ANNAPOLIS -- On virtually any weekend day from late May through September, a thousand or more boats are on the loose from Whitehall Bay into Back Creek and Spa Creek, and for a dozen miles up the Severn River.
On Saturday -- the end of National Safe Boating Week -- the normal-size Natural Resources Police patrol contingent was on hand to keep the peace and ensure public safety throughout the area: one boat with a crew of three.
The numbers make it virtually impossible to enforce every regulation, said Cpl. Wayne Jones, who was patrolling with Officer 1st Class Beverly Brooks and Recruit Officer John Alton.
Instead, the idea is to cut the odds and concentrate on flagrant speed violations, drunken boaters and vessels in distress.
"Out here, about 75 percent of the operators have a pretty good idea of what they are doing," Corporal Jones said. "Another 20 percent think they have a good idea of what's going on, and 5 percent haven't a clue."
Earlier in the day, the marine officers made routine patrols of the area, checking for boats that are improperly moored or unregistered, speeders, illegal water skiing, and taking a report on one nautical fender bender.
RTC By evening, perhaps the 5 percent who haven't a clue have made for the docks, because Annapolis harbor appears orderly. The wind is light. Visibility is excellent.
There are no sailboats dodging through the moorings, no long, sleek machines throttling up as they enter Ego Alley, the narrow quay along the City Dock where the powerboat operators often parade before onlookers in sun dresses, halter tops and sailing shorts.
But even amid apparent order, there is potential chaos.
In the harbor mooring area, four adults among that 20 percent in the think-they-know category are making their way toward the City Dock in an eight-foot homemade dinghy.
The gunwales of the small boat are dangerously low in the water.
Corporal Jones edges the patrol boat alongside, and Officer Brooks asks what the boat's legal load capacity is and whether there are life jackets aboard for each person.
"About 800 pounds," says the man at the tiller of the small outboard motor, while a crewman points out jackets. "But we're OK; we're all here for the Chesapeake Bay swim," which was held yesterday.
The dinghy is sent on its way with a word of caution: In a harbor crossed and recrossed by hundreds of vessels from dinghies to excursion boats, even a strong swimmer can be killed by a passing boat.
Nearby, a woman swimming away from a large sailboat named Sea Foam II is asked to go back aboard because the harbor is too crowded to swim safely.
In both cases, the officers have been polite, and the responses from the boaters have been cool, almost patronizing -- as if they have been chided for littering ashore or crossing against a don't walk sign.
"Anyone born before July 1972 doesn't have to do anything to operate a boat for recreational purposes -- except pay the check," Corporal Jones said. "But everyone has to learn a respect for what goes on out here."
"They don't see the things we see -- the unusual things, the
times when lives really are in danger because something unexpected happened."
In Maryland, recreational boaters born after June 1972 are required to take the Maryland Basic Boating Course and be certified before they are allowed to operate a vessel in Maryland waters.
All commercial operators are licensed.
Corporal Jones recalled two recent incidents in the mouth of the Severn in which boaters were caught by surprise.
"Earlier in the week there were two people in a 19-foot Sea Ray [powerboat] and a third person being towed behind the boat on a saucer," Corporal Jones said. "Somehow, as they were bringing the saucer into the boat, all of them were thrown out of the boat, which was still in gear and circling at 10 to 12 knots.
"There was no way for them to either keep out of the way of the boat or to get back aboard. Luckily, a guy in a sailboat came along before we arrived and pulled the people from the water. Later, we were able, with the help of the Coast Guard, to get some ropes wound around the Sea Ray's propeller and stop the boat. It was a freak thing, but it happens."
In another incident, Corporal Jones said, a high-powered whaler from the U.S. Naval Academy was running out of the Severn River, hit a wave and threw its occupants overboard.
The boat's gas tanks were full. The throttle was wide open.
"There was nothing we could do from another boat except close off the area and warn people of the danger," Corporal Jones said. "We had a helicopter standing by with a marksman aboard to shoot out the engines, but the whaler ran ashore on some rocks."
The two incidents are as far from the norm as a recent pursuit by police boat and helicopter of powerboat racer Art Lilly from Kent Narrows on the Eastern Shore, across the bay and up the South River to his home dock.
"It's not that those things don't happen out here," Corporal Jones said. "Art Lilly runs his boats like that all the time. It's just that this time he got caught."
Catching speeders presents a problem because the standard steel patrol boat used by the Natural Resources Police cannot keep up with the faster boats. Instead, the police occasionally set up radar traps in likely areas and try to keep order in heavily trafficked channels, where the speed limit is 6 mph.
For the past few years, Maryland has increased efforts to control drunken boaters through on-water intervention and public awareness programs.
The effort seems to be paying off, Corporal Jones said.
"Boaters are more aware [of possible impairment] than they once were," he said. "Unlike a car, you can drink on a boat, and you can drink while operating a boat, but you can't drink too much. You do and you can get an OWI [operating while impaired]."
The evening hours, Officer Brooks said, are when most OWI citations are issued, after a few hours on the water and a few icy drinks have combined to dull one's senses.
According to Maryland Basic Boating Course literature, three drinks over a two-hour period will impair the abilities of a 160-pound person (.05 percent to .09 percent blood-alcohol content).
Five drinks over the same time will incapacitate (.10 or more).
Under Maryland law, impairment occurs at .07 percent and intoxication at .10.
But this evening, the officers tow a boat with engine failure and carrying a family of three, including a small child, into their dock in Round Bay; check the registration and issue a citation to a group of youngsters aboard a ski boat; and run a half-dozen miles at high speed in response to a complaint that a group of jet skiers are disturbing the peace and operating their craft negligently off Chesapeake Harbour.
In this case, Saturday has been routine.
"Sometimes it can be a zoo out here," Officer Brooks says. "But I wouldn't trade it for a desk job."