fisheries and boating services. The move is “part of Governor (Larry) Hogan’s larger effort to make Maryland state government more efficient and customer-service oriented,” according to an internal e-mail the Bay Journal obtained.
“As of right now, there has been no conversation about the Natural Resources Police,” said DNR spokesman Stephen Schatz, “But I cannot say it won’t be the case in the near future.”
It was happenstance that Davis was on patrol in the Chesapeake near Kent Island on Sunday, June 28, 2015, when he noticed something. It didn’t look like a crab buoy. Dispatch hadn’t radioed a distress call. He took a look. It was a boat submerged. Then he noticed something else: a cooler, with two women holding on.
On the other side of Kent Island, 4 miles east, the boat from the Thunder race had just crashed. The NRP dispatcher initially confused Davis’s calls for backup with that emergency, he said, so he was on his own for a bit. Davis pulled both women to safety, and had them help him look for their friends. They found one clinging to a boat cushion; another had a life jacket tied around his body. They had been in the water for two hours. One of the women told Davis she was about to let go of the cooler when she saw him coming toward her.
He still remembers the name of the cousin who couldn’t swim — the one they couldn’t save: Alex. Davis’ colleagues found his body later.
Davis has received several awards for his bravery that day. He doesn’t like to talk about them. He thinks about Alex. He wished he could save them all.
“It is very unusual for an officer to happen upon a scene like that,” Davis said. “It’s almost like…you were there for a reason.”
Check out these tips before going out on your boat
Here are boating safety tips from the Maryland Natural Resources Police and other experts:
- Have and wear life jackets. In Maryland, children younger than 13 are required to wear a life jacket aboard a boat less than 21 feet long. Adults should wear them, too. Nationwide, 85 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket, according to the Coast Guard.
- Don’t drink and drive. Nationwide, alcohol was the leading factor in 17 percent of 2015 boating deaths.
- Be prepared. Make sure at least one other person on the boat knows how to operate it. Before going out, do a safety check with other passengers; show them how to start and stop the engine, where the life jackets are, and how to use any on-board radio.
- Carry a cell phone in a waterproof pouch if there is no marine radio. Let someone on land know where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Check the weather and tides before going out. Storms in the Chesapeake come up suddenly, often with great force. Do not go out in a small craft advisory if you have a small craft.
- Don’t overload the boat. Having more people on board than the manufacturer recommends can make it prone to capsize, especially if the weight is not properly distributed.
- Learn the area. Having and using navigation equipment would help, but at a minimum consult charts of the planned route before going out to be aware of shoals and restricted waters.