Riding Along With the Water Patrol

ICW, New Hanover County – The radio on detective Morrissette's console blares out the normal chaos of law enforcement - attempted break-ins, car crashes, and fights. But those troubles are a world away from the sparking waves of Mott's Channel off Wrightsville beach. Where Morrissette's attention is currently on a pair of dolphins cresting in the shallows.

A whole range of agencies patrol New Hanover County's waters - from the Coast Guard and the Wildlife Commission to the Wilmington police and the Sheriff's Department, each with their own jurisdiction. The Wildlife Commission handles most of the nasty stuff - crashes, accidents, and arrests. Morrissette and his partner, detective Lachlan MacNeish, are Sheriff's office. Most of the time, you could describe theirs as the 'good behavior' beat.

"You just can't come out here and tell them exactly what to do all the time," MacNeish says. "You've got to meet them halfway. I mean, you've got folks here just hanging out, drinking their beer, reading the paper."

Ahead of them in the channel, Morrissette spots a small child riding in the bow of a boat. One of the worst accidents so far this summer involved a bow-rider who fell off and was run over by the propeller of the boat. Now Morrissette swings his boat around and hits the throttle, ready to issue a warning. But before he can close the distance, the little kid has slipped back to his seat.

"It's only illegal when they see us," the detective laughs. "Which is fine with me. You know, something minor like that, if they recognize that what they're doing is wrong and they see us out here and correct it.

Sheriff's officers volunteer for water patrol, which the department only operates on weekends from Memorial to Labor Day. It's a chance to get away from their cars and desks and, probably the biggest perk, away from the paperwork. All of them traded for the risk of sunburn and dehydration that comes with patrolling ever more crowded waters.

The boat idles past the north end of Masonboro Island, quiet at this early morning hour. There are only a dozen or so boats moored in the shallow water, and a few families up on the sand. For MacNeish, this view is the 'before' picture. Just wait, he says, a couple of hours. Then, "it's bad," he says.

Everything calm around Wrightsville Beach, the officers turn their craft down the Intracoastal, headed toward the southern end of their patrol, Snow's Cut bridge. Acceleration turns the landscape into a blur of white sand, green dunes, and big, big houses.

As they make their rounds, the officers comment on changes along the waterfront, and trade anecdotes about friends on the force. MacNeish and Morrissette are both recreational boaters themselves, familiar with the nautical society they patrol, and tolerant of their place in it.

"Everybody waves," Morrissette comments as another boat passes, its passengers all doing just that. "Everybody's friendly."

"I'm waving," MacNeish quips, "so don't give me a ticket!"

While the officers say they have a lot of faith in local boaters, MaNeish says jet ski accidents are a growing concern. "A lot of people who rent jet skis around here, they're not from here, never been on a jet ski before. They like to go fast on them, and then jump the wakes. You can't do that."

As the afternoon wears on, the officers check back on the north end of Masonboro Island and pronounce this the summer's quietest Saturday so far. Morrissette estimates there are only a hundred boats anchored in the channel, with swimmers and jet skiers threading their way in between.

Still, just with their presence, the officers slow down the jet skies and cause beer cans to vanish. Not always fast enough, though. The motorboat of young men obediently slows when the blue lights start flashing. Its occupants reach out to help the officers come alongside.

The man at the helm tells MacNeish he's on his second beer. Later, the officers joke that two is the standard answer at any sobriety stop, on water or land: enough to seem reasonable, not enough to get a driver in trouble.

MacNeish has the pilot touch his thumb to his fingers in rapid succession, counting "1-2-3-4-4-3-2-1" as he goes. His friends look on.
The test passed, the officer asks what the young men have learned. And gets a frank, if dubious, answer: "not to drink in front of you guys?"

"Not to say you can't," MacNeish responds, "but it's just going to draw attention to you."

Duly warned, the boaters disappear into the crowded inlet and the officers turn back north, to a quick afternoon break, before returning to their work as the thin blue line above the flashing blue waves.

Megan Williams, WHQR News