A weekend escaping on the water

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This is a seriously long blog. I’m sorry for that, but an incident I witnessed this weekend keeps running through my head, especially in light of our current events, and especially since it would have otherwise been a “good distraction” weekend, with our South Jersey Chapter of Surfrider Foundation’s “International Surfing Event” on Saturday and the Clearwater Hudson River Revival on Sunday. 

I wasn’t counting, originally, on being able to help out Erik Baard and his merry crew of volunteers at HarborLAB (learning, adventure, boating), but he put out the call for more help and I was able to go, so happy day! Croton-on-the-Hudson is a gorgeous venue, with NY’s rolling hills as backdrop to the wide part of the Hudson north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Clearwater Revival is an awesome event. Erik’s core group of merry volunteers are also just a ton of fun, full of personality and spirit, wonderfully diverse and committed to educating local New Yorkers of all ages about their watery environment. You really can’t find a more welcoming crowd of water folk, and the bonds we have after even now only two days together on the water seem to be the kind to last a lifetime. 

One thing I kept forgetting throughout the day, though, was that I was wearing a shirt with a Maryland blue-claw on it that I picked up at the Point Lookout general store, my hang-out in during the violent storm that turned my tent into a tumbleweed. The shirt has this giant crab on it along with the words “Free Hugs.” It took me a little off-guard to have folks suddenly reach out to me for their free hugs. I’ve worn this shirt before, but no one ever took me up on the offer. I’m so glad the festival folks reached out, we could all use a hug now and then, and especially now!

One update that I just have to toss in…our National Ocean Policy that we worked so hard on has been repealed. Well, we’ll just have to start over. This time, it will be even better, I’m sure, with even more recreational user input in it, plus maybe the educational aspect that was present in “Oceans21” will be added, and maybe bays and estuaries will also be included in the policy next time. Speaking of user-groups, in light of this past weekend’s sobering water-related incident I witnessed, I figured I’d start out with a few of my more memorable observations related to recreational use on the waterways, so here we go— 

My observations and thoughts of recreation and navigation on our waterways and how we coexist among motorized craft, and what I’ve seen as far as law enforcement or not, posted (sorta) as a list: 

-waterways are almost a “last frontier,” in a sense, where the individual keeps a look out and provides assistance to others as needed. There are marked channels (unless you are in the back bays of the coastal Delmarva Peninsula between Chincoteague and Oyster), but not everyone, particularly PWC (personal watercraft like jet skis) & smaller motorized boats, always stays in them. There are rules, but not everyone seems to follow them, and keeping a lookout and staying watchful is always the best policy. Boaters don’t always look, and accidents and near misses are the norm. People also tend to boat and drink at the same time. It is most definitely a place where boundaries are fairly flexible.

-watched a drug hand-off via two PWC to a person sitting on a river bank at the mouth of the Rancocas (2014)-I don’t think the drug being handed off was pot, though. (read about how the town of Everglades City was totally busted—the WHOLE town-I did not witness this event, of course) Reading this article with its the description of the Thousand Islands, I have zero clues how I navigated that area back in ’09. I had no map and was too cheap to buy charts for my GPS.

-there is a marina in Camden that has a ton of sea worthy vessels, but no one out on a sunny, summer weekend mid-day, which is odd considering that boat and water lovers will use any excuse to hang out with their boats. while exploring on land, my family and I were shooed away by a “guard” in an old, white beat up Cutlass type sedan at the land-entrance to this very marina. The driver was a heavy set white guy.

-two white guys by this marina behind Petty’s Island felt comfortable enough to smoke pot on the waters there, outside of the channel. I’m a firm believer that pot should be legalized, but still, right now it’s not and doing something like that shows a certain comfort level with illegal activity on the water.

-no wake zones abound, but not all of them are patrolled. Generally speaking, in areas of greater wealth, at least judging by the boats and home sizes, you might see a marine officer. USCG presence is variable in such places. I’ve never really seen anyone approached for anything in no wake zones.

-I’ve been mildly questioned by marine police- in the Florida ICW, forget what area-might have been Fort Lauderdale area-when I was taking photos of a beautiful spot of mangroves up for sale on the waters edge. The officer asked me if I had a PFD and whistle. He might have asked me where I was going, too, but I can’t really remember.

-a Florida fisherman told me how homeowners on the ICW have chased him away from their properties, even though the water is public domaine.

-I’ve been taken in (I did NOT make a call for assistance to the USCG, they knew I was in the area because I alerted them, when I left Newport, OR, that I would paddle into their bar at such and such a time. In OR & WA, the USCG has the authority to close down and/or restrict harbor entrances, so it’s a good idea to let them know in advance if you plan on crossing their “bars” so they can alert you if conditions kick, as they always seem to do in OR, so you can find an alternate landing spot or not, IF they end up closing or restricting their bars) by the USCG on the West Coast, but to be fair, they had suffered a loss-a helicopter that went down days earlier, killing three out of four on board. They also wanted to make sure that I was prepared to be out there, that my lack of preparation wouldn’t cause them to have to risk their lives-their end advice to me after trying to shut down my freedom to paddle from Seattle to San Diego: get a new PFD (cause mine was “dinghy”), flares, and more sandwiches. 

