Water World

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is Canada’s national police service and supports several law enforcement business lines, nationally and internationally. For example, a town or city anywhere in Canada can contract the RCMP to perform municipal policing duties ranging from traffic and drug enforcement to major crime investigations. Further, the RCMP is responsible for federal enforcement duties focused on drug enforcement, customs and immigration, economic crime and others. The RCMP also supports peace-keeping duties in various global missions and provides law enforcement liaison and advice to all Canadian embassies abroad.

As a cadet at the RCMP Depot training center in Regina, anxious anticipation of a first “posting” shadows the few remaining months of training. Each individual has both a preferred province and business line preference that they hope will be granted by a seemingly aloof human resources department. Normally, serious attention is made in the posting process to properly match the skill and personality of an individual to the posted community. I was somewhat surprised therefore, as a city boy born and raised, to be posted from Regina to a small three “man” rural detachment in eastern Manitoba.

 As a strong believer in fate and circumstance, I accepted my first posting without question and thrived in its environment. As fate allowed, I met and married my wife Terry in my first year in Whitemouth, a clearly serendipitous encounter that strengthen my belief in divined circumstance.

Arriving at Whitemouth in November 1973, I was quickly assimilated to the workings of the detachment and quickly assimilated myself to the culture and expectations of the community. The communities surrounding Whitemouth were very pro police and the crime was mostly minor in nature. This mosaic changed dramatically in the summer months, when the provincial park within the detachment area became a magnate for seasonal cottage owners, fishers, hunters and campers. Comparatively speaking, tourists often left their brains in the city when they came to visit their rural neighbours. Car and boating accidents were frequent and alcohol related infractions were numerous. For the two busy months of July and August, our three-member detachment was busy around the clock. Overtime was frequent and enduring, but in that epoch, there was no pay or recompense for any and all hours worked beyond a scheduled shift.

In the fall of 1976, Whitemouth Detachment was given an increase in staff and responsibility for additional enforcement duties of two federal laws, the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Canada Shipping Act. So with three years of service under my belt I was reassigned to these new duties. The RCMP gave me a new boat, a Chevrolet Suburban van to tow it with, freedom to set my own shifts, a large patrol area in which to operate and a travel expense account that kept me well fed. What more could a young Mountie that loves toys wish for!

But the gifts of freedom and toys did have an associated cost. From mid May to mid September I was on the road most days. My lake and river enforcement patrol area was the entire south-east part of the province. This area was comprised of seven detachments, and students employed by the individual detachments for the summer months assisted me with most of my patrols. From mid-September to late November I worked throughout the province with colleagues and natural resource enforcement officers enforcing hunting regulations. Saving the ducks and geese from illegal hunting activity! And then from December to May I was back on general detachment duties and attending training sessions. The following are a few anecdotes of that period in time.

It was a Saturday afternoon on a sunny and hot July weekend and I arrived at Lac du Bonnet Detachment, a detachment along the Winnipeg River system, to conduct a water safety patrol on the Lee River with Geoff. Geoff was a summer student employed as part of the RCMPs effort to sponsor and encourage young university students thinking about a career in law enforcement. After a quick social coffee with the working Members at the detachment, Geoff and I headed out to launch the boat. The Lee River boat launch was located adjacent to a commercial business offering seasonal camping, boat rentals and a general store that supplied everything from milk to fishing tackle and plumbing supplies.

Launching the boat attracted a large crowd. The boat was a 5.5 meter modified tri-hull with a sleek line and a sleek swept front bow. A mid-ship cabin protected the driver and passenger from the elements and the rear deck was a wide and stable platform from which to conduct boat inspections, of which numerous were conducted on a normal patrol of 5 hours. The craft was powered by a 200 hp Evenrude outboard motor, and with a capable speed of 85 Kph and sleek low profile, the craft turned many heads as it sat both on and off the trailer. Fitted with RCMP decals and police emergency equipment, the blue hull and gold top was a magnate for youngsters and old folk alike.

Used to the scrutiny of the vacationing public and mindful of protecting the reputation of all uniformed members of the RCMP I adeptly maneuvered the truck and watercraft onto the boat ramp and into the water. The hull of the boat rested on two rug-covered pontoons, and with a draft of only 18” when launched, the boat literally floated stable into the water when launched properly. Such was the case on this day; I could almost hear the cheers from an appreciative crowd. Releasing the front towrope, I was able to pull the boat to the nearby dock, let out the boat bumpers and secure it at the bow and stern. Then I went and parked the truck and trailer.

Returning to the dock, Geoff was surrounded by children of all ages. Adults had also come to see the launch and observe the boat, and as I arrived a few approached with me with comments and questions, most of which I had answered numerous times before. Nevertheless, I had come to appreciate this aspect of my patrol duties. It was always an opportunity to mingle with the “public” and humanize a positive contact with a law enforcement officer. Call it police-community relations or a crime prevention strategy, I enjoyed this time on patrol as much at that on the open water.

Engaged in conversation, I was slightly aware of Geoff’s appearance at my side as he moved more and more into my field of view. He appeared agitated. I thought there must have been a question from the crowd that had stumped him, but I wasn’t prepared to interrupt my conversation to respond. But I could tell there was a burning need within him to interrupt; I acceded.

