OCEAN CITY — John Porreca hears many complaints about boaters ignoring no-wake zones, but, for some reason, people go fairly slow when he’s around.
“This is pretty obviously a police boat,” said the captain of the Ocean City Police Department’s new marine unit, as he piloted through the Great Egg Harbor Bay recently. “I guess we’re a good deterrent.”
After a dozen-year hiatus, the city’s officers started patrolling the water again over Memorial Day weekend, with plans to continue doing so on a near-daily basis through Labor Day. That’s something that fewer local departments are doing.
“Certainly, it’s going to make our waters substantially safer,” said Ocean City police Chief Chad Callahan.
The State Police Marine Services Bureau and the U.S. Coast Guard have jurisdiction throughout New Jersey’s waterways and take the lead on emergencies and accidents. Municipal marine units add an extra layer of service, enforcing local regulations, keeping waterways clear and assisting boaters.
Locally, Avalon and Little Egg Harbor Township are the only other police departments with active marine units.
“The State Police have such a large area to cover that it’s hard for them to be in these areas all at once,” said Avalon police Chief William McCormick. “So, for us to have a regular presence on the water is a service to the people in Avalon.”
Margate used to have its officers patrol by boat, but cut its program after the summer of 2010. That move was budget-driven, officials said, saving an estimated $15,000 a year that mainly went to pay officers overtime to staff the vessel on weekends.
Stone Harbor’s borough administration also cut its police marine patrols after the summer of 2010, said police Chief Paul Reynolds. He said elected officials felt that only the borough fire department needed a boat.
“We got a lot of feedback from the citizens that liked to see us patrolling the waters,” said Reynolds of when his officers were patrolling regularly in the summer. “Just the presence would slow people down. … It was a benefit from a public-relations standpoint and a safety standpoint.”
Many other towns have discussed plans to start marine units, even inland communities such as Mullica and Washington townships, which sit across from each other on the Mullica River. Ultimately, the limiting factor has been funding.
Ocean City actually eliminated its marine unit around 2001, when its previous boat needed a new engine and the city decided not to replace it. The city has been able to revive the unit through a matching grant from the federal Port Security Grant Program, totalling nearly $124,000 with a $31,000 contribution from the city.
That paid for an $86,000 new vessel — a 2011 Zodiac 2400 LE. The military-grade, inflatable boat is 24 feet long, with a top speed of 54 mph, and is outfitted with lights, sirens and advanced electronics — such as a heat-sensing camera for search and rescue. The remaining funding can go to future enhancements and maintenance.
Callahan, pitching the purchase to City Council, said that State Police and Coast Guard representatives were excited about the vessel because their forces are stretched thin.
“They each described similar budgetary situations which forced them to limit their presence on our waterways, as they are covering large areas with low numbers of boats and personnel,” he wrote in a memo in November. “They expressly welcomed any assistance that we could give them, and we agreed to partner with both agencies to provide the safest possible experience on our waterways.”
Ocean City’s boat is actually docked at the Coast Guard station in the city’s northernmost lagoon, at the end of Northpoint Road. The State Police sometimes dock there, too, as does the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Porreca, a 15-year veteran of the department who lives in Upper Township, and Jacob Millevoi, a special law-enforcement officer II from Ocean City, are designated to Ocean City’s unit for the length of the summer season. As part of their regular duties, they will be out every weekend and on a varying schedule of days during the week.
On a recent morning, the water was glassy and calm at low tide. Porreca piloted the boat out of the lagoon and headed into the bay, which is where they mainly patrol.
It was a weekday, so there were relatively few boats. There were several fishermen, some scattered people on personal watercraft and The Sea Dragon, a mock pirate ship that gives rides to families from a nearby dock.
Most days, they enforce no-wake zones and make sure boaters are observing safe practices, from wearing life jackets to boating safely. They often say their role is more educational than enforcement based.
In the first few weeks of operation, they were learning the channels in order to respond to future emergencies quickly, and along the way they have been clearing the waterways of floating debris and marking underwater obstructions.
Some of that debris has been left from Hurricane Sandy, and has the potential to wreck boat motors. As they drove through the bay, Millevoi spotted a chunk of wood floating, and Porreca steered over to pick it up.
“Even when there’s not a lot of boat traffic, we try to be valuable,” Porreca said.
One of the main reasons they were awarded the grant to purchase the boat was to also ensure the safety of the city’s infrastructure, especially the roughly $500 million new Route 52 causeway. So far, they have mainly been watching out for graffiti on the bridge’s supports.
“We know it’s going to happen,” Porreca said, “but not yet.”
Contact Lee Procida:
Follow Lee Procida on Twitter @ACPressLee