-rescue by the AC USCG unit when my boat came apart in April ’10 (I had a loose screw…yea, I know what you’re thinking!!!) For that rescue my family and I are forever grateful and it kills me that this most worthy of all branches of military, now part of DHS, is constantly having its budget cut. Here is one of my favorite books about the USCG. I’m glad I read it AFTER my West Coast paddle, as it might have REALLY scared me away from doing that crazy adventure for our ocean.

-it seems a great number of fishermen on the West Coast have had their asses saved at one time or another by the USCG-this info I gleaned from conversations with a captain who hosted June and me on his boat-his crew cooked up the best fresh fish dinner ever. 

-chatting with a lock master on the Erie Canal: when I noted that there were a couple of Russian guys manning one of the locks, the lockmaster’s immediate reaction was “OH, the RUSSIANS, THEY get to do whatever THEY want at their locks.” I just thought that was funny. We had been talking about Albany’s crookedness which I maintain is NUTIN like NJ’s crookedness, at least not like in South Jersey. People don’t know it unless they are dialed in a bit, but the Russian Mafia has a pretty strong presence in NYC. Word has it that it’s taken over the Italian Mafia. But of course that is just the word on the street…

-while paddling to Jersey Paddler’s “Paddesport Expo” (sadly no more), chatted with a lady officer with a gorgeous police dog, walking along the waterfront of Burlington City. I mentioned where I thought drugs were entering in Camden. She told me to “be careful, there is nothing you can do about it, you are only one person.” I thought that was really an odd thing for a LEO to say.

-In general, in the summer I try to stay out of the busy bays. Better on the ocean, right behind the impact zone. Back bays are okay in the morning and before 5p, before everyone’s had one too many drinks on the water. The Barnegat Bay area is insane with recreational traffic zipping everywhere, no matter what the time. When I do paddle in the back bays I frequently find myself seeking shelter alongside fishing boats.

Florida has a pretty big problem with boaters and booze. But this in no way limited to Florida. This was an issue which prompted NRDC to reach out to a private, exclusive marina when wind pushed back the arrival to my chosen destination past dark. A week prior a motor boater had run into another motor boater with the result being a fatality or two (can’t remember the number, know it was at least one).

Exclusive areas with big homes along rivers and coasts mean more marine police and authorities who question your right to be on the water, well, I should qualify, that this has been my observation at least in Florida and along Long Island’s Eastern shore. I’ve even had a cop car drive out and park on the beach as I paddled along the coast from Hampton Bays, NY, to Montauk. It was like he was warning me to not even think about landing there. I’ve seen signs, private signs, telling me I couldn’t go on certain waterways, that they were “private.” Since when is a navigable waterway “private?” 

One of my FB friends lost his daughter when she was diving and a motor boater ran over her, despite her diving flag being up and a boat with a person watching nearby. Another friend narrowly missed death when the same thing happened to her-but she might have been out of the country. 

I paddled in Lake George, forget which year that was, at the request of a friend who was working with the American Canoe Association on a “share the water” campaign because motor boaters have had run-ins with kayakers, with the kayakers being killed. 

I’ve never witnessed marine police accosting, other than myself in rich white areas, or ticketing anyone, certainly never tying up to a boat and pulling them away from a group with which they were clearly associated.

That changed when I was helping out with a wonderful little organization, Harbor LAB (“learning, adventure, boating”), which was getting folks on the water at the Clearwater Hudson River Revival. Erik Baard heads up this merry group of enviro-focused paddlers, and provides learning experiences on the water for kids and young adults. 

Also at the Clearwater event was another awesome organization with a boat building program that gets kids on the water who would not normally get on the water. Clearwater wisely recognizes that we protect what we love, so they partner with organizations that get folks on the water so that they might bring even more folks to the water protector fold. 

Everywhere you go, though, the demographic of water users and lovers is pretty monochromatic. Whether it’s rowing, sailing, paddling, racing kayaks/canoes, swimming, or life-guarding, it’s mostly white. Most motorboaters are also white. The fishermen that line the banks of the nation’s waterways are way more diverse than the folks in and actually on the water or participating in competitive & non-competitve water sports.

I’ve never really seen a a marine police officer board or force a boat to tie up. I’ve seen them, on rare occasions, tell people to slow down, but never one that went after a boat, made it tie up, motored off a distance with it, and kept it detained for more than 15 minutes. 