 “Ah, Bill, I think there is a problem.”

 Surprised at this statement but now giving Geoff my full attention I replied,

“What kind of a problem?”

“I noticed some water in the boat, but it’s getting deeper, it might have a leak.”

I immediately knew the problem had nothing to do with a leak. More focused on the attention of the crowd when I launched the boat, I had forgotten to insert the drain plug into the transom. The boat wasn’t leaking, it was sinking!

Running to the boat I could see that about half of the back floor was wet with water. This meant that at the stern and below the engine superstructure, approximately 4 inches of water had accumulated. In that restricted area, it would be impossible to completely drain by hand, and my weight toward the back of the boat would just bring in more water. Drastic measures were required. As I moved quickly to tackle this increasing problem, smirks and laughter erupted on the dock from those seasoned boaters present recognized what I had done, or actually failed to do.

“Geoff, get in the boat.”

“It’s sinking.”

“Just get in.”

 I hurried to untie the front and rear ropes and tossed them haphazardly into the boat.

“Should I put my lifejacket on.” It was Geoff again, still on the dock.

Failing to keep my composure and raising my voice I commanded,

“Let’s go… or stay…. No! Seriously, get in the boat now!”

I started the engine and Geoff reluctantly pushed us away from the dock. Looking back I could see that the water had advanced several inches along the floor toward the front of the boat. That meant 5 inches in depth at the stern. Turning the key, the engine caught with a roar and I engaged the drive and pulled away from the dock, turning the boat toward open water. Once we had left the safety of the dock, there was no turning back. Increasing the throttle caused the water on the deck to recede. I guessed that most of the weight of the water was now at the back of the boat. But the Evenrude was more than capable of lifting this weight and the boat onto a cruising “step”. A step is when the hull of the boat climbs from an attitude of pushing water to skimming through the water close to the surface. The boat was now “on the step” and increasing speed. Once on the step I pulled back the throttle to a stabilize our speed; my frenzy of the previous minutes had abated. The visible water on the bottom of the boat receded further. Geoff excitedly exclaimed,

“We’re not sinking!”

Above the roar of the engine and looking back over my shoulder at Geoff I more instructed than explained,

“The water’s draining out, come and sit down.”

In fact, the water was being sucked out. Similar to airflow over an airplane wing, bringing the boat onto the step created a negative pressure caused by the water flow under the stern and streaming back from each side. This negative pressure reversed the flow of water streaming into the boat through the plug-less hole; the water was being drawn out of the boat due to the negative pressure. The boat would eventually drain dry.

After several minutes, I handed Geoff command of the cockpit and moved to the rear of the boat. Getting down on my hands and knees, I found and fitted the plug onto the stern drain hole. Our crisis was over and as I stood to move back to the front of the boat, I directed Geoff to steer to a small, private and quiet inlet on the lake to take stock of our haphazard start and prepare the boat properly for our afternoon patrol.

Taking back the controls again, Geoff and I moved into the mouth of the inlet. I let the boat drift in the gentle breeze as I explained the physics of what had occurred, giving him perhaps a different perspective of what police work was about, or perhaps not! Although attentive, I could see Geoff fidgeting after my explanation passed the several minute mark. I got the impression that Geoff was not a detail person; he was eager to get working. The boat drifted quietly, bow pointed toward the open water of the lake.

“Aren’t we going to check boats?” Geoff asked.

“We are,” I replied.

“We’re just sitting here;” more a question than a comment.

“There is a boat coming now, can you hear the engine?”

“Oh, yeah, so what’s the plan?”

“That depends on what happens. Just wait.”

The approaching engine noise increased and the boat appeared, travelling left-to-right into our field of vision, approximately 70 meters away. We could see that the occupants of the boat had detected our presence. The driver looked to be an adult male, several younger passengers all turned looking toward our location.

“Wave,” I said, and waved to the occupants of the boat. They waved back as they crossed our bow and continued. Geoff waved as they passed. Then he became quiet.

“Just wait,” I said.

The following 10 minutes saw several other boats pass our location, some from left-to-right, others from right-to-left. We remained positioned in the inlet so that our disclosure was a sudden surprise to all. Another boat approached and came into view.

The driver saw us first and over the loud noise of the engine shouted to his friends,

“It’s the cops.”

Sound travels so quickly over the water and voices can be heard so clearly, even when competing with an outboard boat engine.

“Where,” I heard from another occupant of the boat, “Oh shit!”

The boat had several occupants, male and female, all in bathing suits. We could see the driver now motioning to his passengers with his hands.

“Stow the beer, don’t let them see it.”

The driver might as well have been using a telephone, the conversation was loud and clear and as the boat crossed out bow, the frantic motions of the occupants was now replaced by motionless heads, all facing to the front, not a hand-wave in sight.

Starting the engine, I pulled out to intercept our first transgressor of the day.

Geoff looked at me with an appreciative smile. I grinned back.

“Cool trick,” he said.

