Clinton County Sheriff’s Deputy Jamie Head scans Lake Champlain for boaters violating the law or in distress. Head captains one of three department boats that patrol Lake Champlain from early spring until late into the fall.
Twin Mercury 150 motors rumbled to life, and the 25 foot patrol boat slipped from its berth past millions of dollars worth of sail boats and cabin cruisers, out onto the big lake.
Laws don’t stop at the water’s edge. Thanks to the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department’s Marine Enforcement Division, neither does enforcement.
According to Deputy Jamie Head, though far from enforcement for enforcement’s sake, the primary mission of the boat patrol is safety and education for boaters.
Head captains one of three boats the Sheriff’s Department employs to patrol the Clinton County portion of Lake Champlain, where the lake is at its widest expanse. They also have a back-up boat and two personal watercraft, commonly known as jet skis, to patrol smaller waterways like Chazy Lake.
“We go out on patrol, just like you would in a car,” Head said. “We’re not looking to harass people on the water, only those people who are violating the rules and laws. We’re here to keep people safe while they’re having fun.”
Discreetly stowed around the tiny McKee Craft is communication equipment to talk to the other department boats, county dispatchers, State Police, U.S. Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs, as well as equipment like RADAR, Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), underwater cameras and even fire fighting equipment.
“We’re probably one of the best equipped marine patrols in the state. We’re stacked.”
While patrolling around Valcour Island the Coast Guard radio crackles to life with a disembodied “Pon pon, pon pon, pon pon,” Coast Guard speak for an important message is coming. The dispatch advises Head and his partner, Special Deputy Mike Stephenson, of an unmanned Zodiac craft found drifting south of Rouses Point. That, Head said, could mean simply that the boat broke loose from its mooring, or it could mean that there is a boater in the cold Lake Champlain water.
The nearest Coast Guard vessel is in Burlington. The Sheriff’s Department has a boat right in Rouses Point, and Head and Stephenson are not far, just south of Plattsburgh. Rather than roaring northbound though, Head and Stephenson break out maps and consult their computer screen, while they contact the Coast Guard for more specific directions.
Twenty minutes of back and forth communications and investigation located where the wayward actually was located; south of Thompson’s Point in Charlotte, Vt., well south of Willsboro and a state away.
That, Head said, is typical of some of the calls they field. With no street signs and potentially confusing landmarks, people boating on the lake often have little idea where they actually are when an emergency occurs.
“People go out unprepared with equipment and knowledge. On the water, it can be so dangerous,” Head said. “I take it very seriously.”
Besides regular lake patrol duties, marine enforcement assets are utilized for searches, special events like the Mayor’s Cup regatta, perimeter security at fireworks displays, and they have even assisted other agencies including the Vermont State Police in homicide investigations.
Patrols start on the lake in mid-May and go through November. The department also keeps a boat in the water until mid-December in case of an emergency. There are 10 deputies, along with several special deputies who just work the marine patrol, who are certified marine patrol operators, so one can be located at any time to respond for emergencies. Regular coverage during the summer is seven days a week, from morning well into the evening.
“It doesn’t matter the weather,” Head said. “We’re out here.”