There’s a first for everything. I had watched some of the kids-they were late teens, early twenties-but they are KIDS(I call anyone under 25 a “kid,” and it seems that neuroscience and the field of psychiatry might support that opinion-“Longitudinal neuroimaging studies demonstrate that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678/ ) —associated with one of the water-based orgs at the Clearwater event. They goofed around a bit, did some yahooing which I’d expect from any kid, hell, I’d almost gotten run over by former President George H. Bush (in his 80’s!!) doing the same thing coming into the inlet at Kennebunkport. He came in at like mock 10 and could have almost clobbered me, if I hadn’t scooted over to the jetty the minute I saw the nose of his boat. He cut his engine but he’d been going so fast his security detail almost slammed into him. This is just what folks tend to do on the water-a little yahooing, and our former President was no exception. Why would a youthfully exuberant group of guys in a boat be any different?

Anyway, the kids steered their vessel toward their organization’s two catamarans. It was all in good fun and not like anything I’d never seen before on the water. Heck, I’d even once had a couple of angry, hostile guys try to toss me a wake in the Gulf of Mexico (not a very intimidating wake, not even a fun, ridable one). The kids, though, weren’t being aggressive, they were just having fun. Besides, they calmed it down and were about to tow the sailboats in, so the joy-ride was soon over. 

Even though it was quite obvious the guys had settled to the task of bringing in the sailboats, the big West Chester County Marine Police boat came out, a sullen, somber presence all in gray on the water. 

An officer called out via loudspeaker, “Inflatable, come here.” 

I was watching, thinking that the officers would just give them a “what for” and “slow it down” like what I’d seen on rare occasions in other areas, or harmlessly check them out as has happened to me on occasion, when I’m in ritzy rich areas. I certainly wasn’t prepared to see what happened next.

The officers tied up the inflatable with the kids still in it and then motored off, taking the inflatable and the kids far away from the activities of the Clearwater event. We could no longer see very easily what was going on, and we certainly couldn’t hear what was going on. That concerned me. All those kids on the inflatable were blessed with melanin-rich skin. Living in a mostly white community and having experiences in mostly white communities, like the one in which we were, I was immediately concerned about the safety of the kids. I’ve had folks in white communities, my home town and other towns I frequent as well as white towns in other parts of the country, assume that, because I’m white, with blonde hair and blue eyes, that I subscribe to certain negative opinions they have about certain folks with skin tone darker than mine. It’s always been horrifying, and shocking, but it has taught me about the insidious nature of racism in this country. We can’t ignore it away. Anywho, I wish I could say cops treat everyone the same, but I know better, and I’ve seen and heard evidence of unfairness of treatment on many occasions. It bears repeating that we don’t have a #BlackLivesMatter movement in this country for nothing. 

The kids were with the cops for what seemed like forever. It could have been twenty minutes, it could have been longer. I thought about all my little run-ins with law enforcement, both on the water and on the road, as well as at protests. I couldn’t imagine anything would happen with all of us watching, but why did the marine police tow those kids so far away? Why did they do that? Wasn’t this a little much for youthful exuberance? After all, I have a friend here in my very aforementioned white home town who’s kid had a raging party while she and her husband were away. Cops were called, and warnings given, and that was that. Her kid should have been busted for underage drinking and creating a public nuisance. But he and his buds weren’t. Would that have happened if they were of a different demographic, if they weren’t white? I don’t think so, and I’ve sat in enough courtrooms, due to my lead foot, to know so .

So what was going on here? Why were these kids towed out and why was it taking so long to give them what really should have been a simple warning? They were with a nonprofit, for God sakes, that gets kids on the water. They were clearly now focused on the task at hand of bringing the sailboats in. Wasn’t this a little heavy handed, though, even if they weren’t associated with a nonprofit? All sorts of things were running thru my head. I’d NEVER seen this type of heavy handedness on the water before. With the free-for-all that our waterways become in the summer, you’d think being a yahoo and doing stupid things is just part of being on the water-not that it makes it right, it doesn’t, we do need more enforcement, but it needs to be fare-and these kids had stopped their yahooing as soon as they got to their sailboats. 

It seemed way excessive to me, how these cops were targeting these kids. After the drug drop I had witnessed, the near misses because of TRULY cavalier behavior, the speeding in no wake zones, it seemed a little surreal to see such targeting of basically normal-behavior on the water. But their skin color. That is really all I had, really the only thing that seemed so obviously different to me from all the other times I’ve witnessed shenanigans on the water and, in my mind, the only reason why these kids were getting the book thrown at them, why the marine police towed them off, away from our view and hearing.

In the end, the kids got two tickets. Both tickets should be tossed out. Apparently they got a ticket for making wakes in a no wake zone (this should have been a warning, especially since it was short lived once they got to the sailboats they were bringing in) and for improper registration, which is odd, because the vessel is registered. Maybe the cop didn’t look hard enough? Really, they should have just gotten off with a warning. These are kids, for goodness sakes, a stern word would have done the trick. 

I went up later to talk to one of the kids who had been on the boat. He had this look on his face, you could see the whole experience traumatized him. I didn’t know what to say, what could I say? Except, I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad you’re on the water with us, and I’m sorry for your experience with those assholes. 

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