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Wash. deputy looks to prevent water tragedies on boat beat

Most frequent violation is breaking the no-wake zone that extends 200 feet from the shoreline or docks on most of the lakes

By Nina Culver
The Spokesman-Review

KOOTENAI COUNTY, Wash. — Bob Bjelland is big on boater education.

He spent 34 years serving in the Navy before he retired and went to work as a Kootenai County sheriff’s deputy. It isn’t memories of war zones that keep him awake at night. It’s the memories of children pulled from local lakes and rivers after a boating accident.

“As a dive rescue team member, I’m tired of pulling kids off the bottom,” he said.

So he teaches a session on boater safety on the third Saturday of every month. It’s not required in Idaho, but Bjelland urges people to take it anyway. In Washington, anyone operating boats with more than 15 horsepower must take a boater education safety course. Bjelland is one of eight deputies who patrol Kootenai County’s 18 lakes and 56 miles of river looking for safety violations, assisting boaters and making arrests. “We’ve got some turf to cover,” he said.

There are usually two teams at a time working on Lake Coeur d’Alene while two other marine deputy teams visit the smaller lakes in the county as part of a rotating schedule. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest boating days.

The most frequent violation is breaking the no-wake zone that extends 200 feet from the shoreline or docks on most of the lakes. Bjelland, though, said he’s arrested people for domestic battery, taking drugs and boating while drunk. “The same thing they see in the city I see on the water,” he said. “We anticipate a lot more drugs now that Washington has legalized (marijuana).”

The Sheriff’s Office has 10 boats of various types fitted with powerful motors to help deputies get where they need to be quickly. Sometimes Bjelland works with a partner, but this year there aren’t as many marine deputies as usual. That leaves Bjelland working without backup nearby, so he counts on his speed and acceleration to get him out of sticky situations if necessary. “You just keep that in the back of your mind,” Bjelland said. “You get a feel for your customers.”

Bjelland makes it a point to wave at other boaters while he patrols Lake Coeur d’Alene, but on Monday the choppy water kept most boaters on dry land and Bjelland’s arm by his side. He checked the boats he saw to see if they had a safety inspection sticker.

Boats are required to have a properly fitting life vest for each passenger. In Idaho, children age 14 and younger must wear a life vest if they are in a boat smaller than 19 feet. In Washington, all children age 12 and under must wear a life vest. And all motorized boats are required to carry a fire extinguisher.

The key is that all life vests must be accessible, Bjelland said. He has seen them still wrapped in their original packaging and tucked in a storage bin. “If you have an emergency, you have to be able to put them on quickly,” he said. “Trying to put your life jacket on in the water is like trying to buckle your seat belt in a crash.”

Cold water temperatures can linger well into summer and Bjelland teaches the 1-10-1 rule. It takes one minute for a person in cold water to catch their breath, after which they have about 10 minutes of movement before their muscles stop working. If the person is wearing a life jacket, they can survive in the water for one hour.

It’s different, however, if a person entering cold water goes under. People often make an involuntary gasp for breath, Bjelland said, and that can be a problem if they are underwater. “You can actually suck a liter of water into your lungs,” he said.

Even on quiet days like Monday, Bjelland’s head is swiveling constantly as he drives his boat across the water. On a lake where football great John Elway lives across from actor Dennis Franz, Bjelland never knows whom he might be pulling over but said that nearly all of his contacts are positive. “You never know who you’re talking to,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We treat them with respect. Even when I write them a citation, they shake my hand and thank me.”

Copyright 2014 The Spokesman-Review

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