Back on patrol, we discussed the stopping and inspection of the boat with the beer. We had seized 8 cold bottles of beer. One of the females wasn’t a beer drinker and we were fairly certain that we had caught the group shortly after they had “cracked the case”. A young female told us that they were all heading to the far end of the lake for an afternoon of waterskiing, swimming and tanning. There was only one adult on board and he was charged with the liquor infraction. He could have been charged with contributing to juvenile delinquency, but that charge would have been laughed out of court; all the teens were of the same cadre. We could have escorted the boat back to the family dock as the driver of the boat was underage, but the kids were polite and the boat was well equipped with the proper gear and equipment. In the small lake community environment, I was pretty confident that the details of the event would become known to all, including the parents, in the due course of time.

Geoff and I had a great day. The lake was busy and we inspected numerous boats during the course of the afternoon. I took more time explaining things to Geoff, teaching him the ropes, but I was happy that my visual and auditory experiment at the start of the day would be an event that he would happily remember. Near the end of our day we came across a boat containing thee adults, fishermen, and they had a catch on the line. A big catch! One of the men was straining with a fishing rod bent over in half. We approached and attached our vessel to the opposite side, caught up in the action and excitement. Our appearance caused no concern, the occupants appeared happy to share their excitement and quickly brought us up to date.

“He’s been fighting this for 20 minutes.”

“Yeah and my arms are killing me. I’ve almost got him in though. Get the net ready.”

One of the guys pulled up a fish net from the bottom of the boat in anticipation of bringing the fish aboard.

 “Holly shit,” exclaimed the driver as he looked on.

The fish broke the surface. It was a huge lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon can weight well over 60 kilograms, and while this one appeared to be about half that weight, it was a formidable creature to view at the surface of the water at the side of the boat. The guys were all hooting and hollering as they tried to capture it in the undersized net. Their efforts failed.

“Get a rope or something,” the one behind the rod demanded. He didn’t want to lose the fish after such a long struggle. The rest weren’t exactly looking forward to touching the prehistoric looking creature. They stalled.

 I had a length of yellow propylene rope on board and I quickly retrieved it from storage and created a makeshift noose. Handing it over to the guys, I watched as they “lassoed” the fish by the tail and together dragged it aboard.

“Fire up the smoker boys, we’re having fish tonight!” exclaimed the driver. High fives were shared all around.

“Hey guys, thanks for the help. My name is Peter and I live over there on the point in the red cottage. Come for supper,” the driver spoke to Geoff and me.

Although fresh sturgeon from the smoker with a cold beer was tempting, I had to decline. Going back home and back to change was too problematic and attending in uniform with my new-found friends would have been awkward.

“No, thanks Peter, we’ll let you celebrate with your families. If you have any left over, maybe save me some. I’ll see you again next week.”

Geoff and I finished our patrol and I dropped him at the detachment and travelled home. On Monday morning, I dropped into Johnnies, the local coffee shop and meeting place for anyone wanting to start their day with a little gossip and a lot of kidding around. Shortly after I had settled in with a group at the sit-down bar, I related the sturgeon story to a rapt audience, one of which was the local conservation officer. When I finished, the group was unusually quiet until Vern, the enforcement officer looked at me at commented,

“Good story Bill, but sturgeon season doesn’t open for another 10 days.”

The room erupted with laughter, and as my embarrassment increased, I tried to figure out a way to backtrack my story and prevent the retelling of it by the tradesmen, blue collar workers and professionals ready to start their day of work and travel; likely to touch and tell, no, eager to touch and tell, hundreds of clients and colleagues throughout the course of their day. Once the story got out, I anticipated a rocky ride for most of the remaining month.

Back on the water the next Friday afternoon, I happened across a familiar boat with two familiar faces, fishing in the exact location of the previous week. I approached, cut my engine and floated to the side of the craft, greeting the Peter and his friend as they caught and secured my now unpowered craft.

After a stock greeting and a similar reply I casually inquired, “Hey Peter, how’s the fishing today?”

“Ok, good. We caught a few pickerel, enough for a nice supper.”

“How did the sturgeon turn out last week? Smoke up good?

 The driver returned my sly smile and with an innocent tone replied,

“Oh, after you left we felt sorry for the fish and turned him back into the river. We had burgers that night for supper, you shoudda came.”

“Yeah,” I returned, “that would have been quite the dinner. One to remember.”

“Well that’s probably true. But we’re going to remember it anyway for a long time.”

“Me too, have a great day guys and good luck.”

Pulling away from the boat and back into the open channel of the river I smiled to myself, still embarrassed at the sequence of events that would now bind Peter and I for eternity; a story to be told and likely enhanced over decades of time. But I was secure in the fact that my contact with Peter, self depreciating as it was, would likely do more to educate him and those exposed to the fishing event than a ticket or chastisement would ever do. Over the course of my career, I stumbled in similar ways. These stubbles kept me humble to the fact that the majority of effective law enforcement requires empathy and humor all around. In this instance both Peter and I “saved face”. I learned quickly in my career that the majority of crimes are committed by normal people caught up through circumstance, who act and react in sometimes-abnormal ways.  And while most times it doesn’t alter the outcome or change the consequences to those caught breaking the law, the enforcement application should always be meted out with professionalism and respect.

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