Boat cops

A ridealong with the sheriffs that ride the waves

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click to enlarge BUSTED: Deputy Kenneth Kubler of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office marine unit pulls over a speeding boater. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
BUSTED: Deputy Kenneth Kubler of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office marine unit pulls over a speeding boater.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, the cops will pull you over. This holds true even in the water.

That's what the scruffy fisherman must be thinking when Deputy James Clynes switches on the red and blue lights on top of his Pinellas County Sheriff's Office boat and heads toward him.

Clynes, one of the nine officers in the PCSO's marine unit, eases his vessel close to the fisherman's boat and ties it to his. The sunburnt, bushy-mustached man, dressed in shorts and a dirty white T-shirt, is visibly and audibly annoyed.

"Every time I fish here I get stopped," the man grumbles. "Nowhere else do I get stopped."

Clynes just smiles and explains he wants to check the boat's safety gear and fishing license — a standard safety check.

The man complies, opening up a cabinet to reveal his lifejackets, a fire extinguisher and whistle. He produces his boat registration and fishing license, too.

The whole exercise takes less than 10 minutes and the man receives a green "Marine Safety Inspected" sticker to affix to his boat. If he displays the decal, the boat police shouldn't stop the fisherman again unless he's breaking the law.

"Alright, have a safe day," Clynes calls out as he starts his engines and heads back into Clearwater Pass.

Last year, PCSO marine unit deputies performed nearly 4,000 of these safety checks on the waters surrounding Pinellas County. That's in addition to almost as many warnings, 763 citations, 102 misdemeanor arrests and 39 boating accident reports.

Chances are, if you're a frequent boater in Pinellas County, you've met a deputy from the PCSO marine unit. Your interaction is often a quick one like the fisherman's, but perhaps you're one of the several hundred boaters who received citations ranging from speeding to fishing without a license.

As any boater will tell you, Tampa Bay's waterways are just like its highways: There are speed zones, registration requirements and alcohol laws. And just like the state trooper who pulled you over for going 80 mph in a 55 mph zone, the waterborne officers will tell you the laws are for your own safety.

Authorities say boat enthusiasts can ensure a hassle-free experience on the water just by following a few simple rules — and not performing any "stupid human tricks" on the water.

"Basically, if you don't attract attention to yourself," Clynes advises, "you're going to be OK."

It's a beautiful 70-degree Friday, a salty breeze taming the bright Florida sun, when Deputy Clynes sets out on one of the PSCO's 10 police boats. Today, he's patrolling the Intercoastal Waterway between the PSCO's marine unit station at Indian Shores to the Dunedin Causeway. Two other deputies patrol the waters south of Indian Shores.

Clynes, 25, is the youngest member of the PCSO's marine unit. The PCSO hired him in September 2004 for patrol car duty, but with seven years of Coast Guard training, he was moved to the marine unit last year.

Patrolling the waterways is much different from patrolling the streets, he says.

"You're dealing with a little better clientele out here, too, than stopping people in cars or getting into domestic disputes," he says. "Most of the people we're dealing with are in a good mood. They're enjoying their day off."

There are few boats on the water today and Clynes is relaxed but alert. Although his Intrepid boat is capable of 60 mph bursts, it crawls through this narrow channel slowly. Clynes points out why: This section of the Intercoastal has several "Idle No Wake Zone" signs. Speeding through these zones is one of the first mistakes of inattentive boaters, he says.

"The biggest thing that we always see is people violating the no-speed zone," Clynes says. "That'll get you pulled over the fastest."

And once you're pulled over, deputies will perform a safety check. And many times that leads to a beer check, too.

"We have people drinking beer, and they go through these no-wake zones," Clynes says. "We stop them and then find they can't stand up."

It might surprise a non-boater, but Florida law allows drinking while operating a boat; however, boaters cannot be intoxicated. Just like a traffic stop on land, deputies look for the telltale signs: slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and impaired coordination. If Clynes suspects the driver of the boat is intoxicated, he'll bring him or her to shore and perform the standard sobriety test. If the boater fails the test, or a Breathalyzer reveals he or she has a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, the charge becomes a BUI (Boating Under the Influence).

"Over the years we've seen more and more people get designated drivers," Clynes says. "It's crazy how many people have got the message."

As we pass Hulk Hogan's mansion on Belleair Beach, Clynes spots a blue and white angler boat with four happy boaters speeding through the channel near Clearwater Pass.

"See how their bow is up," he points out before chasing them. Once the boaters see Clynes' lights, they slow to a crawl.

An older man is driving, and three women in swimsuits sit behind him. They're all from Indian Rocks Beach.

"We're just taking a little ride," one of the ladies says sheepishly.

After a safety check (they pass!), Clynes gives them a warning. He's not out to ruin people's day, he insists, just keep them safe.

"We're out here every day and we're stopping a lot of boats," he says. And as the PCSO has ramped up safety patrols in the last three years, boating accidents have declined.

"It's almost like the patrol officer on a busy road who pulls someone over," Clynes says. "Everyone else says, 'Oh, OK, I'm going to slow down, too.'"

The consequences of not having something as simple as a lifejacket on board can be tragic, he says.

Last month, two Pinellas County boaters barely escaped serious injury when they were ejected from their boat after hitting a wave eight miles offshore. For three hours, Gary Platt and George Johnson treaded water until two boats rescued them.

"They had no lifejackets," says Sgt. Dwayne Somers, who heads up the PCSO's marine unit. "Luckily, it was a weekend or they might not have been found."

After leaving Clearwater Pass, Clynes speeds toward the Dunedin Causeway, a favorite spot for jet skiers. He scans the horizon for any jet skis moving quickly between boats in an attempt to jump the larger vessel's waves. "Wake jumping," says Clynes, "is the main cause of jet ski accidents.

"A lot of people have been killed that way," he says.

But there is only one woman on a jet ski, puttering around near the shore. It's a slow boating day.

Every weekend, hundreds of boaters flood Pinellas County's waters. They speed through the waterways, crowd favorite fishing holes and, when they're thirsty, stop at Shephard's Beach Resort in Clearwater Beach. It's one of Clyne's favorite lunch stops, too, but he says the bar and grill is also a magnet for alcohol-fueled revelry.

"Basically, anything you'd see at a club will happen [on the water]. Anything from fights to people getting drunk and running into things. Everything goes on."

Usually, fights and nudity are the extent of the crimes occurring on area waterways. PSCO deputies made only nine felony arrests in 2007, mostly for narcotics. Every once in a while, though, he says, something interesting comes along.

A year ago, marine unit deputies responded to a robbery call. A North Carolina man had stolen equipment from a Verizon employee working on a telephone line on Gulf Boulevard in Belleair Beach. When local police caught up with the robber, the man stripped naked and jumped into the Intercoastal Waterway near Morgan Drive. Police called in the marine unit.

"The guy didn't want to go on the boat," Clynes recalls. "At times, he was swimming under the boat and popping up on the other side. He was swimming by the props [propellers], threatening to kill himself on our motors. This went on for 20 to 30 minutes. We ended up grabbing his hair, it was long, and then his arm and then his torso and pulling him on the boat."

But most days are quiet, like this one. After a few more safety checks, Clynes steers the Intrepid away from Clearwater Beach and toward the Indian Stores PCSO station. As his boat picks up speed, Clynes passes a group of boaters. He waves. They wave back.

Read more on the rules of the water: 

How not to get a BUI 

Boat safety stats 

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