New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 50
It's Cops ... on a boatIt's the 4th of July weekend, and the SLO County Sheriff's Department is here to party
BY MATT FOUNTAIN
On July 6, there was no shortage of liquid libations, shirtless guys tear-assing their speed boats, bikini-clad girls bouncing on the roofs of various craft, and 30-something radios creating an annoyingly jumbled mix of Notorious B.I.G., Guns N’ Roses, Tim McGraw, and some sort of dubstep thrown in for good measure at Nacimiento Lake.
In other words, the place was a party.
But for sheriff’s deputies Todd Steeb and Mike Norris, the day was anything but. As New Times Staff Photographer Steve Miller and I found out, the two spent their day maneuvering through speeding boats, keeping their eyes on teetering pontoons, ensuring the wellness of—and sometimes having to arrest—drunken revelers, and generally keeping people who have no business operating a vessel from plowing into one another.
“People say to us, ‘Oh, this must be a real easy job,’ but there’s so much to do, it’s really not,” Steeb—who was on Day Three of a four-day, 85-plus-degrees holiday weekend patrol—told New Times.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t see some nice sights and catch the occasional beaded necklace or two.
As Miller and I pull up to the main launching ramp at about 11:45 a.m., it’s around 89 degrees outside, and boaters, campers, and little screaming children are running around, positioning themselves for a day of fun. We cruise down the dock to find Steeb and Norris checking their charter for the day: the Sheriff’s Department’s patrol vessel the Christopher Meadows, the newest addition to the department’s fleet.
The Meadows was bought by the department in 2010, the result of an $80,000 federal grant. It’s custom-designed to the department’s specifications, and at 27 feet long, it can safely hold up to three sick, injured, or drunk guests at a time. It carries a 496-horsepower high-output motor, and can go in both salt- and freshwater.
It’s equipped with full medical gear, as well as a 10-inch monitor that includes structure scan and side-scan sonar, capable of mapping the bottom of the lake in 3-D.
It carries about 100 gallons of fuel, more than enough for a day’s patrol, and costs about $100 per day in fuel to operate.
I wipe sweat from my brow as Steeb tells us how we picked the best possible weekend to join them for a day outing; last week, the lake air topped off at 122 degrees. Since July 4, Steeb tells us, people have been pretty well-behaved, with only a few citations actually issued, and only one arrest made so far. That arrest was for—you guessed it—being drunk in public. Apparently the guy wasn’t too receptive to the deputies’ questioning and had no friends to take care of him, so he had to be transported to the county jail.
Steeb says that while he expects today to be “going off,” he hopes we won’t have too many similar problems.
The mission for the day is to ensure the safety of everyone on the lake. The two deputies are the department’s sole representation on the water July 6, though there’s also one boat with two State Parks rangers, and one SLO County Fire vessel carrying three crew members.
“Our job today is a little more on the safety and rescue side than a normal patrol on land,” Steeb says. “We spend about 95 percent of the day educating the public on the rules of the lake, and most people are compliant.”
When citations are handed out, he says, it’s usually for boating under the influence; just like an automobile, operating a boat with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher is illegal. Unlike an automobile, however, it isn’t illegal to drink while operating the vessel. Also unlike the road, there’s no speed limit in the water outside of the 5-mph no-wake zones. This can make a law enforcement officer’s job all the more difficult on the water.
Nacimiento Lake is a tougher patrol than other bodies of water in the county. For one thing, its 165 miles of shoreline merge seven different communities, including Cal Shasta and Heritage Ranch.
Miller and I jump into the Meadows and Norris clears the lines, popping a seat next to Steeb at the helm, and off we go.
Sunscreen and beer fumes
“Comin’ up!” Steeb shouts back to us before cranking the motor, and soon we’re plowing through the water at nearly
“There’s no beat here,” he says. “We go where the action is!”
And today, that action is in Las Tablas Creek, a calm waterway in a no-wake zone on the southern end of the lake.
