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One Man's Plan: A night on Winnipesaukee with the Marine Patrol

Last modified: 7/23/2013 12:07:00 AM
It’s close to 1 a.m. – the early hours of July Fourth – and there’s a man with curly hair sitting a few feet away from me trying to touch his fingers to his nose with his eyes closed, his head tilted back. A Marine Patrol officer stands in front of him, watching every tiny move as our boat rocks back and forth. A steady stream of boaters races past out of Weirs Bay, their wakes pushing our boat from side to side. I’m seated behind the boat’s windshield, and with our engine idling and the roar of other boats, I can’t hear anything the two men are talking about, but it doesn’t look good.

About 10 minutes ago, this gentleman came within 3 feet of changing all of our lives. Only my captain’s quick thinking saved both our boats and all the passengers from a fate too grim to contemplate. My captain is Officer Dave Jones of the New Hampshire State Marine Patrol, and if he hadn’t slammed our boat into reverse, this captain, Captain Doofus, would have crashed into our steel hull, the three children in his bow would have catapulted off into the murky night, and he’d be sitting in the Laconia lockup, wondering which night was Pepper Steak night and who his roommate would be for the next 11 years.

This is our third stop of the shift, each getting more intense the later the hours creep toward the Fourth of July. With days of rain followed by a miserable heat, every boat owner on the lake, it seems, is out tonight, and few of them seem to have any idea what they’re doing. Dave suspected Captain Doofus was drinking, watching him as he searched for his license and boating education certificate.

“Have you been drinking tonight?” Dave asks.

“I’m the designated driver tonight,” Captain Doofus responds, avoiding eye contact and busying himself with a pile of papers in his lap.

“I didn’t ask you if you were the designated driver. I asked you if you’d been drinking,” says Dave in a less than tolerant voice. It’s taken the entire shift – since 5 p.m. – for Dave to express anything other than patient explanation, but considering what almost just happened, he’s clearly annoyed.

“Yes. I had one beer,” the curly-haired Doofus replies, but Dave’s not buying it. Within moments, Dave has the man on our boat taking a series of dexterity and memory tests. Our new guest passes by the thinnest of margins, avoiding hand cuffs, a tow to the station for a breathalyzer and an awkward call home for a 1 a.m. ride.

Dave hands Captain Doofus a ticket for his lousy driving (“150 Foot Safe Passage Violation” for $84.32) and tells him he barely passed the sobriety tests, instructing him to anchor his boat for an hour and sit tight before heading home.

“That guy came very close to ruining his life,” Dave says as we motor away into the humid night.

It’s been an eye-opening evening. I met Dave earlier at the Marine Patrol’s headquarters on Lake Winnipesaukee in Gilford. Dave’s been a seasonal officer for the Marine Patrol for the past six years, working as a police officer in Alton when he’s not on the lake.

Dave’s the lone Marine Patrol officer on the lake tonight, the first at the start of a long holiday weekend.

He wastes no time pointing out what boaters are doing wrong. Just past Spindle Point, he spots a jet ski jumping the wake of the Mount Washington as it heads near Three Mile Island. The Mount Washington’s the biggest boat on the lake, its wake is an attractive challenge. “If he does it one more time, I’ll stop him,” Dave says. But the jet skier heads off in another direction as the massive boat slips behind the island in the descending dusk.

As we cruise along, Dave provides a rundown on the basics of boating safety, from life preservers to proof of boating education to a horn that toots, a fire extinguisher, three working lights (red, green and white) and a blue registration sticker. He shows me pages of rules and regulations.

During our first stop, a young captain can’t find his boating education certification. Dave pulls out a binder, showing the boater what’s acceptable. “You have to make sure the people delivering the course are licensed by the state,” he says.

The captain seems crestfallen at the realization that the weekend class he took in the basement of Burger King in Tilton wasn’t legit.

We zoom past Governor’s Island and its stately manors, its residents waving from lofty gilded perches with their ascots blowing in the breeze. “Huzzah to you, loyal civil servants! Huzzah to you!”

Just then a call comes in from dispatch about water skiers and a man in a hang glider in Moultonboro “harassing loons.” Dave takes a deep breath as we make our way to investigate.

“We need to get to Alton before the fireworks start,” he says concerned, “And it’s a long ride.”

Dave opens up the throttle, and we race across the lake’s slate blue surface. I think mediating a man-on-loon altercation is not high on the list of things he wants to be doing right now, but duty calls.

We arrive in Hermit’s Cove, and Dave interviews the neighbors. They point us toward a house with three boats and a hang glider tucked on the shore. We approach as two men, drinks in hand, engage Dave, the smells of barbecuing chicken and smug second home ownership in the air.

“I’ve been here for 25 years – I know enough to stay away from the loons,” the obvious culprit says, his smile a mix of endangered bird resentment and hang gliding exhaustion as we pull away and make haste for Alton. When we enter Alton Bay at dusk, more than 200 boats are already anchored for the fireworks. With their lights on, the boats fill the bay like swirling green, red and white Christmas lights.

“This is going to be nuts once the fireworks end – everyone tries to race out of here. Do you get seasick?” Dave asks.

After friendly reminders to every other boat we encounter, (“Turn your lights on. Slow it down. You’re too close. Those underwater blue lights are illegal . . .”), fireworks explode overhead, blooming circles of color casting shadows on the lake’s dark surface. Dave takes no joy in our nation’s birthday celebration.

“That guy needs a higher light in the stern, and that one’s going way too fast!” he says. “If I stopped every single one of the boats I worried about in this harbor, we’d miss something more serious somewhere else.”

We hustle to Weirs Bay, where hundreds of boats wait for the midnight fireworks. We loop around to the east, and Dave spots a boat with no lights. Two men are sitting in the boat, and after much discussion about a missing light and a broken horn, Dave asks the captain to come aboard, using the sight of empty beer bottles and a half-filled bottle of wine, and the odor of booze as signs he should investigate. The guy’s just under the legal limit, and with a busted light, no horn and a belly full of beer, Mr. .07 BAC can’t drive home. We hook up a tow line and take the boat into Weirs Beach. As Dave untethers the boat he admonishes the captain, “This is your lucky night. Get your boat fixed and never do this again.”

Does anyone, except Dave, even have a remote clue about the rules of the lake? Expired registrations, missing licenses, busted horns, no life preservers, hang-gliding aristocrats dive-bombing defenseless waterfowl! This is the Lake of No Rules, except that there are rules and Dave’s the only one out here enforcing them.

(Email Tim at timcoshea@gmail.com)


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