REGION — Last weekend, Maine Game Wardens and Marine Patrol Officers conducted concentrated patrols on bodies of water throughout the state for Operation Dry Water. The program is a national outreach and enforcement campaign,  coordinated by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. It is held annually to raise awareness of the dangers of boating under the influence and removing impaired operators from our nation’s waterways.

“In addition to Maine, thousands of law enforcement officers across the United States will be on heightened alert for those violating boating under the influence laws during Operation Dry Water,” Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman Cpl. John MacDonald said prior to the weekend. “In addition to drinking and boating enforcement, officers will be strictly enforcing laws pertaining to life jackets for those … on the water.”

Deputy Warden Marc D’Elia scans Brandy Pond Friday, July 5, for boaters violating registration and safety laws. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

Warden Neal Wykes and Deputy Warden D’Elia patrolled Brandy Pond in Naples and Long Lake in Naples and Harrison on Friday, July 5, the first day of the three-day effort.

“Today is not any different than any other day for us,” said Wykes. “We will still look for the same safety and boating violations as normal.”

The only difference, he said, is the educational effort is highly-publicized.

According to MacDonald, 80 wardens participated in last year’s Operation Dry Water patrols.

“Those game wardens spent over 1,200 hours enforcing recreational boating activity, inspected nearly 2,500 watercrafts with 5,400 operators and passengers,” he said. “The most common violations encountered by game wardens related to safety equipment, registration requirements, safe operation and boating while intoxicated.”

Boats show wardens their life jackets during a safety check Friday, July 5, on Brandy Pond. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

With Wykes at the helm Friday, D’Elia scanned the waters looking for unregistered vessels, unsafe operation of watercraft, overloaded boats and signs of impaired operation. They also conducted standard safety boat checks for everyone they encountered.

“There has to be a life jacket for every occupant of the boat,” D’Elia said. “Power boats over 16 feet in length also need to have a throwable flotation device on board.”

The safety checklist also includes an audible signaling device and, for boats with an interior gas tank, a fire extinguisher.

“They give implied consent to a check by being on the water,” said Wykes. “Everyone is typically very accommodating of safety checks.”

Warden Neal Wykes patrols Brandy Pond Friday, July 5, during Operation Dry Water. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

While on patrol, wardens noticed a new boat on the water without the required display of a registration sticker. They quickly stopped the boat to talk with the owner. The new boat had been registered online and the owner was waiting for stickers to be mailed.

“There can be a backlog of online registrations and sometimes it takes a few weeks to receive stickers in the mail,” Wykes said. “We can check the registration status from here.”

While conducting the safety check, the occupants of the boat were dismayed to find they were one life jacket short. D’Elia gave one occupant of the boat the opportunity to take part in the “Life jackets for life” loaner program.

The program was developed by Lt. Adam Gormley for Sebago Lake, Long Lake and Brandy Pond. Boaters who do not have the required number of vests on board are offered a loaner. The catch is the PFD has to be worn and not just stored on board. The borrower returns the vest to the marina, fills out a questionnaire and are then entered into a drawing for one of two life jackets.

The “Life jackets for life” program offers loaner life jackets to boaters who do not have the required number of vests on board. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

“We don’t want anyone out here without a life jacket,” noted Wykes. “We offer the loaner even if they are going directly to the marina to purchase one.”

Wykes noted it was not a good idea to store life jackets in the compartment as the motor. “If there is a flash fire, the flotation devices could either be inaccessible or destroyed,” he said.

While everyone on the water is required to have a PFD on board, anyone using a personal watercraft, such as a Jet Ski, is required to wear one, he said.

“Not a lot of people know it but the U.S. Coast Guard has determined that stand up paddleboards are considered a vessel. So, they need to have a PFD on board,” Wykes explained as they passed a group of paddleboarders, all of whom had a life jacket on board.

During a two-hour patrol, wardens interacted with the occupants of nearly 20 vessels, all for not having the required registration displayed. In all instances that day, either the owner had registered the craft and did not attach updated registration stickers, or they had registered the craft online and had not yet received the sticker.

While everyone on the water is required to have a life jacket, operators of personal watercraft are required to wear one. Advertiser Democrat photo by Dee Menear

No one complained about the checks made during the patrol and there were no interactions with possibly impaired operators.

During the 2018 Operation Dry Water campaign, more than 100 summonses and 328 warnings were issued. “Wardens arrested eight boat operators for OUI across Maine with the highest blood alcohol content coming in at .22 BAC,” MacDonald said.

Maine’s BAC limit is .08 for operating on the water.

D’Elia recounted an encounter with an impaired operator last year. “I stopped a boat that was driving too fast too close to shore and near hazard markers,” he said. “I detected the operator might be impaired.”

As a deputy warden, D’Elia does not have the certification to conduct sobriety tests. He called in a fellow warden, who transported the operator to a facility for a sobriety test. “He was above the legal limit,” D’Elia said. “It could have easily been a horror story.”

This is the second summer D’Elia has worked for the deputy warden program. He works the summer months, patrolling Brandy Pond. “Essentially, I am a reserve officer for the State of Maine,” he said.

Deputy wardens undergo a full background check and take part in extensive training, including Firearms Certification.

The program has been in place for about a dozen years, said Wykes. Having deputy wardens assigned to larger bodies of water allows him the freedom patrol other bodies of water than might not get as much attention.

“My favorite season is this one,” said Wykes. “I love the water and there are 20 bodies of water in this district.”

For more information about Operation Dry Water, visit www.operationdrywater.org.