Marine enforcement, and search and rescue on Tip of the Thumb waters

Tom LounsburyFriends of ELO

By:  Tom Lounsbury.

With Memorial weekend fast approaching, and not to mention a whole bunch of folks tired of being literally cooped up during the past year due to the pandemic restrictions, the various Huron County ports found on Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay will most likely be a bit busy soon with a lot of boaters. Without question, the Marine Division of the Huron County Sheriff’s Office will be ready, waiting and ever watchful, especially in the event of any emergencies, which it is well equipped and prepared for.

Huron County Sheriff Kelly Hanson says this about his Marine Division: “Our primary purpose is not to let anyone drown.” He also believes in promoting boater-safety education over writing tickets and places making sure everyone in a boat has a proper life-vest as being a primary requirement. Everything else on the checklist is considered as being secondary. Of course, if someone is really deserving and itching for a ticket, the Huron County Marine law enforcement deputies will oblige, but it certainly isn’t a priority.

When you compare the lower peninsula of Michigan to a mitten, Huron County is located at the tip of the Thumb, and when you talk about specific parts of that digit, it can also be described as being the “thumbnail”. The only terra firma (ground) Huron County has is its southern border, where the thumbnail’s “cuticle” is located. That means the remaining border jutting out into Lake Huron (hence the name Huron County) features nothing but water, and lots of it. This entails over 93 miles of shoreline (and probably closer to 100 miles when you figure in all the multitude of coves and crannies) and the jurisdiction also involves 1300 square miles of open water.

Needless to say, the Huron County Sheriff’s Office has more on its plate than what is typically found in more inland Michigan counties and Sheriff Hanson fully understands the importance of Marine Safety/Enforcement in the overall picture, because he began working for Huron County as a Marine Sheriff’s Deputy in 1983, and actually cut his teeth, you might say, in this very unique and challenging environment.

A top priority for Sheriff Hanson’s list of necessities is boat inspections, and being sure folks are fully prepared when venturing out into Lake Huron which can be a very unpredictable and unforgiving environment. This is done on a regular basis and the marine deputies always appreciate being asked by boaters to review matters with them to be sure everything as being correct, and there is a distinct checklist that truthfully isn’t all that complicated and associates with pure common sense.

This includes (just to name a couple) “properly rated and labeled” life-vests that are readily available to all the occupants of a boat (and not stored still wrapped in plastic and placed in a hard to access place on the boat in order to keep them clean – personally a dirty life-vest is fine by me on a sinking boat and I’m none too picky in this regard as long as it works). Fire extinguishers also need to be very accessible, and up to date and in working order (and if the fire extinguisher doesn’t do the job in an emergency, there is a key reason for the life-vests to readily be on hand, besides a boat just plain sinking for a variety of reasons).

There is also the sudden emergency search and rescue duty that must be ready to be conducted over a wide area and as quickly as is possible. To do this the Huron County Sheriff’s Office has specially equipped boats based at key ports along the county’s extended shoreline. The boats are designed to handle what Mother Nature can throw out there, and get to places in a hurry with highly trained personnel. Some boats were formerly used and donated by the U.S. military, and some purchased used and all are reconditioned by the Sheriff’s Office to be good as new, including state of the art electronics. Part of this is done through grants (such as from Homeland Security), donations, and fund raisers in order to avoid Huron County taxpayers from having to support all the costs. Originally the state paid for a majority of costs, but recent times has seen that funding all but dried up.

I had an opportunity to join Sheriff Hanson and his dive team for a scheduled training exercise in the waters near Port Austin. The rescue/dive team has a fully equipped trailer (containing everything and anything that will be needed) and towed by an emergency vehicle. The boat we used, “County of Huron”, is a 31 ft Grady White powered by twin 250 hp outboards, which can handle rough seas and skims across the water at a high rate of speed (part of this boat’s funding came from the sale of the Huron County airplane that was not seeing enough use to justify keeping it).

Sheriff Hanson was at the controls and it was clear he is well experienced in this environment. The weather was hazy and the water glassy smooth, and we got to the training spot in no time at all.

Huron County has 9 well trained divers (including for under the ice wintertime operations – which isn’t all that common in other jurisdictions) that also includes a Dive Master onboard to assist and coordinate matters during the exercise which entailed 3 divers (all deputies) who were suited up in dry-suits due to the 60 degree water temperatures (during warmer water temperatures per July-August, they will wear wet-suits which won’t cause overheating).

Everything used was top of the line equipment and about as high-tech as you can be including full face masks with radios for talking to fellow divers as well as communicating with the Dive Master up top on the boat. I was very impressed with the entire diving exercise and it was quite evident everyone involved was into teamwork and very professional.

The least attractive part of these diver’s duties is recovering the bodies of drowned victims (realizing this provides important closure for family and loved ones). It is the key reason Sheriff Hanson places his emphasis on boater safety and education, because it saves lives.

I also had an opportunity to accompany Huron County Marine Enforcement Deputies during a (pre-pandemic) Cheeseburger Festival in Caseville. This began with boat inspections at the docks. There is a whole list of items to be covered on a boat inspection, including an up to date registration.

Once the boat has passed inspection, the boat owner is issued a decal that when visibly displayed on the boat, lets Marine Deputies know in any future encounters that everything is “hunky-dory” in this regard. This inspection covers all motor boats, including jet-skis (PWC), and anyone born after June 30, 1996, must also have a Boater Safety Certificate. A boater must also be at least 16 years old (and have a certificate) in order to operate a boat, including a jet-ski, by themselves (14 and 15 year olds must be accompanied by an adult). Anyone born after December 31, 1978 must also have a Boater Safety Certificate to operate a jet-ski (PWC). Having the card on hand while operating is required.

After the boat inspections at the docks, we soon found ourselves on the Marine Division’s 28 foot Boston Whaler powered by twin 250 HP outboards (it is a fine ride that can get you there quick) and patrolling on the water. A frequent matter encountered when festivities are ongoing, is having too many people on a boat. There must be an accessible life jacket for everyone onboard, and children age six and younger, must be wearing an approved life jacket at all times. Boats also must not be overcapacity or overloaded, because Lake Huron shows no mercy in unexpected ways to boats without enough freeboard. Making sure boats were operating safely and being properly prepared, was always a definite priority.

In February 2016, a specially-designed and equipped airboat was acquired by the Huron County Sheriff’s Office (and it is shared with the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office). It has proven to be invaluable for rescue efforts on the ice as well as in shallow and weedy areas. The airboat can be easily and quickly transported overland by trailer to wherever it is needed, and it is an obviously important and very wise investment.

Sheriff Kelly Hanson certainly has a well prepared (and equipped) program, and I believe his primary purpose, and that of his Marine Division, of not letting anybody drown is a profound statement which says it all.

Tom Lounsbury
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