Friday, July 27, 2012
Franklin County deputies hit the waves on SML.
Photos by SHERESE A. GORE | Laker Weekly
Sgt. Brandt Gawor patrols the lake by personal watercraft.
Deputy Brandon Robertson scans the no-wake zone around the Bridgewater Plaza for violators.
The deputies survey the lake on the way back to Bayside Marina.
After checking that fire extinguishers, life preservers and radio equipment are available and in proper working order, the first order of operations for newly minted lake patrol deputies Scott Dillon and Brandon Robertson of the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, is heading out to patrol the Bridgewater Plaza area in search of no-wake violators.
On the water, Robertson maintains vigil at the helm. He constantly scans the water for boaters following other boats too closely or driving erraticly.
"I make sure everyone is operating their boats safely, especially on the main channels," Robertson said. "There are so many coves that boats are coming out, and you basically scan each direction."
Passers-by wave as Dillon propels the patrolboat through the wakes of earlier vessels. A long-time boat operator but new enforcer, his job is to focus on navigation and to watch for hazards, such as passing boats, personal watercraft and people.
"I just try to keep the boat on plane and not beat us to death," Dillon said.
There are no apparent violators around the plaza; the 100-degree temperature has driven off many lake enthusiasts, law-abiding and ne'er-do-well alike.
Sheriff Bill Overton, elected in November after ousting longtime Sheriff Ewell Hunt, said the growing lake population necessitated additional patrols on Smith Mountain Lake, an idea that originated before he took office, he said.
"I knew if I was elected sheriff, I wanted to entertain that notion again," said Overton.
Since then, the sheriff's notion has germinated into a donated boat from the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Center and The Virginia Tech Foundation and a personal watercraft from Top Gun Kawasaki. Dale Runyon, owner of Bayside Marina, has donated a temporary boat slip for the patrolboat. Plans are under way for a more permanent dock to be located at the 4-H Center through a partnership between The Willard Companies and Turner Builder's Inc.
So far, 25 deputies have undergone the department's boating orientation program and have taken the Virginia Boating Safety Course. In order to sign up for the patrol, interested deputies must be off-duty to minimize the impact to their regular schedules and be available to work six-hour shifts.
Funded by donations
Without assistance from private donors, Sgt. Brandt Gawor, who oversees the training and scheduling of the deputies, said it was unlikely that such a program could have been possible.
"Up until this point, it would have been very difficult; it was not in our budget to obtain a boat or staff it," he said.
According to Vincent Copenhaver, Franklin County finance director, $30,500 in donations has been received by the sheriff's office and earmarked to the boat patrol at Smith Mountain Lake, an amount that the sheriff said will be enough to sustain the program through Labor Day.
After that time, the department will be able to assess how to push the program into the future.
"It will give us a better understanding to plan next year, and, hopefully, we can have more of a presence as we move into the next summer," said Overton.
Gawor said Franklin County's operating model will be similar to that of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, which has patroled the lake since the 1990s.
Officials from Bedford County, Sheriff Mike Brown and Major Ricky Gardner, were invited to the patrolboat's ribbon-cutting ceremony. And in a further show of camaraderie, the two counties are devising a radio system that will allow for mutual communication.
"If they need assistance we'll go help them, and if we need assistance, they'll help us," said Gardner.
Meanwhile, Franklin County officials insist that the patrolboat is not on the lake to exert an undue police presence on recreationists, but to be an extra set of eyes on weekends and holidays for conservation officers from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
"Where we can assist the cause is a win-win for everybody," Gawor said.
Which is why the Franklin County deputies were "a welcome sight" during the July 4 fireworks, a no-wake event, according to Sgt. Bryan Young of VDGIF.
After stopping a boat for a light violation, conservation police officers ascertained that the motorist was intoxicated. While the boater was placed under arrest, Franklin County deputies arrived on the scene and offered their assistance.
"I definitely took them up on it," Young said. The deputies, in turn, removed the intoxicated boater's vessel from the scene.
"No matter what color uniform, we have only one thing in mind and that is the safety of the waterways," Young said.
Despite the presence of patrolboats from two counties, Gawor maintained that VDGIF will continue to be the primary law enforcement agency on Smith Mountain Lake.
"We're just excited to add another layer to assist them. We have 500 miles of shoreline, more presence can be nothing but a good thing."