It’s a little past noon, and we’re looking for moving violations and possible BUI’s. Should the deputies suspect someone of operating a vessel while impaired, they flash the blue lights—which dictates that any boat in the area slow to a no-wake speed—and contact the boaters. Should the operator be found to indeed be boating under the influence, and no one else aboard is able to drive, the deputies either call the State Parks rangers or the marina, which operates a towing service for big bucks, to tow the vessel back to shore.
“One issue we have to deal with out here is that it’s really hard to know who’s who. Nobody carries their driver’s license,” Norris tells me.
As we make our way to the mouth of Las Tablas, Steeb steers us toward the center buoy drums, which mark the deepest part of the lake. We race past a group of speed boats on our starboard side; the passengers wave as we jump their wake, coming down hard each time amid the chatter of the radio.
It’s no 122 degrees, but I understand Steeb’s earlier observation that there really is no place to cool off; there’s no A.C., and the faster you go, the more hot air you get in the face.
As we approach the mouth of Las Tablas Creek, Steeb pulls us parallel to shore where a group of kids is sitting on jagged-looking rocks some 15 feet over the water. He pulls his receiver to his mouth and blasts over the speakers, “You kids aren’t planning on jumping, right?”
They quickly descend. As we’re stopped—blue lights on—another boater goes whizzing past us and we bob in its wake.
“That’s a violation, but you could go blue in the face stopping every person who does that,” Steeb says, pulling us back toward the center of the lake alongside another boat crammed with 10 people. Steeb slows the Meadows and Norris hops up and takes the rear of the boat, checking the group for safety violations. He notices that a skinny blond boy in the back isn’t wearing a personal floatation device.
“How old are you, son?” Norris asks politely.
“Fourteen,” the kid responds after passing a nervous glance to a man I’m assuming is his father.
“OK,” Norris says, taking his seat as Steeb pulls away.
“Yeah, right. Kid looks like he was 10,” Steeb laughs. “Everybody’s 14. It’s like when you ask somebody how many beers they’ve had. It’s always two. It’s like, ‘Yeah, right. You’ve been here since 11 and it’s 4. Sure.”
The traffic is really picking up now, with lines of speed boats, Sea-Doos, and pontoons making their way into Las Tablas. We stop a few for various moving and possible safety violations. The standard procedure goes something like this: Steeb will flip the siren briefly, there’s a moment of confusion before the passengers on the boat we’re coming up on realize we’re looking at them, we’ll pull alongside with the boat on our starboard, and Norris will run to the back and make contact with them.
“Do you know why we stopped you today?” he’ll ask. They’ll shake their heads no. “You were [enter violation here].” They’ll make an excuse. Norris will say, “It’s OK, please be wary not to do it again.” Then he’ll say, “While we’ve got you stopped, can I see everyone’s life preservers and your floatation device?” They’ll scramble for them and raise them up. “OK, do you guys know where your fire extinguisher is?” They’ll scramble again, move to the engine compartment and pull it out. Norris will ask them why they keep it in their engine compartment, they’ll shrug, and he’ll ask them to keep it readily accessible.
If they don’t have one, their voyage is terminated for the day until they make it back to the marina and buy one for about $30.
Now we enter the no-wake zone at Las Tablas Creek, where we can already see the party is under way, with some 100 or so boats, pontoons, and flotillas bobbing in the water, filled to the brim with shirtless guys with barbed-wired tattoos, girls in sailor hats jiggling and spraying water cannons, and vessel captains doing their best to outblast their neighbor’s music. We can feel the bass under our feet.
“Now is the time of day where we start picking out who’s going to be trouble later on. The first run is scouting, so to speak,” Steeb tells me. “And fair warning: you may or may not see some private parts. Don’t know how you feel about that.”
Surely, he jests.
One thing many people don’t know is that it’s not illegal to flash some skin at the lake, but to completely remove one’s clothing can get you an indecent exposure citation. But like most violations today, most perps get a warning first.
“You guys tell me if you see somebody not drinking beer,” Steeb says. “Those are the ones we’ve got to worry about.”
