Patrolling the water

July 8, 2013
Deputy Matt Warmuskerken

Deputy Matt Warmuskerken

Story and photos by Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief.

Last week, I got the chance to spend a few hours with the Mason County Sheriff’s Office marine patrol division. I meet Deputy Matt Warmuskerken at Harbor View Marina, where the department’s 24-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat is docked. Our agenda for the evening is to perform some routine patrols in Pere Marquette Lake and along the Lake Michigan shoreline, escort the SS Badger out of port and then assist the Oceana County Sheriff’s Office with patrolling Pentwater Lake during the fireworks.

Escorting the SS Badger

Escorting the SS Badger

The boat’s primary purpose is to patrol Lake Michigan but it is also used for patrols in the county’s larger lakes, like Hamlin and Ford, as well. One of the first things I noticed, upon boarding the boat, was its two new shiny motors. The county just spent almost $22,000 to replace the boat’s failing motors with new 4-stroke Mercury engines.

“It’s been a major improvement to have the new engines,” Warmuskerken says as he goes over the boat’s pre-operational check-list.

After checking the boat over, we undock and head down the pier. It’s a near-perfect summer evening in Ludington — July 3 — so the breakwaters are full of people waiting for the Badger and waiting for the sunset.

“Marine patrol is very different than road patrol,” Warmuskerken says. “The rules of the water are different and the people seem to be different. I have met people from all over the world while working marine patrol.”

Dozens of people line the Ludington north pier lighthouse on July 3, 2013 to watch the Badger leave port.

Dozens of people line the Ludington north pier lighthouse on July 3, 2013 to watch the Badger leave port.

This is Warmuskerken’s second year on marine patrol and fourth year in his law enforcement career. He is a graduate of Mason County Central High School and West Shore Community College, so he’s familiar with the area and the people.

“I enjoy the entire job, but marine patrol is unique. We used to be able to perform routine safety inspections of boats but now, like on road patrol, must have probable cause in order to stop or board a vessel. Most of the violations have something to do with people not wearing their floatation devices when they are required to. A lot of it is that they just don’t know the laws.

“For the most part, people on the lakes are pretty good to work with. The majority of people out on Lake Michigan are commercial fishermen and they are well versed in the laws. People on the in-land lakes are usually there for recreational purposes and most people do the best they can to be safe.”

The marine patrol includes Warmuskerken, who is a full-time deputy plus a full-time season deputy and a part-time deputy. Warumuskerken’s position with the sheriff’s office is paid for partially by a grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and partially from the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. The DNR portion covers his service as a marine patrol officer and the OHSP grant provides funding for secondary road patrol. In addition to the Boston Whaler, the sheriff’s office owns a 22-foot inflatable boat and a 14-foot boat. Each of those boats were also recently repaired.

“We are a resort community and people come to our area for the outdoor atmosphere,” Sheriff Kim Cole later tells me. “We have 70 inland lakes and streams in this county plus we border Lake Michigan; naturally waterways play an important role for residents and visitors.”

We make our way past the lighthouse and then cruise just beyond the Stearns Park beach swimming zone. The boat frequently assists in swimming emergencies that may occur at the beach or on the breakwaters.

We glance to the south and note that there seems to be some heavy fog past the Consumers Power hydroelectric plant, most likely meaning heavy fog in Pentwater too. Warmuskerken calls his contact in Oceana to see if the fireworks are still on. They are, he says.

Though it’s the day before the busiest holiday in Ludington, Lake Michigan traffic is rather light. We figure it’s probably the weather. Though the air temperatures are warm, the wind had been quite heavy the past few days, keeping recreational boaters off the “big lake.”

Around 8 p.m. (or 21:00 hours, if you’re talking law enforcement lingo), we head back into port and make our way over to the carferry dock.

I’ve lived in Mason County most of my life and, like many many others, have always had an infatuation with the carferries. My favorite has always been the Spartan. I can’t even tell you why. I think it’s because as a kid I got to ride in the pilot house of the Spartan and “steer” it (at least there’s a picture of me behind the wheel). It may also have something to do with me being a Michigan State University fan, and that’s the Spartan’s namesake. I do understand that the Spartan was pretty much the least favorite among the carferry crews, but I’ve never been one to follow the pack.

So, needless to say, as a photographer and history buff, it’s always a thrill to be able to get up close and personal to any carferry, especially the old Spartan. With the exception of getting lose and floating across PM Lake back in the mid-’80s, the Spartan has not left dock since it last sailed in 1978.

Warmuskerken maneuvers the Boston Whaler near the bow of the Spartan and I snap off a few shots with my iPhone (yeah, I know it would have been more impressive to say I used my Nikon D-300s DSLR camera, but I shot with my iPhone!). After a couple shots of the Spartan we move toward the dock where we talk for a few minutes with Ludington Police Sgt. Matt McMellen, who is on security duty on shore.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement has been required to have a heightened presence around the Badger when it’s in or near port.

I’m pretty pleased with my Spartan pictures so I ask Warmuskerken if he can take us out in front of the Badger as well. I snap off shots as we travel around Ludington’s iconic ship. Then we wait for the 8:30 whistle to blow.

As the Badger leaves, we travel just a few feet off its port bow, keeping pace with the over-400-foot 70-year-old ship. Watching the Badger never gets old and it’s a pretty cool experience to be so close to it while it’s moving.

As a photographer I pretty much see the world through the viewfinder. I alternate shooting pictures with my Nikon DSLR and my iPhone, depending on the width of angle I need. The breakwater is now even more full of people who have come out to watch the Badger leave. The evening is perfect. The Badger picks up speed quickly as it leaves the harbor’s no-wake zone. We zoom — at a safe distance — in front of the bow and circle around the ship.

Now, it’s time to head towards Pentwater. Warmuskerken makes some adjustments on the boat’s GPS and we head south. Within just a few minutes, probably about at Buttersville Park, we are suddenly in the middle of a thick fog bank. It’s like someone just dumped the fog down from the sky. We come to a stop and access the situation.

“Man, this is thick,” Warmuskerken comments. I agree. “I think we are going to skip the fireworks,” he says.

“Good idea,” I respond.

As we turn around we slowly head back to the north, following the compass and keeping a sharp eye for shore and other boats. We realize quickly that we are in very shallow water — and only a few feet from the south breakwater!

“Well, at least we know where we are at,” I say.

We creep along the breakwater until we come to the south beacon. At least two other boats are only a short distance from us, appearing out of nowhere.

I comment that it seemed like a pretty bad idea for the powers-to-be to change the lighthouse fog horn so that it only comes on when a boater signals it to from his/her radio — as opposed to it coming on automatically during the fog.

We make our way back into the harbor, still among heavy fog until we get past the middle breakwater. A group of people in dinghies are riding along the breakwater trying to head out of the harbor. Warmuskerken heads near them.

“How you folks doing?” he asks. They all smile and say they were going to watch the sunset but didn’t realize how thick the fog had gotten. They agree with the deputy that it is a good idea to turn around and head back to the marina.

We also make our way back to the marina where we dock the boat and call it a night.

“I just hope that fog lifts before tomorrow night,” he says, referring to July 4 — the busiest boating night of the year. 

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