Sheriff’s deputy works the river, educating boaters

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor



Did you know?

Boaters who become stranded on the Columbia River can buy memberships in two businesses that specialize in vessel towing: Columbia River Marine Assistance, 503-349-4401, and Northwest River Tow, 503-247-9004. Both also can be reached on Channel 16 on a VHF marine band radio.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol fleet:

A 2000 24-foot Sea Sport with twin V6 Mercury inboards and an 80-gallon gas tank.

A 22-foot Hells Canyon Marine jet boat.

A 19-foot Duckworth.

A 16-foot Zodiac.

A 16-foot cataraft pontoon-style vessel.

Two personal water craft.

At the helm of the 24-foot Sea Sport cruiser, Clark County Deputy Todd Baker is on a crusade to save lives.

“I think it’s always dangerous,” Baker said of the mighty Columbia River. He preaches safety first in his job as lead officer with the Clark County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol.

Two Clark County men drowned in the Columbia near Vancouver this summer.

“They’d be alive today if they’d had a life jacket on,” Baker said. Yes, he and his partner, Deputy Dick Butler, were wearing life jackets Sunday.

Baker, 46, has been a deputy for 23 years and has served with the marine patrol for 14 of them.

The marine patrol serves all of greater Clark County. In the summer, boats are on Merwin and Yale reservoirs daily, as well as the Columbia. The 24-footer is kept at the Port of Vancouver.

At the Terminal 1 dock on the Columbia near the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay, Baker pulled alongside Dale Blancas of La Center and noted the 1967 Larson boat was incorrectly showing its registration numbers. He asked Blancas if he had all the required safety gear. He did.

While a VHF marine band radio is not required, Baker asked Blancas if he has one onboard. When Blancas said he didn’t, Baker asked, “Who you going to call if you run aground?”

Blancas said he had a cellphone. Baker gave him cards for two businesses that service stranded boats. As the inspection ended, Baker gave Dairy Queen ice cream cone certificates to Blancas’ sons, Mario, 7, and Edgar, 6. Both were wearing life jackets, as required by law.

The inspection was one of about 2,000 Baker and the deputies he works with will do in a year. In July, they did more than 500.

The most common ticketed offense? No life jackets. Fine: $87 per violation.

And there are no warnings about having a life jacket for each person in the boat. “We have a zero tolerance for life-jacket violations,” Baker said.

While the river was 72 degrees at the Quay at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, it can be 38 there in the winter, Baker said. He works the marine patrol year-round.

Cruising downriver, Baker noted the Sea Sport’s array of gear: a police laptop, radar, chart plotter, GPS, depth sounder, radio monitoring the U.S. Coast Guard and Multnomah County, and a FLIR thermal imaging camera. Oh, yes, there are binoculars and extra life jackets for children.

“Ahoy, Lightning Bird,” Baker called to a sailboat anchored east of Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park.

He asked why the boat was not showing registration numbers.

Skipper Steve Poovey, 31, of Portland, said he had borrowed the boat from a friend who recently brought it down from Seattle. The numbers are on a wood panel that has yet to be attached to the 25-foot Blanchard craft, built in 1938. Satisfied that Poovey and his friend, Brett Roberts, had the necessary safety equipment, Baker eased the Sea Sport downriver.

The day before, Baker taught an eight-hour class in boating safety. The classes are offered once a month in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Noting that Washington averages 30 boating fatalities a year, Baker said he thinks education will help save lives. And he noted that boaters 35 and younger must pass an approved boating course before operating a boat whose engine is 15 horsepower or greater. He serves on a task force of the Drowning Prevention Coalition, a state group.

“Most people that drown never intend to get wet,” he said.

Before Sunday’s shift was over, Baker had to tow a boater who ran out of gas and one who was cited for drunkenness.

While it’s serious work, how does Baker describe his assignment?

“It’s the best,” he said. “It’s a great job to be out on the water.”