As we make our way in, we’re greeted with cheers from some very happy ladies, one of whom throws her beaded necklace at Norris. It lands squarely on the deck. She blows us some kisses, and Miller and I wave back sheepishly.
Steeb weaves slowly in and out of the rows of boats, which have begun to string themselves together; one makeshift raft is 22 boats deep. The inhabitants are jumping—some with considerable difficulty—back and forth from one vessel to another. Guys with barbecue pits offer us food.
Suddenly, as Miller is taking shots of the chaotic scene, one bald-headed guy emerges from his boat full of women and screams angrily to him, “Hey! Don’t be taking pictures of my boat, dawg!” and flips Miller the bird.
“Hey, you’re in public and he can take pictures if he wants,” Steeb shouts back to the guy.
Steeb says he knows him from many earlier “contacts” and says he’s usually a nice guy. We wonder if there’s somebody on his boat he doesn’t want people to know about.
“Where you from? I’m gonna call your boss, dawg,” the guy—whose name we won’t divulge—says threateningly to Miller, who shrugs him off.
“Wow. He was pretty mouthy considering we’re on the back of your boat,” Miller says to the deputies as he resumes shooting. Others are much friendlier.
“Who are these guys?” one partier asks Steeb.
“New Times. They’ll make you famous!” he replies.
“But I don’t want to be!” the guy laughs, pulling his visor over his face.
“I do!” bounces back one particularly bubbly young lady, presumably the guy’s girlfriend.
One of the best parts of the day was reading all the boat names: GIT R WET, Las Vegas 777, and of course, Drug Money. We decide to follow Drug Money for a minute.
It’s amazing the surgical precision with which Steeb is able to navigate between boats and pontoons. Other operators seem to be having quite the time with it.
All and all, though, the crowd is behaving. Maybe it was our presence—and if so, then job well done, Norris says. It’s not always like this; on the Memorial Day weekend, there were 12 arrests. And they must have been pretty rowdy, because the deputies would much rather give a warning than issue a citation, which requires them to focus their attention solely on the individual they’re citing. If they make an actual arrest, that takes them away from the scene as they have to transport the offender back to the marina.
“We have a really good relationship with people out here, because they know when you-know-what hits the fan, we and the rangers are the only ones out here,” Steeb says.
As the traffic continues to pile in, we have to yell at a few boats throwing rollers—or creating wake—to slow it down.
“We treat it differently than we do on the road,” Steeb says. “If you’re driving you have a license. Out here there’s nothin’ that makes you get a license. That’s why we try to educate them how to do it right, because unless somebody really wants to learn, they’re not going to.”
We spend the next hour or so back outside the mouth of Las Tablas Creek, stopping boats going against the flow of traffic. One couple on a Sea-Doo is found to be without a fire extinguisher on board, and we have to send them back to the marina to get one.
By the time we make it back to the creek, traffic has doubled. It’s about 3:15 p.m.
Another trick is that sound travels much faster over water than on land, so the guys telling their friends to “Put it away! Put it away!” over their music can be heard from a long way off. We all grimace as one girl rinses out her beer bong in the oily lake water.
As the crowd grows, Steeb notes that the situation is teetering toward unsafe; if we needed to get in there for a medical intervention, the navigation would be hairy.
Steeb has a very good reason to thoroughly observe the activities of every boater out there. Over the Memorial Day weekend, one boater lost her life and another was hospitalized after succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. Both were hanging too close to the motor on the stern of their boat and breathing in the toxic fumes without knowing it. Steeb was the first responder and carried out C.P.R. and employed the defibrillator on the 23-year-old as they raced her ashore.
When he spoke of his attempts to revive her, you can tell he is determined to prevent that from happening to anyone else.
We make our way away from what Steeb calls “Raft City” and around the peripherals of the cove, where it seems the older folk and younger families prefer to hang. One guy shouts from his pontoon, “Todd! My dawg!” and Steeb waves back. This is his 10th season out on the lake, and he’s clearly made some friends.
