Sheriff’s Marine Patrol boat gets much-needed upgrade at bargain price

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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photoTwo new 4.3 liter V-6 inboard engines give the boat a total of 440 horsepower.

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Boating safety

On Saturday, Dec. 10, Marine Patrol Deputy Todd Baker will teach an 8-hour class on boating safety with the Coast Guard Auxiliary. It will take place at the Clark County Operations Center, 4700 N.E. 78th St. To register, call 360-256-2991.

Typically, 20 to 30 people die each year in boating accidents in Washington state, Deputy Baker said.

“They say 90 percent would be alive if they just had worn a life jacket,” Baker added.

For those who don’t like bulky flotation vests, thinner ones inflated by large C02 canisters are available, but are more expensive than basic ones.

It was a dark night last summer when Deputy Todd Baker, operating a 24-foot Clark County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol boat, learned that three young men had paddled out into the Columbia River in a small inflatable raft.

The men had pushed off from Government Island and into the main shipping channel with no lights — not even a flashlight — that would help operators of barges and other vessels avoid hitting them.

Nor would the men’s paddles offer much help maneuvering the clumsy raft in the fast current.

Luckily for the paddlers, the sheriff’s twin-engine Columbia River patrol boat has a high-tech FLIR thermal imaging system. It’s also known as forward looking infrared; on that night,

Baker and Deputy Russ Bradseth operated it with what looks like a joystick from a video game.

Even with no lights on the raft, “We drove right to them with the FLIR, in the middle of the river,” said Baker, a longtime member of the Marine Patrol.

The $80,000 FLIR is an “electronic wonder obtained through a Homeland Security grant that turns darkness into daylight for the operator,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Fred Neiman, supervisor of the Marine Patrol.

The deputies took the men back to the island, towing the raft.

“They also left with a couple of ‘coupons’ (tickets) for having no life jackets,” Baker said.That type of unsafe boating is what the deputies have to deal with 24/7.

Besides performing rescues and looking for drowning victims, the marine deputies motor alongside recreational boats to see if they have proper flotation vests. If not, it’s a zero-tolerance ticket, not a warning. In such cases, the deputies hand out “loaner” vests that they typically get back.

The deputies also look for impaired boat operators and enforce other safety violations.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Sea Sport boat William Ryan, named after the first territorial sheriff in Vancouver, was delivered after a makeover. Its twin inboard engines had been having breakdowns after 3,500 hours of service, the equivalent of 300,000 miles on a sedan, Neiman said.

The boat and its old engines had been used on the Columbia nearly 12 years.

Stationed in a boathouse along the Columbia, the William Ryan is badly needed, used daily in summer and most weekends the rest of the year — and always ready for emergencies.

But the cost of a new boat was prohibitive, Neiman said.

Since the sturdy boat is structurally sound and equipped with valuable electronics, sheriff’s officials worked with county officials and put the makeover out for bid.

Stevens Marine in Tigard, Ore., agreed to take the old engines in trade and replace them with two new Mercruiser 4.3-liter V-6 engines and outdrives for $32,000.

Taken together, the new engines have a total of 440 horsepower.

And thanks to a Federal Safer Boating grant, Clark County’s cost was only $16,000, Neiman said.

The William Ryan now is valued at more than $150,000.

On Tuesday afternoon, those new engines purred while idling on a chilly, windy, overcast day with few, if any, recreational boats on the water.

The engines’ counter-rotating props made for a quiet, smooth but powerful surge of acceleration when Baker pushed the two accelerator levers forward. The boat cruises at about 25 mph and could do 40 mph if needed.

But if pilots don’t slow down, especially at night, submerged logs and other objects are “almost Russian roulette,” Baker said.

It’s not a particularly comfortable boat with all the rescue equipment, no place for lounging on deck.

“It’s a work boat, not a recreational boat,” Neiman said.

Its electronics allow for operation in foul weather, with a GPS chart plotter, depth sounder, lots of radios and a water temperature readout (about 45 degrees on Tuesday). The boat also has 360-degree radar and side-scanning sonar that can show objects on the bottom.

The William Ryan has a mobile-data computer just like the ones road deputies have in their patrol cars, so the marine deputies can see what’s going on countywide. Its roof light bars also are like those on police cars.

In addition, Clark County 911 dispatchers “can see where I am now,” Baker said.

The boat has a reinforced hull, log pusher and a tow post built in the superstructure.

The refurbished boat is expected to give another 10 years of service on the Columbia.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.