David and Susan Herron of Severna Park were having a delightful Labor Day on their 28-foot sailboat until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge got in the way.
"Get down!" yelled Susan at her husband as she saw the mast crack against the bridge. The tall aluminum pillar and supporting wires toppled down across their boat, draping into the bay.
"That's the last time I'm going boat camping!" she said and began packing their cellphones into plastic bags, worried their boat might capsize with the mast dragging behind.
Maryland National Resources Police Officers Jeff Beshore and Chris Neville, stationed at Sandy Point Park, heard the emergency call on the radio. They jumped into their patrol boat, speeding across the bay in time to hoist the mast back onto the sailboat before it could pull the Herron's Nest into the murky waters.
The boat incident was one of a wide array of jobs for Beshore and Neville, who were working the park during one of the busiest weekends of the year. By 1:30 p.m. Monday, Sandy Point was closed — over capacity. The two had rescued a dog from a locked car, schooled new crabbers on regulations, issued speeding warnings, and fined swimmers for drinking alcohol, among several other enforcement actions. The more visitors, the more enforcement activity, the officers said.
All year long, police have overseen record numbers of visitors. "We're up more than I've seen in 20 years working at Sandy Point," says NRP Lt. Beth Mauk.
In 2013 the park had 900,000 visitors, making it the second-most-visited park in the state after Assateague. This year is expected to surpass that with some 500,000 visitors to the park since Memorial Day.
"We used to only reach capacity on the three summer holidays," says Steve McCoy, Sandy Point's park manager. "This year we reach it almost every weekend."
He recommends the public visit on Saturdays, which are typically less crowded than Sundays, arrive before 10 a.m. and check the live Twitter feed (twitter.com/SandyPointSP), where officials post the park's capacity status. Often, visitors drive two hours to Sandy Point only to find its gates closed because the park has reached capacity.
McCoy suspects the summer's nice weather and lack of jellyfish to be the main drivers of high attendance, but he says visitors have grown every year in recent years. One other factor is limited public access to the Chesapeake Bay. Less than 2 percent of the bay and its feeder rivers' 11,600-mile tidal shoreline is open to the public, according to the Chesapeake Conservancy, an Annapolis-based environmental nonprofit.
With a growing population and high demand for the outdoors, that inevitably means more people to police in Sandy Point.
The day before Labor Day, the seven police on duty at Sandy Park checked 48 crabbers, 166 recreational fishermen, 35 vehicles and 72 recreational boats. They completed five search-and-rescue calls, five homeland security checks and helped out on one boat accident. In total, they issued 21 citations for traffic, fishing and alcohol violations.
Last year, Officer Beshore caught someone with more than 228 undersized striped bass at the park during Labor Day weekend. This past weekend, he issued three citations for undersized striped bass, but for minor amounts.
Although their mission is conservation, Natural Resource Police end up spending much of their time doing public-safety calls. After helping the sailors out, Beshore and Neville came back ashore where swimmer Celeste Spade of Baltimore ran up to them worried about a dog somebody had left baking in a car. The two officers opened the car up to let out the panting Shih Tzu for a few minutes before the owner returned.
Mauk says the public safety duties increased when Natural Resources Police and Maryland Park Service merged in 2005. It ultimately led to fewer officers covering more territory and duties.
"Our traditional job of being conservation agents has completely changed," Mauk said.