But soon a bright yellow speed boat comes clumsily barreling in and we move back to the City—but as the operator isn’t breaking any laws, we can only watch and wait for him to get too close to a group of 22 boats attempting to latch themselves together.
“There’s no law against it,” Norris says. “This is just where Darwin sets in.”
Right at around 4:15 p.m.—“the witching hour,” when Steeb warned the alcohol begins to take effect—people are already having trouble climbing back into their boats from the water. One girl gets the help of three of her friends, finally makes it up, and flops onto the deck like a fish.
The only arrest we make that day comes when Norris observes a girl weaving and bobbing close to the swim deck on the back of a tethered boat. Steeb moves close to ask if she’s OK and her friends assure us they’ll take care of her. After completing another circle around Raft City, we come back upon the boat with the girl—all alone—attempting to stand up. Of course, down she went onto her back on the deck.
“OK, you’ve got to get in there,” Steeb tell Norris. We move in and Norris boards the boat. The friends plead with him not to arrest the girl, but Steeb tells them it’s “not negotiable.” Under California law, if someone is so intoxicated she can’t care for herself—and her friends didn’t seem to be caring for her—it’s the officer’s duty to take her into custody.
Norris and Steeb bring her aboard, and though she’s combative at first, she eventually breaks down and provides enough information that Steeb can locate a nearby older family friend who can take her back to the marina. As the deputies are citing her, the girl’s friends untether their boat from the raft and book it out of there.
As the deputies help get the girl—now crying hysterically—onto her ride, Miller and I can’t help but feel a little bad for her. It’s not a pretty sight.
When all’s said and done, it’s 5 p.m. and we make another go around Raft City, which has cleared out by about two-thirds. Nobody else wanted a drunk-in-public, we suppose, so we head out of the creek and back toward the marina to see if we can catch any BUI’s.
When we get to the marina, it’s a mad dash toward the ramp, and a number of boaters are having difficulty getting their vessels onto their trailers. Some have given up trying to drive the boats up the ramps, and are instead walking them up along the docks.
“We’ve got a little saying in marine enforcement,” Steeb says. “If you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot. If you can’t drive it on, walk it on.”
It’s nearing the end of the deputies’ shift, and we make one last stop to see the ramp at Heritage Ranch. On the way, we encounter one rented boat that didn’t take notice of a shallow water marker and found itself beached about 20 feet from the shore. We make contact and notify a tow boat to retrieve them.
“There goes their deposit,” Steeb remarks.
Coming up on the Heritage Ranch ramp, we stop a couple of speeders, but send them off with a warning. When we get there, it’s quite the sight. Some 30 to 40 boats are circling the ramp, awaiting the moment they can slip in and load onto their truck. A line of golf carts sits on the hill above the ramp, staffed by folks with beers in hand, who are doing nothing but watching the boaters’ misadventures in leaving the lake.
“These guys will just sit there for hours at the end of the day,” Steeb notes. “That’s their comedy. It’s pretty hilarious.”
We make our way back to the marina, gunning it to more than 50 mph, the sun hanging low in the sky, but still providing late-80-degree weather heat at 7 p.m. We pass the place where the stranded boat once stood. It’s gone, but another smaller one sits, stuck, in its place. Steeb notes that it had apparently caught on fire, but is now under control with a tow boat on its way.
All told, the four-day weekend was a quiet one. People were well-behaved, for the most part. The deputies only had to issue a total of five citations and make two arrests. The girl from 4 p.m. technically counted as an arrest, even though she was released to another party.
“That’s a good thing, I think. I’m glad we only had a few issues,” Norris tells me after we’ve docked. “It tells me that maybe our increased presence out here is making a difference to people. They know they have to behave themselves.
“And maybe it tells me they’re learning the rules of the lake,” he adds.
The deputies load the Christopher Meadows onto the back of the truck trailer, and we call it a day. Tomorrow promises to be another day of sun, heat, spray-on sunscreen, and warm beer fumes for Steeb and Norris, starting bright and early at 10 a.m.
News Editor Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.