OPP marine unit all about safety

On almost any summer weekend you’ll see it out there—on the river, on Rainy Lake, or some of the other lakes at the north end of the district. The blue and white boat with “Police” written on the side could turn up anywhere at any time.
Three local officers—Cst. Caroline Spencer, Cst. Dereck McLean, and Cst. Al MacDonald—have been specially trained to operate the local detachment’s marine unit. It is one of 150 such units owned and operated by the OPP throughout Ontario.
Last Sunday, I accepted an invitation from Cst. MacDonald to spend the day with him out on Rainy Lake conducting safety checks and looking for violators.
Two years ago I rode along on the night shift with Cst. MacDonald in a cruiser, so this seemed like a logical follow-up.
Our day got off to a bit of a rocky start when we arrived at the Sorting Gap Marina, only to be greeted by a dead battery in the boat. Apparently, “somebody” (who shall remain nameless, but he does carry a badge and a gun) left some switches on the last time the boat was put away.
However, by 10:30 a.m. with a freshly-charged battery, we departed the marina under sunny skies and a brisk southeast wind and headed for the South Arm of Rainy Lake.
Originally, we had planned to go all the way to Kettle Falls and work our way back, but because of the strong winds and high waves, we decided to stay a little closer to home.
It was a beautiful day to be out on the water and we were a little surprised to see so few people taking advantage of the last long weekend of the summer. But the wind and waves seemed to have kept all but the hard-core anglers at the dock.
Cst. MacDonald said he expected to stop about 80 boats, but in fact, we only encountered 43. Of those, 17 were issued violation warnings and one was issued a liquor warning, but no summonses were issued.
Cst. MacDonald was more concerned about safety than enforcing the letter of the law. That’s why if you are courteous and respectful when he stops you, there’s a good chance he will cut you a break on the small stuff.
However, if you are drinking, have open liquor in the boat, or insufficient size-appropriate life jackets on board, you can expect him to throw the book at you.
“What we’re most concerned with is safety,” he explained.
The OPP also conducts licence checks and creel surveys, although the enforcement of the fishing laws is the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Natural Resources, who have their own boats. They also co-ordinate their activities with Canada Customs and the U.S. Border Patrol. Cst. MacDonald said most boats attempting to enter the U.S. illegally are usually carrying drugs while those coming into Canada are carrying cash and occasionally guns.
He said the biggest haul in which he was personally involved took place on the river near Pinewood, which is a popular smuggling spot because the river is quite narrow there.
About five years ago, a bag containing $50,000 in cash was found on the riverbank on the Canadian side. He speculated someone had used the location as a “dead drop” to pay for a substantial drug transaction. Needless to say, that individual is still waiting for his money.
But there was no such action on Sunday. Instead, we stopped boats and checked to see if they had all the safety equipment required under Canadian law.
Cst. MacDonald pointed out boats registered in the United States do not have to comply with Canadian standards unless they remain here for over 45 days. Otherwise, they must be compliant with the laws of the state in which it is registered.
Consequently, he must be familiar with those laws as well as our own.
The list of required items varies with the size and type of craft. The majority of boats encountered qualified as pleasure craft over six metres in length and less than eight metres. This included unpowered craft such as canoes.
Each of these vessels is required to have aboard:
•one approved (and size-appropriate) life jacket or personal floatation device for each person on board;
•one buoyant heaving line of at least 15 metres in length (or an approved lifebuoy attached to a buoyant line at 15 metres in length);
•a reboarding device if the freeboard of the vessel is greater than 0.5 metres;
•one paddle or anchor;
•one bailing can or manual water pump;
•one Class 5BC fire extinguisher if the vessel has a built-in fuel tank;
•a watertight flashlight or flares;
•a whistle or air horn; and
•functioning navigation lights if the vessel if operating after dark.
The majority of violations we encountered involved the flashlight. Most people had one on board, but over half of them had dead batteries. All were advised to get them replaced and to check their viability regularly in the future.
If you are caught and charged, it could get expensive.
Under the Liquor Licence Act, being found with open liquor in a boat will set you back $215 and if you are operating while impaired, you can be charged under the Criminal Code. The result is the same as if you were operating a car while impaired.
Not having enough lifejackets will cost you $260. Furthermore, over the next few years, everyone will be required to have a valid Operator’s Card. As of now, only those born after April1, 1983 are required to carry one. Failure to do so will cost you a hefty $310.
The other infractions carry a fine of $130.
Cst. MacDonald said he has found most people are happy to see him or his colleagues out on the water because they take some security in knowing that if they encounter an emergency, help is only a phone call away. Just dial *OPP on your cell phone.
In fact, we did receive a call from the dispatcher, who reported a sailboat in distress just north of the Noden Causeway.
We immediately put the hammer down and headed that way, but were later told another vessel had responded and had the boat safely in tow.
On the way back, as we passed under the Bear Pass railway bridge, we spotted a group of young teens who seemed determined to jump, which they did.
Amidst shrieks from them resulting from the colder-than-expected water and our own laughs, Cst. MacDonald informed them what they did was illegal and advised them not to try it again. I did, however capture the moment with my camera and we both had a good laugh over it.
With summer behind us now, the OPP boat will probably not be out again until next spring, but be careful out there. The police are watching and they do have your safety in mind, so do yourself a favour and play by the rules. It will save you a lot of money and perhaps your life as well.