Maryland Natural Resources Police Maj. Jerry Kirkwood has seen a lot in his 25 years on the force and on the water.
“We’ve had people jump off the boat and try to swim away,” Kirkwood said. “Like I said, alcohol makes people do stupid things.”
Kirkwood is the Bureau commander who oversees Natural Resources police officers from Cecil County to Garrett County and everything in between.
His territory also includes Baltimore County water that in the last three years has seen a spike in operating under the influence citations or “boating DUIs.”
“You’re not going to find a higher density than right there,” Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for Maryland Natural Resources Police, said of the Patapsco and Middle River complex.
The Maryland Natural Resources Police in Baltimore County two years ago made curbing, or maybe docking, drunken boating a priority. Kirkwood said drinking at the helm of any boat represents a big public safety concern.
“Water is not a natural environment for a person,” Kirkwood said. “Driving a vehicle is obviously a dangerous … you have an accident in a car you can step out. On a boat, you drown.
“Even a minor accident or just getting a little tipsy and falling overboard ... it takes a certain amount of manual dexterity to tread water.”
Natural Resources police alone cited more boaters in 2013 in Baltimore County than any other major body of water for recreational boating. Eighty-four boaters were charged with operating a vessel under the influence.
The 2013 total represents a drastic jump from 2012 when Natural Resources police issued 45 citations to boaters operating under the influence and an even more alarming spike from 2011, which saw no citations issued from Natural Resources police.
Natural Resources police, the Coast Guard and marine units from Baltimore County police patrol all of the major rivers in Baltimore County. Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. John Wachter said he knew the department’s officers issued citations in 2011, adding to the uptick in enforcement of Maryland’s boating laws.
ABC2 News is awaiting citation totals from the last two years from Baltimore County and this story will be updated accordingly.
The high citation count in Baltimore County may be surprising for some, compared to more well-known recreational bodies of water like Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County or the water surrounding Annapolis in Anne Arundel County.
“If you would’ve told me to guess I would’ve guessed Deep Creek Lake,” Thomson said.
Anne Arundel and Garrett counties represent the highest averages of citations over the last five years between 2009 to 2013. Anne Arundel and Garrett counties tallied an average of 43.8 and 47.8 annual citations, respectively, issued by Maryland Natural Resources officers. These figures do not include civil citations from the Coast Guard or misdemeanors issued by county law enforcement.
Natural Resources police patrolling Baltimore County waterways have begun working alongside Coast Guard boats over the last two years specifically to target drunken boaters, which has led to the dramatic increase in citations.
THURSDAY at 6 p.m. | Reporter Brian Kuebler speaks to a woman who almost lost her arm to man charged with boating under the influence, only on ABC2 News In Focus.
Two years ago, a memorandum of understanding was handed down to Natural Resources officers to begin cooperative saturation patrols in Baltimore County with other agencies, said Cpl. Max Schulte, a Natural Resources officer of 17 years.
“We have developed a very close working relationship with the Coast Guard in this area,” Schulte said.
In 2013, Gov. Martin O’Malley adopted Operation Dry Water, a national initiative to make boating safety a priority. In 2012, Maryland recorder 11 boating deaths and 24 in 2011,
nearly double the 10-year average of 13, according to a release by the Department of Natural Resources .
Nationally, about 17 percent of boating accidents are attributed to alcohol use.
There is a marked upside to teaming up with Coast Guard boats, Schulte said, “They have the advantage of stopping the boats for any reason whatsoever. … They don’t need probable cause.
“We have more manpower working in our district. … We’re fortunate that we’ve gotten more help,” Schulte continued.
Still, covering the majority of Baltimore County’s boating water is a daunting challenge.
“When something happens on the water, we’re still very thin,” Schulte said. “[About] 99 percent of the time if something is happening on the water I’m by myself. I might be in Middle River and the other guy might be on the Patapsco. … If I call and say I need the cavalry it’s liable to be 30 minutes.”
Schulte said he believed that the increase in citations does not represent a greater number of drunken (or drugged) boaters in his district, rather evidence of what targeted enforcement can do to protect those on the water.
He said officers have adjusted schedules to be on the water at peak “last call” times when riverfront restaurants are letting patrons go.
“There are very few waterfront restaurants that don’t have liquor licenses,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get the message out that have a designated skipper.”
The unofficial start of boating season coincides with Memorial Day weekend. Maryland preempted the start of the season with Boating Safety Week, which lasted from May 17 to May 23.
Officers in Baltimore City and Baltimore County book-ended the week with saturation patrols in the county and in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which netted three arrests for operating under the influence.
Kirkwood candidly said of one of the citations issued, “I think he was the nicest man I ever arrested.”
“The vast majority are good people who made bad decisions,” Kirkwood added.
But spotting an intoxicated boater is more difficult on the water than on land for obvious reasons.
“You don’t have lanes painted on the water like you do on the roadway,” Schulte said.
Police are looking for erratic behavior as indicators of drunken boating – speeding up, slowing down, creating a wake in wake-free zones.
“An officer told me once, ‘you don’t know how many people I pull because they’re drunk and they’ve forgotten to turn their headlights on,’” Thomson said.
First-time offenders must appear in court and face a maximum of a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. Second-time and third-time offenders are subject to $2,000 and $3,000 fines and up to two years and three years in prison, respectively.