Bad decisions make good stories. Here’s why today’s marine officers should have the best training available. On a calm summer night in 1978, I drifted, lights out, down the Ocklawaha River in an 18-foot commercial fishing skiff. Back then, I was a nine-month rookie wildlife officer with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. My goal: to catch a gator poacher.
The vessel was a bare-boned rig with low gunnels, a sharply raised bow and a 200-hp Johnson strapped to the transom. It was my patrol boat, and it was squirrelly to drive. At rest, it sat dangerously close to the waterline, with only six inches of freeboard at the transom.
I stood on a small raised deck in the bow and wielded an eight-foot oar to push away from fallen trees and snags in the creek. It was close to midnight and three hours into my shift, when I heard a worrisome sound—a slight trickle. Curious, I stepped down off the deck and landed in calf-deep water. My boat was full. The lever-type drain plug had been snatched out by a tree branch.
I stuck two fingers in the drain plug hole and flicked on the bilge pump. The hose immediately blew off. Murphy’s Law.
A minute later the transom went under and the bow shot up. I zipped up my life vest, grabbed a six-gallon gas can and jumped into the river. My patrol craft disappeared into a 30-foot-deep hole.
Astraddle my gas can, I drifted on down the creek, past some of the largest alligators in North America—massive beasts, 13-feet-plus and close to 900 lbs. each. My stomach was in knots, knowing that at any moment and with bad luck, I could be devoured by a dinosaur.
It wasn’t an experience I wished to repeat.
I learned even the mundane aspects of water patrol (like correctly inserting the drain plug from the inside), if not properly executed, can have dire consequences.
When I began my career, education in boatmanship skills amounted to little more than pump-the-bulb and turn-the-key. Today, however, excellent opportunities are available to law enforcement and rescue agencies in need of quality instruction for their maritime patrol units.
The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) is a nonprofit organization that works to develop public policy for recreational boating safety. NASBLA represents the recreational boating authorities of all 50 states and the U.S. territories. It offers a variety of resources, including training, model legislation, education standards and publications.
NASBLA has a direct connection to the U.S. Coast Guard that goes back 52 years. Based upon the Boating Safety Act of 1971, each state and territory is required to have a boating law administrator. All of the administrators have a membership in NASBLA.
The organization strengthens the ability of each state and territorial boating authorities to reduce death, injury and property damage associated with recreational boating and ensure a safe, secure and enjoyable boating environment.
In 2010, there were 672 boating-related deaths and 4,604 accidents, the lowest ever recorded in our country since 1996.
Boat Operation & Training (BOAT) Program
Under the umbrella of NASBLA, the BOAT Program was established on September 27, 2009.
“It provides A to Z instruction at all levels of boat education and operation,” says Mark DuPont, National Director for the BOAT Program. “From knot tying to search and rescue to high risk/tactical boardings—for the first time a national standard now exists for the training, qualification and credentialing of maritime law enforcement and rescue personnel.”
The official launch of the BOAT Program was in April of 2010 in California. Since then more than 1,000 students have attended 52 different classes in 23 states through an exportable training model that brings the training to where the officers work. It’s conducted on the boats they operate every day. About 450 of those students were federal, with the rest from state and local agencies.
Agencies can send their employees to an established training site like a Coast Guard station for instruction or BOAT Program instructors can travel to the agency and help them build a new marine unit from the ground up.
“One of the key benefits to the BOAT Program,” DuPont says, “is that the standardized training agencies receive will be recognized by the Coast Guard and FEMA, which in the future will make them eligible for federal reimbursement when participating in national and homeland security details or catastrophic disasters like oil spills, floods and hurricanes.”
Courses Currently Available
• The Navigation Rules for Marine Law Enforcement Officers: This online course allows students to print out their certificate after passing the exam.
• Basic Crew Member: This 40-hour course teaches knot tying, navigation and boat handling for marine law enforcement officers, first responders and others who support recreational boating safety.
• Boating under the Influence: This 24-hour course covers prior planning for BUI enforcement, arrest decisions, suspect processing procedures, arrest reports, note taking and report writing, pre-trial conferences and presentation of evidence, and proper administration of the newly established national standard for afloat field sobriety test batteries.
• BOAT Operator for Search and Rescue: This 40-hour course focuses on crew
efficiency, risk factors and team coordination, boat characteristics and stability, boat handling, piloting and navigation, search-and-rescue techniques, and towing and salvage.
• BOAT Tactical Operators: This 40-hour course prepares students to react to threats in the maritime community and ensures a seamless integration into security operations among federal, state, county, local and tribal LEOs and agencies in the protection of high-value assets within a port (cruise ships, hazardous cargo vessels, naval assets, critical infrastructure, etc.).
• Pursuit and STOP (Special tactics for “Over the Rail”): This 24-hour course focuses on the skills and knowledge necessary to operate a law enforcement vessel at high speed day and night in various sea conditions, as well as how to stop and board a non-compliant vessel.
• Accident Investigation and Analysis: Level I Comprehensive (investigation) and Level II Advanced (reconstruction) instruction are made possible with grant assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard. NASBLA has been offering these one-week courses for more than two decades as the national standard.
• Officer Water Survival: This 24-hour course prepares the marine LEO for survival in the water resulting from an unexpected fall or altercation.
• Air Boat Operators: Students become proficient in
specialized skills to operate airboats in a maritime environment.
Costs & Resources
Course costs are typical of quality training. For example, the 24-hour/five-day Basic Crew Member Course cost $28,000 for a maximum of 30 students and a minimum of 15. Individuals may attend for $1,200 apiece as long as the 15-student minimum is met.
The price can be hefty for departments challenged with severe budget cuts, but there is some funding available.
“The good news is a variety of grants are available to help pay for BOAT Program courses,” DuPont says. “The easiest way for a department to begin that process is to call me directly. Then I can assess their individual needs and ultimately direct them to someone in their state who can help.”
He concluded: “The bottom line is that we want to protect and save more lives in the maritime domain. Our nation’s safety and security will be enhanced through nationally standardized training and by creating a true force multiplier with our partners on the water.”
Mark R. DuPont, National Director
NASBLA Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) Program
1500 Leestown Rd., Suite 330
Lexington, KY 40511
• Office: 859/225-9487 • Mobile: 305/240-0934